Jesus' burial saga: Raiders of the Lost Tomb

Jacobovici and Cameron claim there's only a 1 in 30,000 chance that they've got their facts wrong. Israeli experts are dismissive. Should they be?

tomb flashlight 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
tomb flashlight 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Simcha Jacobovici certainly knows how to construct a dramatic movie. His new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, employs dramatized reconstructions of Biblical-era events, lavishly filmed. The voice-over is at once warm and authoritative. The graphics are sleek - ancient inscriptions leap off from the sides of dusty burial boxes and glow on the screen, with accompanying whooshes and fizzes from the sound effects department. The narrative is effectively told. Complex historical connections and arguments are presented in short, comprehensible segments, interspersed with modern drama as we flash to this DNA lab, Jacobovici engages that skeptical archeological expert or, in the film's central red herring, the team seek entry to what turns out to be the wrong tomb. The key evidence is introduced piece by piece, or in this case bone box by inscribed bone box, with appropriate statistical support. At one point the staggering assertion is made that there is a 1 in 97,280,000 chance of the Talpiot burial chamber at issue not being the final resting place of Jesus, his mother, his wife (yes, wife), his brother and other relatives. By the end, that figure is qualified to a 1 in 30,000 chance, again, of this not being the burial tomb of the founder of Christianity, and by now the bone box of Jesus's son (that's right, son; we've veered dangerously near to Da Vinci Code territory by now) has been introduced into the mix as well. And through the heart of the movie strides Jacobovici himself, a tall, striking, likable figure. Here he is, marveling as he first sees the "Jesus son of Joseph" inscription on the ossuary that has been left out so casually on a shelf in the Israel Antiquities Authority storehouse in Beit Shemesh. Watch him as he switches effortlessly back and forth between English and Hebrew, and between the languages, for that matter, of archeology, New Testament study and forensic testing. And who can resist him jumping excitedly, fearlessly, into the newly reopened Talpiot tomb (the right one this time)? Camera crews in tow, Jacobovici tracks back through history - part intellectual, part adventurer: Indiana Jones the investigative journalist. Even Prof. Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem District archeologist who oversaw the handling of the Talpiot tomb when it was first uncovered, in 1980, amid construction work in the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot, found Jacobovici's charm and enthusiasm irresistible. Kloner told me on Saturday night that he thought Jacobovici "very likable." But the effect of Jacobovici's assertions, of course, if you find them compelling, is to make an absolute incompetent of Kloner and, indeed, of the whole Israeli archeological establishment, who failed to recognize that they had stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of all time - the final resting place of a man revered by millions upon millions of believers across the millennia, of his revered mother, his wife, his family. Worse still, they were incompetents who sent away whatever remained of the great man's mortal coil for routine Jewish burial elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, Kloner is having none of it. The film, to him, is a scam. Absurd. Unscientific. "Give me scientific evidence," he said in our conversation, "and I'll grapple with it." But Jacobovici's findings? "Impossible," he said. "Nonsense," he snorted. "He's inventing a story." THE LOST Tomb of Jesus, which will be broadcast locally next week on Channel 8, is a tale of 10 bone boxes, the ossuaries carried away and catalogued by those Jerusalem archeologists under Kloner's supervision from a 2,000-year-old burial chamber, its entrance marked by a strange inverted chevron (Da Vinci time again) with a circle in it, that today lies sealed beneath an unremarkable rectangular concrete slab between two rows of apartment blocs a short drive into East Talpiot. The first Talpiot ossuary that Jacobovici talks us through on screen is that purportedly of Jesus himself. Kloner told me the inscription on this box was far from conclusively decipherable. Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, is adamant, however, in the movie. "I have no real doubt," he says, that the lettering reads, "Jesus son of Joseph." Not good enough for Kloner. He knows of four ossuaries, he told me, that bear precisely such an inscription. But Jacobovici has more - much more. Ossuary 2 is inscribed with the name of Mary - presumably the Virgin Mary, to whom Christian tradition, the film assures us, often ascribes a Jerusalem burial. Ossuary 3 is trickier. "Matia," the inscription reads - apparently a nickname for Matthew. It's a name, the filmmakers acknowledge, that "at first doesn't seem to fit." To the rescue comes James Tabor, the chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and a historical and archeological consultant on the Jacobovici project. Mary's ancestry, as documented in the Gospel of Luke, Tabor notes, features five, six, seven or more variants of Matthew down the generations, "so I don't think it's odd that we would have a Matthew in this tomb," he pronounces. Except that it is odd, since while the filmmakers have already told us that various Christian traditions give Jesus sisters (Miriam and Salome) and brothers (Simon, Judah, James and Joseph), there is no credible text mention or even tradition of a blood-relative named Matthew, a relative close enough to put in your family burial chamber. No matter, we're on to Ossuary 4. This one is inscribed "Jose" (with a "Heh" on the end). Triumphant now, Tabor tells us that Jesus's brother Joseph is referred to by precisely this nickname in the gospel of Mark. Ossuary 5 is problematic, too. While the other inscriptions are in Hebrew or Aramaic, this one is in Greek. It's another Mary, but with a twist - a curious variant spelled "Mariamne e Mara" - which might be translated as "Mary known as the master." This is where Jacobovici's investigative journalism credentials come to the fore. As he told me in a telephone interview, "The people who say I am not an archeologist are absolutely right. I'm an investigative journalist. I put the dots together. The Acts of Philip guys didn't know about the [Talpiot] ossuaries and the ossuary guys didn't know about the Acts of Philip. The Acts of Philip to which he is referring is a 4th century text that deals with the apostles and with a certain Mariamne, sister of the apostle Philip. Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, who discovered the most complete version ever found of the Acts of Philip, tells Jacobovici on film that this Mariamne is none other than Mary Magdalene. What would she be doing in the Jesus family burial cave? Scraping samples from the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" ossuaries, the filmmakers manage to extricate sufficient material for DNA testing. The conclusion: the two corpses were not blood relatives. So they must have been a couple. This now thoroughly Da Vinci Code-esque assertion is made soon after that staggering 1 in 97,280,000 statistic has flashed up at us - the odds, we are initially told, that this resonant collection of names is not the Jesus family at rest. But the figure is quickly qualified by Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto. Feuerverger, sensible man that he is, doesn't buy the "Matia" explanation at all, and so excises poor "Matia" from his calculations. And he performs various other refinements to reduce the margin of error. Once he's done, and provided the Mariamne ossuary is conclusively tied to Mary Magdalene, we're told, the figure is down to 1 in 600 - that is, a one in 600 chance that this is anybody but the Jesus family. Ossuary 6 puts the icing on the cake. This was the bone box of a child, and is inscribed "Judah son of Jesus." The New Testament, we are reminded somewhat unnecessarily, doesn't say Jesus had a son. But perhaps, the film suggests hopefully, archeology in this instance "forces us to throw a new light on the New Testament." It would only be natural, it is argued somewhat plaintively, for the offspring of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to be hidden, his very existence kept secret, when he would have been the target of arrest and crucifixion. MANY OF the revelations in this documentary, as The Jerusalem Post pointed out on Sunday, are not new at all. They were, rather, first raised a little over a decade ago - supposedly shocking discoveries of a confluence of names on bone boxes that went to the root of Christianity, as hyped in a BBC documentary, in a London Sunday Times feature ("The Tomb That Dare Not Speak Its Name") and in headlines around the world. What Jacobovici and his Hollywood executive producer James Cameron have added, however, is both drama and apparent scholarly and scientific reinforcement: the filmed reconstructions, the arguments with the Israeli establishment experts, that DNA testing, those statistical models. And, of course, they got back into the tomb itself: They pry off the concrete slab, clamber down the metal ladder, stare at the strange inverted "chevron" over the entrance, and excitedly explore the interior - which was used as a geniza (burial place for holy texts) by a nearby yeshiva before the site was first resealed - until a spoil-sport IAA official arrives to tell them to get the hell back out again. Where Jacobovici and co. break further controversial new ground, however, is by inserting the so-called "James" ossuary into this already incendiary mix. This is the bone box produced five years ago by Israeli collector Oded Golan, and purportedly inscribed with the words "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus." Golan said he had bought it from an Arab dealer in the Old City decades earlier and had not initially realized its significance. Although the ossuary still has its supporters, the IAA has branded it a forgery, and Golan has been charged with running a forgery ring - charges he has denied. Jacobovici made a documentary on the James ossuary in 2003. Tabor has written at length about it. Now, the new documentary claims that one of the 10 Talpiot ossuaries went missing after being catalogued by the IAA, and that it may be none other than the James ossuary. The provenance of all or part of the inscription on this ossuary may be contested, the filmmakers acknowledge, but the box itself is genuine, and its dimensions match those of the alleged disappeared 10th ossuary. Tabor has written elsewhere that "The dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James Ossuary." What's more, the filmmakers compared the "patina" build up on the James ossuary with the patina on ossuaries indisputably from the Talpiot tomb. And, guess what? It's identical - the same chemical and mineral "spikes" on the most sophisticated comparative analyses. "We're speculating," Tabor joyfully allows on screen. "But the time is right and name is right!" As you'd imagine, the addition of brother James only deepens the alleged statistical near-certainty. Only a 1 in 30,000 chance now, we're told, that this isn't Jesus and family. Except that Prof. Kloner insisted to the Post that no inscribed ossuary had disappeared from the Talpiot tomb, and that the measurements of the James ossuary do not match those of the Talpiot finds. THE TALPIOT tomb lies silent today beneath its unremarkable seal at the bottom of a small East Talpiot stairway. The filmmakers inscribed the initials of their company, Associated Producers, into the drying concrete as they closed it up. Since word of the imminent publicity storm began to leak over the past few days, neighbors have been keeping watch over it from their apartments. "We should be charging you an entrance fee," one man called out from a top-floor window when I went past a few days ago. He recalled that the tomb had been kept open for a long time after its initial discovery, and that it had been reopened twice in the past year or so. Who knows what pressure will build now to open it again? Kloner is dismissive of Jacobovici and his "manufactured" movie. Jacobovici argues that it's just that kind of contemptuous, dismissive attitude that led the "experts" to miss the true significance of their discovery in the first place, and that, with his crew of archeologists and academics and statisticians and scientists, he has "joined the dots" as they could have done 27 years ago. "We've done our homework, we've made the case," Cameron has asserted. "Now it's time for the debate to begin." And so it doubtless will. The Lost Tomb of Jesus juggernaut is rolling. And dismissive derision is not going to stop it now.