Time for civilized scholarship?

"Naked Archeologist" Simcha Jacobovici and anthropologist Joe Zias duke it out over the significance of a 2,000-year-old East Talpiot tomb.

Joe Zias 521 (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Joe Zias 521
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Feuds among Israel’s fiercely opinionated community of archeologists, anthropologists and antiquities experts almost have the status of a blood sport here. The more iconoclastic the views, the more bitter the war of words.
Witness the case of Simcha Jacobovici, a Ra’anana-based Canadian-Israeli documentary filmmaker known for his popular TV show The Naked Archeologist, who is embroiled in a libel suit in Lod District Court against retired Antiquities Authority anthropologist Joe Zias.
Forty years ago, Zias, 72, a Michigan-born physical anthropologist who moved to Israel in 1966 to escape the Vietnam War draft, began studying Detroit innercity storefront preachers and pseudo-archeologists with traveling road shows, whose gimmicks were diverting money away from traditional churches and their collections.
That long interest in charlatans and the misuse of religion, and what he terms “zero tolerance for academic fraud,” ultimately led Zias to cross swords with Jacobovici, a charismatic, award-winning documentary filmmaker with a long list of credits to his name, starting with his seminal 1983 film Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews, which contributed to the government’s policy to airlift more than 125,000 Beta Israel and Falash Mura from Ethiopia to Israel, to be integrated with mainstream Judaism and the Jewish people.
Most recently on October 18, Jacobovici was presented with a Gold Dolphin in the category of “Science and Information” at the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards for his documentary The Resurrection Tomb Mystery (aired earlier this year on Channel 1).
Zias has been an outspoken critic of Jacobovici. He terms some of his documentary movies and books “archeoporn” and disparages his work as “press conference archeology.”
“Simcha wants to be the next Dan Brown [author of best-seller The Da Vinci Code]. That’s where the money is. None of his stuff has undergone peer review prior to publication. He has a press conference with only one archeologist who is being paid. The journalists don’t know what questions to ask. It’s a cheap, cheap shot,” he sneers.
Zias was particularly outraged by Jacobovici’s claims that two Second Temple period tombs in East Talpiot, may contain the ossuaries (bone boxes) of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and other members of the family and close circle of the Christian messiah, including Joseph of Arimathea.
Deeply offended, and suffering financial setbacks after the Discovery Channel and National Geographic canceled contracts that may have been linked to Zias’s disparaging claims, the equally feisty Jacobovici filed a libel suit against the retired Jerusalemite, seeking NIS 3.5 million in damages. Three court hearings have been held to date, and the case is set to resume November 11. (The trial began in Petah Tikva but was moved to Lod in an administrative overhaul.) JACOBOVICI MAY have played into Zias’s claims when his lawyer Yonatan Tsvi brought a motion to exclude journalists from the libel proceedings. While the motion was denied, Jacobovici – suspicious of writers – emphasized that he was only granting this writer an interview based on our personal history dating back nearly 40 years, when we were both activists in the Student Zionist Council at the University of Toronto.
During a rambling four-hour interview, Jacobovici was careful to steer the conversation away from Zias and the libel proceedings.
“Some of my detractors say I’m interested in the pursuit of money.
Documentary filmmaking is not a way to get rich,” he notes.
In a career spanning more than three decades as a film and TV journalist, he and his Toronto-based Associated Producers have produced and directed 80 documentaries about subjects like child prostitution in India; Deadly Currents, about the first intifada; and Plague Monkeys, about an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Reston, Virginia. His most recent movie, about kidney trafficking, debuted on HBO on October 28.
“At the end of the day, you feel you made a difference – sometimes,” he smiles.
But it was a chance meeting in 2002 with Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology Review, who asked Jacobovici to make a movie about the controversial James Ossuary – which the High Court recently ruled cannot be proven to be a forgery and must be returned to its owner, collector Oded Golan – that led the documentary filmmaker to an abiding interest in the archeology of Israel and the origins of Christianity 2,000 years ago.
“Suddenly I saw the difference between reality and propaganda, when it comes to an archeological artifact that touches on people’s theology,” he explains.
Distinguishing between TV reporters who showcase experts and those who ask tough questions, Jacobovici emerged as an iconoclast ready to challenge longstanding views, even as he produced popular rather than scholarly work.
“The softer the science, the harder the heads,” he opines, claiming as nonsensical the view of epigraphers that handwriting analysis of loops and dashes can accurately date ancient manuscripts found by the Dead Sea.
Jacobovici is particularly intrigued by the pall cast about the beginnings of Christianity here in the Levant 2,000 years ago.
“Christian theology has oppressed us for so many millennia that we don’t know how to deal with the birth of Christianity. References to Jesus were excised from the Talmud. It was dangerous to talk about it. There’s no free spirit of intellectual debate. We’ve created a blank hole in archeological and historical space.
“How do we explain a movement that leaves no trace of itself for three centuries, and then conquers the world?” That silence imposed by fear of Christian censorship and persecution fed into the Zionist narrative, he says. For example, crosses have been found on the cliff walls at the south end of Masada – part of the national park still closed to the public.
“We don’t want to find [early] Christians at Masada. And the Christians want to depict the early Christians as a peace movement whose members fled to Pella [across the Jordan River] – not a movement that fought tooth and nail against Rome instead of turning the other cheek.”
WHILE HUNTING sacred cows has not made Jacobovici popular, he notes he has joined a long list of those whose ideas were vilified, ridiculed and discredited.
Among them are Herman Shapira, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer and forger who committed suicide in 1883 after the British Museum in London declined to buy the putative ancient Hebrew manuscripts he was hoping to sell for £1 million.
Similarly, Jacobovici continues, Prof. Eliezer Sukenik – the discoverer of the Dead Sea Scrolls – was attacked by critics who said the scholar only wanted to popularize the newly discovered texts so he would be invited to speak before Christian groups in the US, and thus be able to buy his wife a new refrigerator with the speakers fees.
Continuing, Jacobovici cites the case of Prof. Morton Smith and his putative discovery in 1973 of the Secret Gospel of Mark at the Mar Saba monastery in the Kidron Valley, as another example of attacks on scholars whose findings raise awkward questions about theological underpinnings of Christianity. Some have written that the Columbia University scholar created an elaborate hoax, Jacobovici relates.
Most recently, Jacobovici notes, in 2012 Prof. Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, triggered a huge controversy by publishing a Coptic fragment suggesting Jesus had a wife. King is still hiding under her bed, Jacobovici says.
“You can’t bully me. I believe in my profession – which is investigative journalism. I believe journalists have an important role to play in a democracy. I’m proud of what I do,” he declares.
“There’s a strategy to discredit archeology that doesn’t fit with [Christian] theology. The professors who are in that game have so muddied the waters that others are afraid to speak. My suit against Zias is the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger story.
“It’s time that we were able to discuss archeology related to the birth of Christianity in a civilized atmosphere. It’s time that the inquisitorial tactics stop.”