Israeli authorities say they are prepared to consider opening to the public a 2,000-year-old burial tomb in Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood which is said by the makers of a new documentary to have likely been the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, partner Mary Magdalene, son, and other members of his family. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), responsible for the tomb - which was first uncovered during construction of the neighborhood in 1980 - said it would be up to the Jerusalem Municipality to make such a decision. And municipality spokesman Gidi Schmerling told The Jerusalem Post on Monday night that if a request were made to open the site, it would be considered.
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The producers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which was formally launched at a press conference in New York on Monday and is being screened in the US, Israel and elsewhere next week, claim that six of the 10 ossuaries found in the tomb and held by the IAA bear inscriptions that link them to "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mary," "Jose" (a brother of Jesus), "Matia" (another relative), "Mariamne" (said to be Mary Magdalene) and a child named "Judah son of Jesus." The IAA loaned out the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" ossuaries to the filmmakers for their press conference.
The filmmakers also claim that forensic tests tie the so-called "James" (brother of Jesus) ossuary, which was "discovered" in 2002 in the collection of Israeli collector Oded Golan, to the same tomb. The "James" inscription has been widely branded a forgery.
The film, made by Israeli-born, Canadian-based Simcha Jacobovici, presents what it says is overwhelming statistical evidence - based on the cluster of resonant names and supporting scientific research - that the cave was the burial tomb of Jesus and his family.
But the Israeli archeologist responsible for the 1980 excavation, Prof. Amos Kloner, on Monday night intensified his criticism of this assertion, lambasting the documentary as "absolute nonsense."
At their press conference, Jacobovici said he now "dreamed" of the opportunity for the tomb to be more properly excavated. He and a colleague were able to enter the tomb, which lies sealed beneath a rectangular slab between rows of buildings in East Talpiot, only briefly during the filming of the documentary, with the permission of neighbors. They were asked to leave and reseal it by an IAA official who was called to the site.
"We rediscovered the tomb," Jacobovici noted, adding that many had believed erroneously it was destroyed during the 1980s' construction. "The tomb is there! There may be inscriptions in the tomb," he said, along with all kinds of other evidence including bones that might bolster, or shatter, the documentary's claims. "This is the beginning."
The filmmakers also expressed the hope that they would be given further access to the various ossuaries, which might enable additional forensic and possibly DNA and other testing. The filmmakers said they were able to retrieve sufficient material from the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" ossuaries to establish that they were not the bone-boxes of blood relatives; hence their theory that Jesus and "Mariamne" were a couple, and possibly the parents of the child "Judah."
IAA officials would not comment on whether further such access to the ossuaries would be allowed. The IAA said it had lent out the two ossuaries displayed in New York in the name of "artistic freedom," without endorsing the filmmakers' findings in any way.
James Cameron, the Oscar-winning Hollywood executive producer of the documentary, said at the press conference that the style of burial as seen in the ossuaries from the tomb was only followed for about a century, at the time of Jesus, for about 80,000 individuals.
The filmmaker's statistician, Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto, said that "Based on the assumptions that I had [given to me]... we're seeing numbers that... make you think... this is it." Feuerverger offered overwhelming statistics - in the range of 100-1 to 1000-1 against the thesis being wrong, though in the movie the statistics cited are even more overwhelmingly conclusive.
In answer to a question, Jacobovici acknowledged that if the inscription on the "Jesus" ossuary is actually illegible, as some critics have claimed, the whole thesis collapses. "If this doesn't say Jesus, yes, it all falls apart," he said of the inscribed ossuary. But every expert to whom the inscription had been shown, he said, had conclusively confirmed it as reading "Jesus son of Joseph." The original Israeli catalogue of the ossuaries from the tomb recorded it as reading "Jesus," too, he said.
Dr. James Tabor, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the ossuary from the Talpiot tomb was the only one ever found with a confirmed provenance bearing the inscription "Jesus son of Joseph."
The filmmakers' presentation was met by a largely receptive journalistic audience. Indeed, the biggest doubter was on the filmmakers' own panel.
Shimon Gibson, who was one of the original team that worked at the tomb when it was first discovered in 1980, said he was "skeptical" of the Jesus family claims. "I'm willing to accept the possibility," he allowed. "I'm not going to deny there's an interesting set of variables."
Gibson said the original team "viewed [the tomb] as a normal family tomb of a Jewish family from the 1st century... All the names were well known. None of them seemed to us to be unusual." The authorities lacked the capability to do the kind of analysis that would be possible now, he said, and he hoped that such further research would be permissible.
Back in Jerusalem, by contrast, Israeli archeologists were firmly dismissive, reiterating that the similarity of the names found inscribed on the ossuaries to those in the Jesus narrative was coincidental since many of those names were commonplace in the first century CE.
"Yeshua was such a popular name during the Second Temple Period," said Israeli archeologist Danny Bahat, who is currently with the University of Toronto. "The fact that you have such similar names is due to the fact that these were the prevalent names during that time," he said.
Bahat added that, like The Da Vinci Code, the new documentary was pure fiction that took "two correct facts" and mixed them with "gibberish," such as the assertion that the "James" ossuary originated in the same cave.
Kloner, who had previously dismissed the documentary's claims as "impossible" and "nonsense," said Monday that having now viewed the film he had previously taken it "too seriously," and stood by every word of his stinging criticism.
Kloner noted that when the ossuaries were found nearly three decades ago, most of the bones inside were badly decomposed.
Due to haredi pressures put on the Israeli government, no anthropological tests were ever carried out on the remains, he said, with the bones transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry for immediate reburial along with assorted other remains found in various construction projects and digs.
The location of the bones, which were then interred by the Jewish burial society, is not known.
At the press conference, Gibson had recalled a similar process, though he said an anthropologist had normally examined bones in the numerous ossuaries that were being recovered at the time from various caves at construction sites in the then-expanding Jerusalem.
The IAA looks after 30,000 known archeological sites in Israel, including thousands of burial caves; most such sites are sealed, and closed off to the public.
The slab that seals the Talpiot tomb is located at the bottom of a stairway between buildings, and any future opening of the site to the public would likely require the relocation of some residents.
The alleged burial site, which has been contested by scholars and church officials alike, is several kilometers from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City where many Christians believe Jesus's body lay for three days.
According to the New Testament, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion, and the fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the core Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven. Still, members of the film team suggested on Monday that some Christian traditions could be reconciled to the notion of a "spiritual" resurrection.
The New York press conference ended on a semi-humorous note, when the panel was asked if there was enough DNA remaining in the ossuary to clone Jesus. "Some experiments shouldn't be done," one of the film team responded.
Then Tabor said conclusively that there was "no intact cellular DNA" and so no possibility of cloning