One on One: The cross he bears

'The Lost Tomb of Jesus' producer Simcha Jacobovici says public criticism only strengthens his belief that he's uncovered a real revelation.

Simcha Jacobovici 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Simcha Jacobovici 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Canadians may recognize award-winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici (pronounced Yakobovitch) as The Naked Archeologist - the name of the TV show he hosts, which is premiering on Channel 8 in Israel in May. "You know," says Jacobovici, grinning, "It's like The Naked Chef of archeology." But ruins and remains are not - as he is the first to acknowledge during our hour-long interview in a Tel Aviv hotel - his field of expertise. "What I am is an investigative journalist," he argues for what may be the millionth time since the recent release of his ultra-controversial documentary film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The nearly two-hour movie he made with director James Cameron of Titanic fame - a cinematic cross between TV shows like 60 Minutes and CSI and biblical epics like The Ten Commandments - all but asserts with authority that ossuaries (bone boxes) in a tomb discovered in Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood in 1980 are none other than those of Jesus of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) and his family. That Jacobovici's having "dug up" and "dusted off" a 27-year-old find - dismissed at the time as one among many regular old relics - is rocking the archeological and theological communities is not surprising to the 54-year-old former Israeli. In fact, he insists, while he doesn't appreciate the personal attacks, he does "welcome the debate." Indeed, if his previous and upcoming journalistic pursuits are any indication, Jacobovici likes stirring up trouble. So far, it's paid off. Big-time. Among other awards, his Toronto-based company, Associated Producers, has two Emmys under its belt (one for The Selling of Innocents, on sex trafficking of children, and the other for The Plague of Monkeys, on the Ebola virus). Other topics he's covered on film include Ethiopian Jews, the lost tribes of Israel, the sinking of the Struma refugee ship, Jesus's brother James and terrorism. His latest film - that is going to be broadcast here during Pessah - is The Exodus Decoded, an examination, explains Jacobovici, of whether the biblical exodus was "history or fairy tale." Uh-oh. As it happens, Jacobovici's own history has a touch of the fairy tale about it - a Jewish one. The son of Holocaust survivors from Romania, he was born and spent half of his childhood here, then moved to Canada, where he was an activist for Jewish causes (he chaired the North American Jewish Students' Network; founded and chaired Network Canada, the country's national union of Jewish students; founded the Canadian Universities Bureau of the Canadian Zionist Federation; and served on the national executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress; was invited to share the dais with prime minister Menachem Begin in 1978, following his announcement of the peace accord with Egypt; was president of the International Congress of the World Union of Jewish Students; and in 1980 - the year the "Jesus tomb" he would investigate a quarter of a century later was discovered - he was awarded the Knesset Medal for his Zionist work on North American campuses, and served as special consultant on Nazi war criminals to Canada's solicitor-general). Today, the married father of five is an Orthodox Jew, who dines with his Hollywood peers on the kosher food he requests. And Shabbat is sacred. "At the end of the day," says Jacobovici, adjusting his lushly embroidered kippa crowning a head of nape-length hair, "if you refuse to compromise, others come around." Sometimes, but not when the "others" are archeologists of the arch-critic variety. Much has been written about your controversial film, including in these pages. But what about the man behind the movie. Who is Simcha Jacobovici? I was born in Israel in 1953. When I was nine, my parents moved to Montreal, where I grew up. My mother had a thyroid condition, and though today Israel is one of the leaders in thyroid treatment, at the time my mother couldn't be treated in Israel. She was one of the first people to be treated with radioactive iodine anywhere, and the first test case in Canada; thank God, she's fine now. My father was a plastics engineer at the beginning of the plastics revolution. I attended McGill University, where I did a BA in philosophy and political science. Then I came back to Israel for two years to serve in the army - in what's called sherut shlav bet, which is less than three years, because I was already 21. After that, I went back to Canada - to Toronto - where I did an MA in international relations. I finished my PhD work there, stayed and got married. I have five kids - four girls and a boy - ranging in age from 13 to 20 months. How did you become a filmmaker? I first started writing background focus pieces - more like analysis. Slowly, I got involved in investigative stuff. The first time I made a film was in 1981. I had written an article about the plight of the Ethiopian Jews. I ended up writing three pieces [on this subject] for The New York Times, and they created quite a controversy. If you're looking for common denominators in my life, I guess I would say that Ethiopian Jews - like the original Jesus movement I am now interested in - fell between the cracks: They were blacks among Jews and Jews among blacks. The Jews who followed Jesus also fell between the cracks: Jews don't want to delve into them so as not to Christianize Judaism, and Christians don't