Tales From The Crypt
Crypt Held Bodies of Jesus and Family, Film Says
By Laurie Goodstein
A documentary by the Discovery Channel claims to provide evidence that a crypt unearthed 27 years ago in Jerusalem contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth.
Moreover, it asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that the couple had a son, named Judah, and that all three were buried together.
The claims were met with skepticism by several archaeologists and New Testament scholars, as well as outrage by some Christian leaders. The contention that Jesus was married, had a child and left behind his bones — suggesting he was not bodily resurrected — contradicts core Christian doctrine.
Two limestone boxes said to contain residue from the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene were unveiled yesterday at a news conference at the New York Public Library by the documentary’s producer, James Cameron, who made "Titanic" and "The Terminator." His collaborators onstage included a journalist, a self-taught antiquities investigator, New Testament scholars, a statistician and an archaeologist. Several of them said they were excited by the findings but uncertain.
"I would like more information. I remain skeptical," said the archaeologist, Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, in an interview after the news conference.
In recent years, audiences have demonstrated a voracious appetite for books, movies and magazines that reassess the life and times of Jesus, and there is already a book timed to coincide with this documentary, which will be on the air next Sunday.
"This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ " said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. "One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don’t know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call ‘fantastic archaeology.’ "
Professor Stager said he had not seen the film but was skeptical.
Mr. Cameron said he had been "trepidatious" about becoming involved in the project but got engaged out of "great passion for a good detective story," not to offend and not to cash in.
"I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century," he said. "It’s absolutely not a publicity stunt. It’s part of a very well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way that makes sense, with proper documentation."
The documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," revisits a site discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1980, when the area was being excavated for a building.
Ten burial boxes, or ossuaries, were found in the tomb, and six of them had inscriptions. The Discovery Channel filmmakers say, and archaeologists interviewed concur, there is no possibility the inscriptions were forged, because they were catalogued at the time by archaeologists and kept in storage in the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The documentary’s case rests in large part on the interpretation of the inscriptions, which they say are Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Matthew, Joseph and Judah.
In the first century, these names were as common as Tom, Dick and Harry. But the filmmakers commissioned a statistician, Andrey Feuerverger, a professor at the University of Toronto, who calculated that the odds that all six names would appear together in one tomb are one in 600, calculated conservatively — or as much as one in one million.
One box is said to be inscribed "Yeshua bar Yosef," in Aramaic, an ancient dialect of Hebrew that is translated as "Jesus son of Joseph." The second box is inscribed "Maria," in Hebrew. Maria is the Latin version of "Miriam" — a name so common in first century ancient Israel that it was given to about 25 percent of all Jewish women. But the mother of Jesus has always been known as "Maria" (which in English is "Mary"). The documentary says that while thousands of ossuaries have been discovered, only eight have had the inscription "Maria" spelled phonetically in Hebrew letters.
The third box is labeled "Matia," Hebrew for Matthew, and the filmmakers cite a reference in the New Testament to buttress their claim that Mary had many Matthews in her family and it would make sense to find one in the family tomb.
The fourth box is inscribed "Yose," a nickname for the Hebrew "Yosef," or "Joseph" in English. Again, the filmmakers turn to the New Testament Gospels, which refer to four "brothers" of Jesus: James, Judah, Simon and Joseph. Scholars disagree whether these were actual brothers, companions or cousins, but the filmmakers infer that the inscription refers to a brother of Jesus.
Perhaps the most shaky claims revolve around the inscription on the fifth box, which the filmmakers assert is that of Mary Magdalene. It is the only inscription of the six in Greek, and says "Mariamene e Mara," which the filmmakers say can be translated as "Mary, known as the master."
The filmmakers cite the interpretation of a Harvard professor, François Bovon, of the "Acts of Phillip," a text from the fourth or fifth century and recently recovered from a monastery at Mount Athos in Greece. The filmmakers say that Professor Bovon has determined from the "Acts of Phillip" that Mariamene is Mary Magdalene’s real name.
The filmmakers commissioned DNA testing on the residue in the boxes said to have held Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There are no bones left, because the religious custom in Israel is to bury archeological remains in a cemetery.
However, the documentary’s director and its driving force, Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-born Canadian, said there was enough mitochondrial DNA for a laboratory in Ontario to conclude that the bodies in the "Jesus" and "Mary Magdalene" ossuaries were not related on their mothers’ side. From this, Mr. Jacobovici deduced that they were a couple, because otherwise they would not have been buried together in a family tomb.
In an interview, Mr. Jacobovici was asked why the filmmakers did not conduct DNA testing on the other ossuaries to determine whether the one inscribed "Judah, son of Jesus" was genetically related to either the Jesus or Mary Magdalene boxes; or whether the Jesus remains were actually the offspring of Mary.
"We’re not scientists. At the end of the day we can’t wait till every ossuary is tested for DNA," he said. "We took the story that far. At some point you have to say, ‘I’ve done my job as a journalist.’ "
Among the most influential scholars to dispute the documentary was Amos Kloner, former Jerusalem district archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who examined the tomb in 1980.
Mr. Kloner said in a telephone interview that the inscription on the alleged "Jesus" ossuary is not clear enough to ascertain. The box on display at the news conference is a plain rectangle with rough gashes on one side. The one supposedly containing Mary Magdalene has six-petalled rosettes and an elaborate border.
"The new evidence is not serious, and I do not accept that it is connected to the family of Jesus," said Mr. Kloner, who appears in the documentary as a skeptic.
New Testament scholars also criticized the documentary as theologically dangerous, historically inaccurate and irresponsible.
"A lot of conservative, orthodox and moderate Christians are going to be upset by the recklessness of this," said Ben Witherington, a Bible scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "Of course, we want to know more about Jesus, but please don’t insult our intelligence by giving us this sort of stuff. It’s going to get a lot of Christians with their knickers in a knot unnecessarily."
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
The New York Times
February 27, 2007