Thursday, March 01, 2007

The lost tomb of Jesus

You might have heard about this in the news. Just because James Cameron is one of the producers of this documentary, and it will be broadcast on the Discovery channel, it doesn't mean it's true. Here's what Koinonia House had to say on the subject, reproduced here for your edification. Read on...


This Sunday the Discovery Channel will debut a made-for-TV documentary titled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." Filmmakers claim that a tomb in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and several members of his family. Not only does the documentary seek to undermine the deity of Christ, it attempts to substantiate the Magdalene Heresy made popular by Dan Brown's book The DaVinci Code.

The Talpiot tomb was originally discovered in 1980. It is a large tomb that contained ten ossuaries (an ossuary is a chest that holds skeletal remains). Archaeologists say there is nothing extraordinary about the tomb, but filmmakers believe they have made a discovery that will shake the very foundations of Christianity. They believe the tomb contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as his mother Mary, his father Joseph, and other family members. They also speculate that one of the ossuaries found in the tomb contains the remains of Mary Magdalene. According to the filmmakers, their "discovery" supports claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene where married and may have had children.

A Fraud of Titanic Proportions

The writer, producer, and director of the Discovery Channel documentary is Simcha Jacobovici and its executive producer is James Cameron, the man who brought us the film Titanic. Jacobovici was the driving force behind the documentary, however he is not an archaeologist and his speculations leave many questions unanswered. In fact, most of the scholars who have reviewed his claims - even those who are not Christians - have raised objections to the validity of his assertions. Jacobovici lays out an impressive array of data, including the results of DNA-testing and statistical analysis. However, while Jacobovici does a good job of selling his speculations, he can't actually prove any of them. Scientists and scholars around the world have been quick to point out the many holes in his theory.

When the Talpiot tomb was originally excavated more than 26 years ago, the ossuaries were taken to the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Joe Zias, who was the curator for anthropology and archeology at the museum from 1972 to 1997, personally numbered the Talpiot ossuaries. Zias has criticized on the Discovery Channel documentary saying, "Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession." He further stated that the show's producers have "no credibility whatsoever."

What's in a Name?

Of the ten ossuaries found in the tomb, six of them had inscriptions. Although in some cases, the "inscriptions" appear to be little more than crudely scratched names. The names archeologists found carved on ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb were: Jesus son of Joseph, Maria, Mariamene, Matthew, Judas son of Jesus, and Jose (a diminutive of Joseph). Producers of the documentary believe that Mariamene (or Mary) is in fact Mary Magdalene. However there is no evidence directly connecting Mary Magdalene to the Mary in the tomb. Furthermore, scholars are quick to point out that these were all very common names. The name Mary is one of the most common of all ancient Jewish female names. In fact, during the first century, nearly 25 percent of women in Jerusalem, for example, were called Miriam or some derivative of that name. Even the name "Jesus" was a popular name in the first century; it has been discovered in at least 98 other tombs and on 21 other ossuaries.

The Gnostic Gospels

Much like DaVinci Code author Dan Brown, the documentary's producers relied heavily upon the so-called "Gnostic gospels" to support their conjectures concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene (in particular the Gospel of Phillip). Scholars widely agree that none of the Gnostic gospels contain historically reliable information about the life of Jesus and that all were likely written in the second century or later - in contrast to the contemporaneous eyewitness accounts in the New Testament. The Gnostic gospels are not really "gospels" at all, but rather they are filled with unverifiable claims and were written under false pseudonyms in an attempt to gain legitimacy (i.e. the "Gospel of Philip" was not written by Philip, nor was it even written during his lifetime). These documents emerged during the centuries following the ministries of the Apostles and were universally rejected by the early church. The Gnostic gospels include The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, and about four dozen others.

The Ossuary of James

In addition to his other claims, Jacobovici believes that the now-infamous ossuary of James is authentic and that it may have come from the Talpiot tomb. (In 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority declared that the inscriptions on the James ossuary were modern forgeries. To this day, the ossuary's province of origin remains unknown. The collector who owned the ossuary has since been convicted of forging various other ancient artifacts.) According to Newsweek, the technique Jacobovici uses to "prove" the match between the James ossuary and the Talpiot tomb is a technology he calls "patina fingerprinting," which was essentially invented for the purposes of the film.

The Truth of the Matter

Amos Kloner is the archaeologist who oversaw the work at the tomb in 1980 and who authored the official report on the dig. He says the burial cave is not extraordinary. "It's a typical Jewish burial cave of a large size. The names on the ossuaries are very common names or derivatives of names. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the first century CE." Recently he told The Jerusalem Post that, "It makes a great story for a TV film. But it's impossible. It's nonsense."

The conjectures presented in "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" are filled with holes. According Amos Kloner's report the tomb was disturbed in ancient times, and vandalized. Some of the biggest questions that remain unanswered relate to this early break-in: who vandalized the cave, when, what did they do there and why? Also, it is highly unlikely that Joseph, who died in Galilee, was buried in Jerusalem (he would have most likely been buried in Nazareth or Bethlehem). The Talipot tomb and ossuaries also clearly belonged to a rich family. Why would Jesus' family have a tomb outside of Jerusalem if they were from Nazareth? Why would they have a tomb if they were poor? More importantly, there is no DNA evidence to suggest that the remains in the Talipot tomb are that of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. There is also no historical evidence that Jesus was ever married or had a child. Nor can the filmmakers refute historical evidence of Jesus' resurrection. Even the Roman centurions who were given the task of guarding the Jesus' tomb acknowledged that it was empty. After which, Jesus appeared in the flesh before hundreds of witnesses.

Ben Witherington, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, commented on the documentary saying, "Unfortunately, this is a story full of holes, conjectures and problems. It will make good TV and involves a bad critical reading of history. Basically, this is old news with a new interpretation. We have known about this tomb since it was discovered in 1980. There are all sorts of reasons to see this as much ado about nothing."

While the Discovery Channel documentary may not be true, it does indeed make for good television. Even more unfortunate, it makes for convincing television. No doubt many who see it will be deceived. In times like these, when we find ourselves amidst an ever-increasing barrage of conflicting information, it is important to rely on God's Word for guidance and to remember that grace and truth come by Jesus Christ.


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Chris Rosebrough said...

I’ve written a comprehensive rebuttal to claims and evidence of this film. Please read it and decide for yourself.

You will find it at

Ross said...

Hello Chris. Thanks for stopping by, and for your excellent work in rebutting this film. I'll bootmark your site. Feel free to visit again.

James Garth said...

Jim Cameron should stick to making his spectacular and entertaining action-fests, not dragging us through the muck with this kind of stunt.

Should I be suspicious that Cameron's long-awaited sci-fi "Avatar" is not far from its cinematic release? Not that I'd ever accuse the great man of interjecting some phoney publicity to help raise his public profile again...

As an aside, Cameron's deep-sea exploration videos that he's been playing with in recent years are quite worth the watch, even though they've slipped under radar for many. In particular, the exploration of the Bismarck, and Aliens of the Deep (evolutionary leanings notwithstanding) were cracking tales of underseas adventure.

Ross said...

Mass entertainment is James Cameron's stock in trade, not making serious documentaries.