want to deal with them so as not to Judaize Christianity. I feel very comfortable in the space in between. The issue of the plight of Ethiopian Jews was a marriage of my Jewish interests and my journalistic ones. Anyway, I wrote several articles on the subject, and after you write so many articles, what do you do next? So I tried to interest some documentary filmmakers in the topic - my idea was to be a consultant, because I had no training in filmmaking. But nobody wanted to do it. So, I thought, "What do I have to lose?" And I went out and made my first documentary, Falasha, Exile of the Black Jews. The film was quite well-received and controversial. It was screened in Israel and to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset. It became part of the advocacy campaign on behalf of Ethiopian Jews that led to Operation Moses, the first airlift to Israel in 1984. So, suddenly, I'd made a film, and I liked it. Since then, haven't looked back. I have a film company called Associated Producers, and we do a lot of investigative work. What's your connection to archeology? There have been a lot of academics saying I'm not an archeologist, which is absolutely true. What I am is an investigative journalist. Normally, investigative journalists follow up social-political stories; they chase President Bush around, for example, or look into nuclear, medical or other issues. And when a journalist does a medical story, nobody challenges him for not being a doctor. But history and archeology? Those are realms in which you're supposed to worship at the altar of academia. You can cross-examine a nuclear physicist and nobody questions your right to do so. But not a professor of history. There's this little island of history and archeology that hasn't been much exposed to the skills of investigative journalism. What I do is act as a detective. I'm not an archeologist; I interview archeologists. I'm not an epigrapher; I interview epigraphers. My job, as it would be if I were doing any story, is to connect dots and see if a picture emerges. How did you come to take an interest in this particular tomb? And why now - 27 years after it was uncovered? I was doing a film, James, Brother of Jesus?, for which I interviewed [renowned archeologist] Prof. Amos Kloner. He asked me why I was interested in the James ossuary. I said, "What do you mean, why am I interested in it? This is the first archeological attestation to Jesus of Nazareth - one of the most important people to have walked the face of this planet." So he asked, "Then why are you dealing with the brother? Why don't you deal with Jesus?" I said: "What do you mean?" He said, "I'll show you." And he showed it to me. He thought it was the funniest thing. I asked him why it wasn't significant. And he said, "Oh, it's so common." I asked how many he'd found. I thought he's say 20 or 50. "One," he said. I asked who else was buried in the tomb. He said, "I don't want to tell you, because then you'll think you have Jesus." If you were so interested in ossuaries and Jesus, why hadn't you heard of the Talpiot tomb before that moment? I mean, it had been discovered more than two decades before this exchange with Kloner. You have to understand that this tomb has been enveloped in secrecy. It's been in the shadows. It's been in the academic basement. From 1980 until 1996, something very unusual happened with it: Not a word was published on it. Sixteen years of utter silence. It was found by builders, when bulldozers were preparing a construction site. The builders phoned the Israel Antiquities Authority, and three archeologists arrived. The lead archeologist, antiquities inspector Yosef (Yoske) Gat, died very soon after the finding. The two others were Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson [now a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archeological Research]. Gibson is open to the possibility of this being the tomb of Jesus and his family. Kloner has been very negative throughout this whole discussion. I think he's a sweet man, but I don't understand him. I mean, on CBS he said: "You cannot get DNA from God." When a man makes a statement like that, is he making it as an archeologist? Are you insinuating that he feels professionally or otherwise threatened by your investigation? [Here he shrugs and laughs mischievously.] As Jesus would say, "You said that." I don't know how he feels. I don't work with feelings. I work with facts. The fact is that for 16 years it was his responsibility to publish something, and he published nothing. It was only after a journalist from the BBC started asking questions that he published an article in the relatively small Israeli journal, Atikot [antiquities]. And unless you're an avid reader of Atikot, you wouldn't know that this tomb exists. I know many academics who had no idea about it. So, [if I were Kloner], I would be embarrassed. But if he's right that this tomb and its ossuaries aren't significant, why would - or should - he have made a big deal out of them? Archeological finds are uncovered in Israel all the time. Not each and every one is widely publicized. True, things are uncovered here, though not quite all the time. But things are published about them. I mean, I'm not asking why he didn't hold a press conference. But for 16 years not to publish anything about it? Zero? This is very unusual. Also, let's face it: It's the only ossuary ever found with the name "Jesus, son of Joseph" on it. Now, these people are smart people. So, even if it was only to dispel any possibility, you would think that somebody would at least address it. You say that your agenda is that of an investigative journalist and that your job is to deal in facts. Could that not be construed as disingenuous? The