A 2007 documentary with the jaw-dropping conclusions that Jesus was buried, his lost tomb found in Jerusalem and that he married and had children with Mary Magdalene has been ruled to not be a fraud by the Lod District Court.
In a decision handed down late Sunday by Judge Jacob Sheinman, the filmmaker, Simcha Jacobovici, was awarded NIS 829,500 in damages for having been defamed by critic Joe Zias.
Sheinman did not fully resolve the underlying controversy about whether Jacobovici’s findings in his various films are true, however, ruling only that there was no proof they were fraudulent and leaving the final question of truth to theologians and academics.
Rather, Sheinman said Zias, a former Antiquities Authority official, had gone beyond the bounds of academic criticism by undermining Jacobovici’s films on a commercial level with claims that were themselves not properly grounded, causing him serious financial harm.
Jacobovici’s documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was aired in 2007 with the sensational determination 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 Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and they had children, all of whom were buried with him in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The findings struck at many of the core beliefs 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 film, and a later documentary disputed its findings, showcasing a vast majority of academics who said its conclusions were flawed.
A small minority of academics, however, strongly defend Jacobovici’s findings, some of them testifying during the trial.
Jacobovici filed a defamation suit against Zias, his harshest critic, in October 2011, claiming damages of NIS 8.57 million and demanding NIS 3.5m.
The filmmaker claimed that while others had disparaged his ideas in a reasonable manner, Zias went beyond legitimate debate and defamed him by initiating a broad-based campaign to directly sabotage lucrative contracts he already had signed and was executing.
Jacobovici said Zias contacted his broadcaster, National Geographic, and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, as well as others, and defamed him with a wide array of false accusations, such as elaborate forgery, pay offs 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, saying her husband, a Holocaust survivor, had believe 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.
Zias, however, claimed the entire event was staged by Jacobovici to obtain public vindication.
Gat, Zias said, 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 accused Jacobovici of feeding the lines to Gat’s wife, claiming he cynically used Gat’s status as a Holocaust survivor to enhance his credibility to try to bulldoze through critics.
Jacobovici had responded that not only were the allegations bizarre and baseless since he was not connected to either Gat’s widow or Gat’s posthumous prize, but that they also were defamatory and caused him serious economic damage.
Without coming to ultimate conclusions about whether Jacobovici’s theories were true or not, the court’s ruling means it did not accept Zias’s overall narrative that Jacobovici’s work was intentionally framed in a way to mislead the public.
The decision laid bare the difference between “freedom of speech and freedom to humiliate” another, said Jacobovici’s lawyer Yossi Abadi.
Zias, meanwhile, was very circumspect about responding to the ruling, but said it was a bad day for science and that he would consult with his lawyer about whether to appeal.
The defamation award is one of Israel’s largest in years, with Abadi estimating the average defamation award in 2014 at around NIS 37,000.sign up to our newsletter