At the New York press conference held Monday to launch his The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici was asked whether his whole thesis hinged on the inscription on the ossuary alongside him truly reading "Jesus son of Joseph."
Jacobovici responded with candid good humor. Glancing at the disappointingly undistinguished ossuary in question, kindly loaned out to him for the occasion by the Israel Antiquities Authority, he acknowledged that, "If that doesn't say 'Jesus son of Joseph,' yes, it all falls apart."
But then Jacobovici went on to insist that every epigrapher to whom he had shown the inscription - the starting point for his film's extraordinary assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was buried along with his "wife" Mary Magdalene and their "son" Judah in a tomb under what is today East Talpiot - had confirmed the reading.
One of those Jacobovici didn't consult was Joseph Naveh, the preeminent Israeli epigrapher. Yet when I went to see Naveh at his Jerusalem home on Tuesday, the emeritus professor peered intently at the markings scratched into the side of the ossuary in the color photograph I'd brought him and pronounced, almost instantaneously: "Jesus son of Joseph."
He did then qualify himself, but only a little: "The 'Joseph' is unmistakable," he said. "The 'son of' is okay. And you can certainly read it as 'Jesus,' he said. "Just not definitely. There are lots of additional lines here that don't belong."
Another prominent expert whom Jacobovici did not consult, across town in the tranquil offices of the French Biblical and Archeological School in east Jerusalem, was Prof. Emile Puech. His response to the inscription was much the same as Naveh's. "It's very crude lettering," said the bearded, French-born Father Puech. "The 'Joseph' is clear. The 'son of' is no problem. The 'Jesus?' It's certainly possible to read it that way."
And a third leading authority, Ada Yardeni, also essentially came down on Jacobovici's side. "'Son of Joseph,' for sure," she said after an inspection. "The first name? Well, there are lots of markings here, but, yes, it could well be Jesus."
Case closed, then? Or rather, floodgates opened, to a radical re-examination of Christian theology?
No, not exactly.
THOSE JOURNALISTS in New York gave Jacobovici and his team, including Titanic's James (I'm king of the world and now I've found the son of god) Cameron, a surprisingly easy ride. The question about the veracity of the Jesus inscription was one of the very few critical inquiries posed by what is meant to be the oh-so-cynical international press pack. But the truth is that the credibility of the "Jesus family" tomb theory depends on a whole lot more than that single, not much disputed inscription.
As the experts all chorus, it might indeed be best read as "Jesus son of Joseph." That is, after all, precisely what the official Israeli Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, by LY Rahmani, recorded in its original listing of Ossuary 704 from the Talpiot tomb: "Yeshua (?), son of Yehosef," the catalogue states, to be exact, with the question mark highlighting the caveat that the first name "is difficult to read, as the incisions are clumsily carved and badly scratched."
But the make or break of the "Jesus family" theory actually depends, along with the "Jesus" ossuary, on the filmmakers' purported statistically overwhelming evidence that the confluence of names on five more of the ossuaries found in the same tomb makes it all but impossible that this isn't the founder of Christianity and his family in their final place of rest.
And that is where the trouble starts. Because three of those other five don't fit.
Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem District archeologist who oversaw the original 1980 excavations, has spent the past week exasperatedly and wearily trying to refute the sensational claims by repeating over and over that the names found on the bone-boxes in the tomb were some of the most common ones in use at the time. All three of the Israeli experts to whom I spoke this week, after they had finished reading inscriptions, separately raised the same objection. All three, unknowingly echoing each other and Kloner, waved away the credibility of the "Jesus family" theory.
Yes, all the experts allowed, it was mildly interesting that, alongside the "Jesus" ossuary in the Talpiot tomb there lay another ossuary marked "Mary" and a third inscribed "Jose." But "common names" in those days, 2,000 years ago, really did mean common.
Biblical scholar Stephen Pfann, from the University of the Holy Land, published a statistical assessment this week of the Jewish names found on all ossuaries in the Rahmani catalogue. "Mary" and its variants is the third most popular name of all (behind Salome and Simon). "Joseph" is the fourth. "Jesus" is the 10th. What's more, he writes, a mere 16 names, including these three of course, "account for 75 percent of all the inscribed names."
The filmmakers, though, aren't done with just those three ossuaries. They point to Ossuary 701, from the same tomb, inscribed "Mariamne," who they say is identified as Mary Magdalene in the 4th Century text The Acts of Philip. And since Mary Magdalene is in the Jesus family tomb, and ultra-modern testing has established, astoundingly, that her bone-box and Jesus's contained DNA of non-blood relatives, she must have been Jesus's partner, they reason. And since there's a "Judah son of Jesus" in the tomb, too (Ossuary 702), they dare to suggest, he was most likely their son. And that sixth inscribed ossuary, 703, bearing the name "Matia," they argue, belongs there because mother Mary's lineage contained numerous variants of Matthew.
