Simcha Jacobovici examines a 1st century burial tomb in The Jesus Discovery. Photo courtesy of Associated Producers Ltd.

Dramatic Jesus Discovery documentary lacks hard evidence

  • April 1, 2012

The problem with The Jesus Discovery is that it’s not really about the archeology. It’s about making a documentary movie.

Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary, to be aired in Canada on VisionTV, presents us with a dramatic plot full of twists and turns. Jacobovici turns in a fine performance as the stalwart and stoic hero who patiently overcomes each obstacle on his quest to make a movie. Tight editing and subtle use of music add to the tension.

The story of how the movie got made reveals a great deal about contemporary Israeli society and contemporary American media culture. We’re treated to CNN talking heads sputtering outrage over any information that might challenge their settled world view. We watch as ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem impose their will on the film crew by leveraging mob rule.

The shame is that anyone who wants to know about the archeology — what it reveals about Jesus — has to find that needle in a haystack of extraneous information.

How a camera can be inserted through an 20-centimetre pipe and maneuvered around a tomb less than a metre high under a modern apartment complex is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus. The difficulties of receiving permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the condo owners, the ultra-orthodox and the police to to dig a hole and stick a camera down it don’t tell us anything about the first believers in Christ.

Once all that is stripped away, we have a very few but interesting clues about the first Christians of Jerusalem.

There are two tombs underneath the Talpiot neighbourhood condo complex.

One has ossuaries (stone boxes full of bones) that are labelled with an intriguing cluster of names — names which appear in the New Testament and may represent Jesus’ immediate family. University of Toronto mathematician Andrey Feuerverger calculates there’s only a one-in-600 chance the names in the tomb represent some other family.

The idea that this tomb may contain the bones of Jesus is presented as something perhaps scandalous to Christians. The film makers concede there’s no way to prove that any particular bones buried in first century Jerusalem belong to any particular person. But even if they could, how scandalous is it? Catholics have always known the resurrection does not refer to a resuscitated corpse. Jesus was resurrected in a spiritual body, just as all of us will be resurrected at the end of history regardless of the decay of our flesh and bones. And of course Jesus spiritual body is no less real than the body Mary bore in her womb.

Putting aside the scandal that’s not really a scandal, The Jesus Discovery does not explore this tomb. It photographs the other tomb, which may belong to Joseph of Arimathea. The idea is that if this second tomb belongs to Joseph of Arimathea it would, based on the Gospel story, bolster the theory that the first tomb contains bones of Jesus, His mother and His brothers.

While we find no hard evidence that the second tomb actually belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, there’s lots of circumstantial evidence. It could be. We also find, carved onto one of the ossuaries a Christian symbol of the resurrection. It is a depiction of Jonah being spat out by the whale.

What’s interesting about this is not whether the ossuary belonged to Joseph of Arimathea or some other wealthy Jew who followed Jesus. What’s interesting is that core of Christian belief in years immediately following events we celebrate during Holy Week was resurrection.

Here is another grain of evidence in the mountain of archeological proof which has come to light in our lifetimes that says the first Christians believed what the Church still believes — Christ rose from the dead, and we shall rise with him on the last day.

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