Where was Jesus really buried and what does that have to do with romance and with the Holocaust? Cross-examination on Wednesday in the defamation lawsuit of a filmmaker- journalist against a former Antiquities Authority official went to the heart of these issues, with tensions running sky-high and frequent raised voices and interruptions between the sides.
In 2007, Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was aired with the jaw-dropping conclusion that, based on archaeological finds dating back to 1980, Jesus had been buried and had a tomb.
The conclusions went further, saying there was significant evidence that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and had children, all of whom were buried together in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The conclusions struck at many of the core beliefs of the largest sects of Christianity, according to which Jesus was resurrected, never married and had no children.
While this was not the first time such theories had been put forth, it was one of the largest stages the ideas had been given, and was extensively covered by international media outlets.
Years of controversial debate followed the documentary, and a vast majority of academics said that its conclusions were flawed. A small minority of academics, however, strongly defend Jacobovici’s conclusions, some of them testifying on Wednesday.
In October 2011, Jacobovici filed a defamation suit against his harshest critic, former Antiquities Authority official Joe Zias, claiming damage of NIS 8.57 million and demanding NIS 3.5m. The case was brought before Lod District Court Judge Ya’acov Sheinman.
The filmmaker claims that while others have disparaged his ideas in a reasonable manner, Zias went beyond legitimate debate and defamed him by initiating a broadbased campaign to directly sabotage lucrative contracts he had already signed and was executing.
Jacobovici said that Zias contacted his broadcaster, National Geographic, his publisher, Simon & Schuster, as well as others, and defamed him with a wide array of false accusations, such elaborate forgery, paying off people, and manipulating people and events to try to build his credibility.
At a 2008 scholarly conference organized by the Princeton Theological Seminary to address the debate, Ruth Gat, the widow of Joseph Gat, the original, non-academic field excavator of the Talpiot tomb in 1980, dropped a bombshell on the conference.
She said that her husband, a Holocaust survivor, had believed that the tomb was indeed that of Jesus, but that he had taken this secret to the grave, terrified of provoking a worldwide massive wave of anti-Semitic backlash.
According to Zias, the entire event was staged by Jacobovici to obtain public vindication.
Zias said that Gat was a well-meaning and hard-working field excavator, but argued he did not have the academic expertise to reach such conclusions, that he should never have received a prize of any kind, and that his wife shouldn’t have pushed Jacobovici’s theories on a large audience.
Zias said Jacobovici fed the lines to Gat’s wife and that he cynically used Gat’s status as a Holocaust survivor to enhance his credibility and try to bulldoze through critics.
Jacobovici said that not only were these allegations bizarre and baseless, as he was not connected to Gat’s widow or to Gat’s posthumous prize, but that they were defamatory and caused him serious economic damage.
In the film The Jesus Discovery/The Resurrection Tomb Mystery, Jacobovici implies that the tomb was on the estate of Joseph of Arimathea, who according to the New Testament was a member of the Sanhedrin who claimed Jesus’s body after he was crucified.
The film shows that the name Aramati, the same family name, appears on a mailbox in the modern building standing right above the tomb, suggesting this might not be a coincidence.
Jacobovici said that Zias falsely accused him of pasting the Aramati name on the mailbox to sharpen the connection with Arimathea.
Zias’s “tip-off” about Jacobovici’s alleged Aramati mailbox conspiracy came from Joanna Garrett, a woman who both sides say was romantically involved with James Tabor, a University of North Carolina professor and a big supporter of Jacobovici’s theories, but who then fell out with him.
Under cross-examination on Wednesday by Yossi Abadi, Jacobovici’s lawyer, Zias focused on Garrett’s working relationship with Tabor in raising funds for projects and her work-related intimate knowledge of what he called Jacobovici’s tactics.
Zias told Abadi that he was not starry-eyed, but that he believed Garret possessed serious information because of her work-relationship with Tabor and that he also investigated her information himself, finding that the family living in the “Aramati” apartment was actually called Seedees.
He added that the family refused to explain the discrepancy and directed him to speak to Eli Zamir, head of the building’s cooperation, who Zias has accused of receiving $150,000 by Jacobovici.
Jacobovici and Abadi said that Garrett had not really worked with Tabor and that she had hoodwinked Zias into spreading a false story she invented in her capacity as an avenging heartbroken lover who lashed out at Tabor and his associate Jacobovici.
They said on Wednesday that there is another family in the building called Aramati. Next, they pointed out that Aramati’s name also appears in the telephone book.
Zias responded that while Aramati appears in a 2009 telephone book, the name did not appear in earlier telephone books, noting that he refused to believe it was a coincidence that Aramati happened to buy the residence in 2005, exactly when Jacobovici started filming.
Abadi said Zias is changing his story.
Judge Sheinman expressed extreme frustration at both sides that the proceedings have dragged on for so long and that they continue to pursue issues that might be part of their broader debate, but which he views as irrelevant to the defamation case.
The next big hearing on the case is not until late September, and closing statements and a decision could easily take months beyond that.
Until then, the jury is still out on Jesus’s tomb, the Gat Holocaust controversy and the Garrett romance.