By the end of their movie, which will be screened around the world in the next few days, the filmmakers' in-house statistician, Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto, is assuring viewers that the odds that this is not Jesus's tomb are hundreds, maybe thousands to one.
Wait up, the experts protest. Where's the logic in relying on the New Testament for the names of Jesus, Mary and his brother Joseph, but then ignoring the New Testament when asserting distant Talpiot for a burial tomb, and ignoring the New Testament, too, in asserting Jesus had a partner and a son? Why assert that "Mariamne" must have been Jesus's partner, when she might have been the partner of any of the other males in the tomb? And where's the sense in finding a home in the "Jesus family tomb" for the thoroughly unknown "Matia" while determinedly overlooking the curious absence from the burial chamber of Jesus's New Testament-documented three other brothers and two sisters? (The filmmakers do also claim forensic evidence that one of the three missing brothers, James, was indeed buried there, in the controversial "James" ossuary produced by Israeli antiques collector Oded Golan, currently on trial for forgery).
Pfann, who says he was consulted by Jacobovici over the "Jesus" inscription, told him he couldn't confirm it, and totally rejects the "Jesus family" claims, is particularly withering in his criticism of the statistical analysis that purports to all but definitively prove the theory. "What database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim?" he asks. "There are no surviving genealogies or records of family names in Judea and Galilee to make any statement concerning frequency of various personal names in families there. Only Jesus's genealogy appears to have survived, as presented in the Gospels."
What might be called Feuerverger's defense, as presented by the statistician at Monday's press conference, was that he had worked on the basis of "assumptions" that were given to him by the filmmakers. But what were those assumptions, Pfann wonders? And how can they credibly have led to the conclusion that the hard statistical odds are overwhelmingly in favor of this being the "holy" tomb when two of the incumbents ("Matia" and "Judah son of Jesus") had no known business being there at all, and a third ("Mariamne") is tied to the family only by a single text written hundreds of years after the family had passed away?
NEVERTHELESSâ€¦ Jacobovici said at the press conference that he "dreamed" of the tomb being excavated further. There was talk from others in his team of the hope that the various ossuaries would be made available for further testing. "This is only the beginning," Jacobovici asserted.
All the signs are that the Israel Antiquities Authority rather hopes, by contrast, that this is the end. They loaned out the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" ossuaries for the New York press conference, their spokeswoman said, as a "routine" act of "artistic freedom." But they'd like them back now, thank you very much. They had no official comment on the dramatic claims that made front page news and TV headlines around the world. Shuka Dorfman, the head of the IAA, was in resolute "no interview" mode all week.
But it is worth noting that there is something remarkable about the tomb having survived at all. It was excavated amid the great rush of construction in the fast-expanding Jerusalem of 1980, and might easily have been destroyed as the East Talpiot apartment buildings went up above it. Curiously, its entrance remained in full view, just above pathway level at the bottom of a staircase between two rows of such buildings. And when Jacobovici and his colleagues unsealed it and clambered down last year, they found the burial chamber intact, though Jacobovici e-mailed me on Wednesday to say that he was "not sure how reliable the ceiling is."
Aware that the Jerusalem Municipality had cheerfully told The Jerusalem Post it might consider opening the tomb as a tourist site while the IAA, by contrast, was resolutely stonewalling on the possibilities of further research, the Israeli-born filmmaker's request in the same e-mail was that the tomb now be excavated properly. And "they should use infrared cameras to make sure there aren't any inscriptions or further passageways," he urged.
Why not do just that? Why not, for that matter, use the best forensic, DNA and other techniques to see if more can be learned about those ossuaries, and about the claims of a shared provenance for the "James" ossuary? Do it officially, with careful supervision, and issue temperate reports on the findings.
Israel, usually with good reason, styles itself as the dependable guardian of those places holy to all religions that lie within the country. Imagine how we would feel as Jews if officialdom in another land seemed obstructive or unresponsive to efforts to investigate sites and finds of purported Jewish value.
Jacobovici's executive producer Cameron has urged that "the debate" on the movie's thesis now begin. But it's an imperfect debate, surrounding a highly contentious thesis, based on incomplete information.
The remains in the bone-boxes were sent away for Jewish burial when the ossuaries were removed in 1980, and are almost certainly untraceable now. But the ossuaries are very much intact. And the tomb itself, improbably, has survived. So why argue in the dark? It would take only a few minutes' work to start letting the light in.