Jesus tomb discovery ‘nonsense’

  • February 27, 2007
last-tomb-of-jesusTORONTO - The claim by a Toronto filmmaker that he had found the true burial site of Jesus of Nazareth — along with Jesus’ wife and child — began to sink under withering criticism almost as soon as he revealed his new film Feb. 26.

Simcha Jacobovici, along with his executive producer James Cameron, maker of the Oscar-winning movie Titanic, announced in a press conference at New York’s Public Library that they had found evidence that six ossuaries (stone boxes used in ancient Israel to hold the bones of the dead) had once actually contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, a child called “Judah son of Jesus,” among others.

“It’s quite surreal,” to be on stage with ossuaries that could have once held the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Jacobovici said at the press conference where he was surrounded by biblical scholars, a mathematician and others who helped produce The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which is to be broadcast in the United States on Discovery Channel March 4 and in Canada March 6 on Vision TV.

The ossuaries were inscribed with the Hebrew names “Yeshu Ben Yossef” (Jesus son of Joseph), Yehuda Bar Yeshu (Judah son of Jesus), “Mariamne” or Myriam, Maria, Joseph and Matthew.

At the same time, director Jacobovici has co-written a book called The Jesus Family Tomb, with Charles Pellegrino. Published by HarperCollins, the book is being released this week.

But archaeological and biblical experts from around the world dismissed the film as a rehash of old news and circumstantial evidence.

"In their movie they are billing it as 'never before reported information,' but it is not new. I published all the details in the Antiqot journal in 1996, and I didn't say it was the tomb of Jesus' family," said Amos Kloner, who wrote the original excavation report for the predecessor of the Israel Antiquities Authority and is now a professor of archaeology at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

"I think it is very unserious work. I do scholarly work ... based on other studies," he told Catholic News Service. "It is all nonsense."

{sa B000OHZJSC}In 1980, the tomb was discovered during construction of some housing. Ten ossuaries were found in the cave, including the six that are the focus of Jacobovici’s documentary. They are in the hands of the Israeli Antiquities Authority and have been discussed in both scientific research and other TV programs, including a 1996 BBC documentary that first raised the theory that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene.

Kloner noted that Jesus' family was from Galilee and had no ties to Jerusalem, casting serious doubt that they would have had a burial cave in Jerusalem. He added that the names on the ossuaries were common during that time and their discovery in the same cave is purely coincidental.

He said the tomb belonged to a middle- or upper-middle-class Jewish family during the first century and the cave was in use for 70-100 years by the family.

The Mary Magdalene theory has since been popularized worldwide by the novel and movie The Da Vinci Code, which argues that the apostles, all men, had deliberately hidden Mary Magdalene’s role from history.

“Most of the speculation about Mary Magdalene is based on a series of ancient, but non-biblical writings that were discovered in the mid-20th century near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt,” Canadian biblical scholar Fr. Murray Watson told The Catholic Register.

Watson teaches biblical studies at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., and is currently in Dublin, Ireland, where he is studying at All Hallows College.

Watson said that fragments in one Gnostic text, called the Gospel of Philip, have led some scholars to speculate that Mary Magdalene was loved by Jesus more than the other disciples and that she held a position of leadership in the early church. However, he argued that such readings were based on filling in the physical holes in the manuscript in a way not supported by its context.

“It is a fairly idiosyncratic reading of a very fragmentary text. Very few experts in the field believe that it carries any weight as a reasonable hypothesis today,” he said.

Yet Cameron, in his remarks at the press conference, said he was persuaded by the evidence in his documentary that its claims are true.

“What we find about Mary Magdalene would tend to put her back in her rightful place,” Cameron said. “I think this goes a long way toward reinstating her.”

Watson pointed out that the documentary’s claims contradict Christian tradition from the earliest days of the church. He said “the Gospels place Jesus’ tomb very close to the site of the crucifixion, in what is today the northwest corner of the Old City (of Jerusalem).” This site is now the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jacobovici recognized that many first-century Jews would have had the names Jesus and Mary. To counter this argument, he hired University of Toronto statistician Andre Feuerverger to calculate the odds that these names could be in one tomb together. Feuerverger estimates that the chances of them being found together are 600-to-one.

But others dispute this calculation, saying the sample size Feuerverger worked with and his assumptions determined the outcome.

Jacobovici also took earlier research into these ossuaries a step further by having DNA testing done on those of Jesus and Mariamne. A DNA testing lab at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., reported that the DNA samples did not belong to related family members. Jacobovici suggests this is further evidence to support his theory that the occupants of the ossuaries were husband and wife.

Jacobovici also links his conclusions with the so-called “James ossuary,” purported by its owner, Oded Golan, to have belonged to James, the brother of Jesus, known as one of the early church leaders in Acts. He said the stone box could be one of the ossuaries missing from the 10 found at Talpiot.

He did not mention that Golan has been charged by Israeli authorities with forging part of the inscription on the ossuary. His trial is being conducted this week in Jerusalem. In this trial, evidence has been submitted suggesting that Golan possessed the box in the 1970s, ruling out the possibility that it was among the Talpiot ossuaries.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, chief executive officer of Salt+Light TV in Toronto and a biblical scholar, says this latest film shows that “self-proclaimed experts” have learned nothing from the James ossuary incident.

“One would think that we learned some powerful lessons from the media hype surrounding the James ossuary several years ago, and how important public institutions like the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto) were duped in their hosting such fraudulent works,” he told The Catholic Register.

“Why did the so-called archeologists of this latest scoop wait 27 years before doing anything about the ‛discovery’? James Cameron is far better off making movies about the Titanic rather than dabbling in areas of religious history of which he knows nothing.”

A spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority said two of the ossuaries had been loaned to the filmmakers for their press conference as is customary for such requests for exhibiting antiquities as long as certain conditions are met. The loan was made in the name of freedom of expression and creativity, she said, and did not mean the authority supported their claims.

She said one of the Mary ossuaries has been on display for many years at Jerusalem's Israel Museum; the Judah ossuary is on display in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two ossuaries are currently with the filmmakers; and the other six are in the authority's warehouse just outside Jerusalem.

Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, an expert in the New Testament at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem who was interviewed by Jacobovici for the film two years ago, said he did not believe there was any truth to the claims in the documenary.

He said the timing of the documentary in Lent was "very conscious and deliberate and really disgusting."

"It is a commercial ploy that all the media is playing into," he said.

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