'Jesus film scholars didn't backtrack'

Director of "Lost Tomb" rejects claim that interviewees revoked comments.

jesus tomb 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jesus tomb 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The director of the Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary, which claims that Jesus of Nazareth and his family were laid to rest in a burial tomb in what is today the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot, has rejected claims that scholars who were interviewed in the film have now backtracked and revised their conclusions. "Not a single scholar that appears in the film has backtracked on any statement made in the film," the Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici stated in an e-mail to The Jerusalem Post. "Not a single scholar has retracted a single word." Jacobovici was responding to an article that appeared in the Post of April 11, which stated that several scholars who had featured in the film had backtracked and were now stepping away from the filmmakers' "Jesus and family were buried here" theory. The article cited a paper entitled "Cracks in the Foundation: How the Lost Tomb of Jesus is losing its scholarly support" compiled by epigrapher Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. Jacobovici, who could not be reached for comment in the original April 11 article, rejected the assertion that the University of Toronto statistician Prof. Andrey Feuerverger, who claims in the film that the odds are 600:1 in favor of the tomb being the family burial cave of Jesus of Nazareth, has now undergone a "startling change of opinion." "What is 'startling' about this statement," said Jacobovici, "is that it's completely false." Feuerverger is not giving interviews, but Jacobovici quoted from an e-mail he received from Feuerverger in response to the article, in which the statistician states: "I would like to make it clear that I stand by the statements I had made in my probability calculations. I have retracted nothing." Jacobovici added that Feuerverger was continuing "to refine his calculations in preparation of a scholarly paper destined for publication in a scholarly journal." Changes cited in the April 11 article that have been made on the Web site of the Discovery Channel, which broadcast the documentary, relating to Feuerverger's conclusions, said Jacobovici, reflect those refinements. "As he refines his language, Discovery Channel refines its Web site language on the statistics. So what? The bottom line is that Feuerverger does not 'backtrack' on any statement made in the film, nor on the 600 to one probability presented in the film," insisted Jacobovici. Relating to the critique that Israeli archeologists have called the similarity between the names in the Talpiot tomb and the Jesus family "coincidental," Jacobovici noted that several prominent experts were given the opportunity to level precisely this objection in the film itself and did so. But "the fact is that the cluster of names found in the Talpiot tomb is not only rare, it is unique," said the filmmaker. "The fact is that in 100 years of Jerusalem archeology, only one 'Jesus, son of Joseph' ossuary has ever been found in situ. Only one other [such ossuary] emerged unprovenanced in a warehouse." Similarly, there is only one ossuary inscribed "Yose," said by the filmmakers to relate to one of Jesus's brothers, and "even the so-called Mary ossuaries are extremely rare," said Jacobovici. Jacobovici also stated that reservations raised by other experts in the Pfann paper and the subsequent Post article relate to matters outside their field of expertise. For instance, epigrapher Prof. Frank Moore Cross has said that he is not persuaded by the statistics. But, noted Jacobovici, "Cross is not a statistician. I respect him as a scholar but I would never turn to him for an opinion on statistics. I went to him to confirm the reading of the inscriptions." In similar vein, the dismissal of aspects of the Jesus family theory by DNA scientist Dr. Carney Matheson, who supervised DNA testing carried out for the film from the supposed Jesus and Mary Magdalene ossuaries, is "nonsense," according to Jacobovici, who noted that "Matheson, in my film, makes statements that are limited to his expertise in DNA." And in that specific area, "he hasn't retracted a single word." Jacobovici also countered the assertion that Prof. Francois Bovon - who is quoted in the film as saying that "Mariamene" is the name given in the Acts of Philip to Mary Magdalene, and that she is differentiated from the mother of Jesus who is called "Maria" - has changed his mind. "All that has happened is that Prof. Bovon now states that his references to Mary Magdalene's name being 'Mariamene' have to do with a literary tradition, not a historical one," said Jacobovici. "But that's all we asked him." Jacobovici also noted that Pfann challenges the reading of the "Mariamene" inscription, and stated that "It's good for scholars to give various opinions. That's what scholarly debate is all about... But the fact is that Pfann is not an expert on Greek inscriptions. The inscription in question has been categorically identified as 'Mariamene' by Dr. Rahmani in the IAA official catalogue of ossuaries." One scholar who has been skeptical all along about the "Jesus family tomb" claims is Dr. Shimon Gibson, who was one of the original team that worked at the tomb when it was first discovered in 1980, appears in the film and sat on Jacobovici's panel when the documentary was launched at a New York press conference in February. In a recent e-mail to Jacobovici, Gibson states that: "My professional assessment of the facts available about this tomb, based on having dug there, and on some 30 years of experience studying Second Temple tombs around Jerusalem, is that the Talpiot Tomb is not the Jesus family tomb." Gibson adds that, "At the moment, I think the facts stack up against the Talpiot tomb being the family tomb of Jesus. But the filmmakers do have a right to do their investigative journalism, and we, as scholars, must now check out their claims and make balanced arguments for or against the ideas, as the case may be." Jacobovici said that this does not represent backtracking, since "Gibson never says it is the tomb of Jesus in the film. I never quote Gibson saying anything about the probability that this is the tomb of Jesus." Meanwhile, Jacobovici added, an attempt by certain "religious groups" to block a screening of the film in Chile next week on Discovery Latin America has been thrown out by the local courts.