A new book and Discovery Channel documentary airing March 4 claim a 2,000-year-old tomb discovered in 1980 might contain trace DNA remains of Jesus and his family. Archeologists say it may be good TV, but there is little chance the names inscribed on relics refer to the Jesus of the Bible.
“The Lost Tomb of Christ” is produced by “The Terminator” and “Titanic” director James Cameron and directed by Simcha Jacobovici, award-winning director of “The Exodus Decoded” and “The Naked Archaeologist,” a 26-part TV series treating Bible stories with methods of investigative journalism.
It reportedly enlists the help of statisticians, archeologists, historians, DNA experts, robot-camera technicians, epigraphers and a CSI expert to make a case that the bones of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene, along with some of their lesser-known relatives, were once entombed in the cave unearthed in a Jerusalem suburb.
Children playing in a construction area found Torah scrolls and 10 small caskets bearing the bones of an ancient family inscribed with names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Greek version of Mary Magdalene. For years archeologists viewed the discovery as interesting but of no particular importance, since all the names were common in the first century. But the cluster of names, the documentary claims, makes it unusual.
One of the caskets bears the title, “Judah, son of Jesus,” suggesting that Jesus had a son with Mary Magdalene. Christians believe that Jesus was never married and ascended to heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection at about age 30.
The filmmaker says recent biblical scholarship argues that Mary Magdalene’s real name was Miriamene, a derivative of the common first-century name of Miriam. DNA evidence showed that Miriamene and Jesus were not related, at least not through their mother, suggesting the two people whose bones were once in the box were married.
Patina, the mineral crust on the tomb, reportedly matches that on the so-called James ossuary, a sepulcher urn reputed to have contained bones belonging to Jesus’ brother, found in Israel in 2002. Widely believed to be a modern forgery, Jacobovici argues the James ossuary is real, and matches it to the tomb though a technology he calls “patina fingerprinting.”
Critics said the scenario is closer to Dan Brown’s fictional “The Da Vinci Code” than historical documents.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler on Monday called it “farcicle” on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and said it challenged the bedrock Christian assertion that Jesus rose from the dead. “If it could ever be proved that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, if the resurrection was a fraud, then Christianity falls,” Mohler said.
Keith Herron, senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., said he watched the points and counterpoints on CNN but was unmoved.
“Let’s give the scientists time to analyze these materials before we hand over to a movie maker a grand re-writing of a faith that’s withstood the tests of time and scholarship and lived experience,” Herron wrote in a message to church members. “Let’s not panic at the fantastical suggestion that what we’ve believed has been sucked dry of the mystery that’s so obvious about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
“In the end, we may learn something new about Jesus,” Herron said. “To that end, we can be grateful. But to think this mystery will be solved as easily as CSI: Jerusalem is ludicrous.”
The Gospels portray Jesus as a peasant from Galilee. Experts say that makes it unlikely his family tomb would be found in a middle-class neighborhood in Jerusalem. Historical, religious and archeological evidence all point to Jesus’ burial as taking place at what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s OldCity.
An alternative site popular with evangelical tourists, the Garden Tomb, was popularized by British military General Charles Gordon, who in 1883 thought he recognized the shape of a skull behind the tomb. All four Gospels report Jesus was crucified at a place called Golgotha, which translated from Hebrew means “the Place of the Skull.” Scholars say there is no possibility that Jesus was buried at Gordon’s Calvary.
Cameron said he isn’t a theologian, but his documentary’s theory doesn’t challenge the Christian belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but rather whether he left his body behind when he ascended to heaven.
Jacobvici, an observant Jew, said he is “not an expert” in archeology or theology but an investigative journalist whose job it is to “connect the dots.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.