media, just like historians and any other professionals, often have ulterior motives. I find something wrong with that question, just as I find something wrong with all of the personal attacks. I'm not speculating about Kloner's motives. I don't want to speculate about anyone's motives. I just want to deal with facts. My job is to be an honest reporter. If somebody has a problem with my reporting - if I've made a mistake - it should be brought to light. I've made a film. It's out there. Millions of people have now seen it, and millions more will. I've written a book that's now on the [New York Times] best-seller list. My sources are all in the book. I've put up a Web site. On the site, I have posted Kloner's article. It's like with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Academics sat on them until there was a huge scandal. What we've done [with the tomb of Jesus] is put it out there. Is there something wrong with that? I didn't say, "Wow, it says 'Jesus, son of Joseph' on this ossuary, let's hold a press conference, and let the pieces fall where they may." I spent three years conducting an investigation. Each step of the way, I checked my facts. And I didn't check them with some schlepper out there who might agree with me because he's impressed by a television camera. I went to the top experts in each field. Now, all these guys who are being quoted all over the place are saying that the names [in the tomb] were common at the time and therefore statistically insignificant. That's irresponsible reporting. If I wrote a paper on cancer research and a reporter quoted a guy who runs the laundromat on why it's a bad research paper, the editor would wonder why the laundry guy was being consulted. If the reporter then said, "OK, I'm gonna ask a historian," the editor would ask, "Why a historian?" He would tell the reporter to go to Hadassah or someplace else where there's cancer research going on to get an opinion. But here you have a bunch of archeologists who don't have to take statistics 101 for their degree being quoted on statistics. Now, I know nothing about statistics. I didn't ask archeologists; I asked statisticians. Four different ones, in fact. All of them came out in favor of the tomb. Then we went to find out whether these names [on the ossuaries] were appropriate for Jesus of Nazareth. And yes, "Jesus son of Joseph" is an appropriate appellation for that Jesus. Does it mean this is that Jesus? Not yet. But it means that's it's appropriate. In this tomb you have Maria. Is that appropriate? It is. Everybody knows that that's basically the only way she's come down to us through tradition - as a Latinized version of Miriam. And that's what you have there: Hebrew letters spelling M-A-R-I-A (mem, resh, yud, heh) and that - though not unheard of - is not common. Then you have another one: M-A-R-I-A-M-N-E. Is that appropriate for Mary Magdalene? Well, yes, it is. Hold on. According to Holy Land University biblical scholar Stephen Pfann, "Mariamne" is, in fact, an inscription of two different names, indicating that the bones of two women are in that ossuary. And he disputes what you say about how uncommon the clusters of names in the tomb are. Pfann is a gentleman and a scholar whose academic attacks are totally legitimate. But he's done something I find curious: He's now delved into three different areas which are not of his expertise. One is with the inscriptions themselves - though he does study inscriptions. He says that it doesn't even say "Jesus" on the ossuary, which runs contrary to what L.Y. Rahmani [author of the official Israeli Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries], Kloner and [Harvard scholar] Frank Moore Cross claim. But if Pfann wants to challenge [their assessment], and the whole world ends up voting for Pfann, so be it. Another area [he's challenging] is with the statistics. On his Web site he posted [a statistical refutation indicating] that he missed the point made by [University of Toronto mathematician] Andrey Feuerverger. Feuerverger asked how unusual was the particular cluster of names - against the entire population during the entire hundred years during which ossuaries were used. A third area he challenges is in Greek epigraphy, claiming that "Mariamne" [the name the film attributes to Mary Magdalene] was two names - "Mariame" and "Mara" - written by two different people. Graphics is something I know quite well, and it's clear to me that it's one hand. Rahmani sees it, too. It's a very clear inscription. What I find ironic is that "Mariame" is also appropriate for Mary Magdalene. And if Pfann is right, what he's done is to bring a "Martha" into the tomb, which only strengthens the hypothesis that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, because Martha is the sister of Lazarus - whom Jesus raises from the dead - and they may be related by marriage. Steven Cox, a forensic expert from New York, took residue from the bottom of these ossuaries and submitted them to the paleo-DNA lab at Lakehead University in Ontario - one of five labs able to extract DNA from ancient bones and human material. If the results had shown that the "Mariamne" and "Jesus" samples indicated a blood relationship, our theory would have been shot, because Mary Magdalene was not related by blood to Jesus. And when you're buried in a family tomb, it is either because you are related by blood or by marriage. The DNA results showed that it wasn't the former. So it must have been the latter. Couldn't the woman have been the spouse of somebody else in the tomb? She could have been, but now you're jumping around, and I'm systematic. What I'm saying is that somebody should point out where I cut a corner. I have not seen one point that's ever been made about the rigor of our investigation. I welcome the debate. That's what I wanted. We've gathered enough information and evidence to spark that debate. There's good science and there's bad science. It's easy to take each point and say: "Couldn't it be something else?" Could it be that an alien from outer space named Mariamne is really buried in that tomb? It could be; I don't know. When they say that Jesus went up to heaven, maybe he was beamed to a flying saucer. It could be. But the fact that it could be doesn't make it so. What you have to do is look at the cluster of evidence. Could this Mariamne be married to somebody else in the tomb? She could be. This is why more DNA studies should be done. But what we have is a "Jesus son of Joseph" buried next to two Marys. You have to look at the whole picture. Some people like dots, but they don't like the whole picture that emerges when you connect those dots. Why don't they? Because it may upset their preconceived notions. But let's look at this tomb business: There's very small group of people who have a monopoly on Jerusalem tombs and ossuaries. There is no "Ossuaries 'R Us" in the world. Still, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that all the names in the tomb were common at the time. Your name is Ruth. Your father's name is Norman. Your mother's name is Midge. Very common. Your sisters' names are Rachel and Naomi. Your brother's name is John. All very, very common names. Do you know a single other family in which the father is named Norman, and the children are Ruth, Rachel, Naomi and John? No, you don't. Clusters are not so common. Now let's look at "Jesus son of Joseph." When I heard how common it was, I thought that every other ossuary would have a "Jesus son of Joseph" written on it. But only one other one was found in an archeological context. But, even if it were common, the cluster isn't common at all. You didn't grow up religious, yet became so in adulthood, correct? I grew up in a spiritual, but not observant, home. As a child of Holocaust survivors, a lot of my Jewish identity had to do with reacting to negative things - you know, the Holocaust, terrorism and all that. And I had to ask myself at one point, "If everybody loved us, would there still be a reason to be Jewish?" That led me to start studying the positive message of Torah. And the more I studied the Torah, the more it made sense to me. But it was a process. It wasn't like I was walking down the street and a lightening bolt flashed before my eyes. It took about 10 years from the time I started investigating it to the time I would say I became a full-fledged Orthodox Jew. But our first kid was born into a kosher home. So our kids are FFB, as they say - frum from birth. Isn't being Orthodox hard for you, given the Hollywood kind of lifestyle you lead? If anything, it's helped me. First of all, when I go on location where there's no kosher food, I eat power bars and lose a little bit of weight. And when I go to places where I insist on kosher food, I find that people are really accommodating and respectful of that. I'll go to big shots in Hollywood and they'll order kosher food and we'll all eat with little plastic knives. People are respectful of my keeping Shabbat as well. It's never happened that I've lost out on something because of it. At the end of the day, if you refuse to compromise, others come around. Has your work on the tomb had any effect on theology in general or on yours in particular? Theologically it doesn't affect me at all. From a Jewish point of view, finding his tomb confirms that he was a historical figure, which Jews don't dispute. But I don't think this an issue of theology. I think Jesus has been orphaned by the Jewish people, because of the fact that Christianity became a religion centered on him, and because Jews suffered at the hands of the Church for thousands of years. So Jews didn't want to - or couldn't, because it would have invited persecution - delve into the historical Jesus; they stayed out of that, by and large. What this film may do is lead to a reappropriation by the Jewish people of the sect of Jesus followers - the whole Jesus movement, which is part of Jewish heritage. At the same time, the Church has been hesitant to Judaize Christian history, so that the the people who followed Jesus have been orphaned by Christians as well. After all, Jesus's followers kept kosher and Shabbat. And they regarded Jesus as the messiah, not as God. This tomb controversy could lead to a new examination of the historical Jesus movement: What did they stand for? Who were they? What did they believe? Won't the fact that you are a Jew making claims that could be construed as challenging the "resurrection" arouse anti-Semitic feelings on the part of believing Christians? I'm not doing it as a Jew. And nobody sits around on CNN asking, "Is he an Anglican? Is he a Unitarian?" I mean, why should my being a Jew be more of an issue than Larry King's being one? Your film has been called "archeo-porn," and you have been accused of "pimping the Bible." How do you feel about that? It strengthens my belief that this must be the Jesus family tomb, because if [the critics] had strong arguments to make, they'd be making them. The fact that they've been coming up with these vulgar terms means they have nothing in their arsenal. Have you been under any pressure to stop showing the film? There's been a mobilization, in the US especially, of people that I guess don't believe in free speech. And I heard that over a million e-mails have been sent to try to have the film not broadcast again. Who are these people? People who don't believe in free speech. But the Discovery Channel has said it stands by the film. It will rebroadcast it.