Politics & Policy

The Fruit of Thy Tomb

Discovery Channel's phony Jesus show.

Apparently moviemaker James Cameron wishes he had obtained the film rights to The Da Vinci Code.

What else could explain his association with The Lost Tomb of Jesus? This much-hyped show makes a series of provocative claims about the Christian messiah and his kin: Jesus was betrothed to Mary Magdalene, they had a son named Judah, DNA testing of their remains proves it, and so on.

Yawn. Haven’t we read this novel?

As the mastermind behind Hollywood blockbusters such as The Terminator and Titanic, Cameron knows a catchy story when he sees one. For The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which debuts on the Discovery Channel this Sunday at 9:00 P.M., he’s credited as an executive producer.

“I think it’s the biggest archaeological story of the century,” Cameron has said of this current project. “It’s absolutely not a publicity stunt.”

No, of course not. That’s why its wild assertions are scheduled for unveiling on a breathless television program rather than in a scholarly journal. We all know that genuine publicity hounds would risk eternal hellfire for the chance to submit an academic paper to a low-circulation quarterly that’s peer reviewed by professional archaeologists and scientists. Television is for losers, right?

Cameron and his director, Simcha Jacobovici, describe The Lost Tomb of Jesus as a documentary. But it’s not. It’s a “documentary” — just as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 is a “documentary” on the Bush administration. They both actually fall into the genre of conspiratorial advocacy.

At the crux of the program is the assertion that a tomb discovered in Jerusalem in 1980 and reopened only recently contained a group of intriguing ossuaries — i.e., limestone coffins that were popular burial devices two millennia ago. Their chiseled exteriors bear names such as Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. In an inadvertently hilarious segment, the show hauls out a Canadian statistics professor who scribbles numbers on a chalkboard and proclaims that the odds are precisely 600 to 1 that this confluence of names in a single tomb means that Team Cameron has unearthed the final resting place of the holy family.

Yet the filmmakers’ methods are highly questionable. Harvard’s Frank Moore Cross, for instance, makes several on-screen appearances, mostly to read the inscriptions on the ossuaries. The presence of Cross, a distinguished scholar at a top-notch university, is meant to provide intellectual heft to the program. Yet Jacobovici merely has him read the words on the ossuaries. As it happens, nobody denies that they carry these names. But are they actually the ossuaries of the son of God and his earthly parents? Jacobovici doesn’t get around to asking Cross, this eminent professor, for an opinion.

So I did. Here’s how Cross replied in an e-mail:

I am skeptical about Jacobovici’s claims, not because of a faulty reading of the ossuary which reads yeshua’ bar yosep [Jesus son of Joseph] I believe, but because the onomasticon [list of proper names] in his period in Jerusalem is exceedingly narrow. Patriarchal names and biblical names repeat ad nauseam. It has been reckoned that 25% of feminine names in this period were Maria/Miryam, etc., that is variants of Mary. So the cited statistics are unpersuasive. You know the saying: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

For some reason, Cross doesn’t have a chance to say this on camera.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus runs perilously close to Erich von Daniken territory — no prehistoric astronauts, but definitely a flight of fancy. It runs for 90 minutes (with commercials stretching it to two hours). Views that dissent from its relentlessly uncritical presentation of a madly speculative theory — which is to say, the opinions of Cross and virtually every mainstream Biblical scholar who has examined the film’s central contentions — receive almost no air time.

The show tries to dress up its half-cocked conjectures with clips of archaeologists using Q-tips and paint brushes to flick debris from ancient ossuaries. These scenes, which are supposed to convey a sense of authenticity, were almost certainly faked. There’s also a heavyhanded appeal to modern feminism: a reference to how the “male-dominated church” has suppressed the true story of Jesus and his lady love, Mary Magdalene.

Say what you will about Dan Brown, who certainly volunteered a few thoughts about woman-hating Catholics in The Da Vinci Code. At least bookstores continue to stock his novel on their fiction shelves.

Yet The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Tomb of Jesus approach the traditional Christian narrative in essentially the same way: They expose it to a severe, Torquemada-like scrutiny and then propose to replace Western civilization’s foundational story with a newfangled alternative that’s based on a flamboyantly credulous reading of a few cherry-picked Gnostic texts.

It doesn’t take a religious skeptic to understand what this requires: A gigantic leap of faith.

My advice to James Cameron is to quit documentaries and go back to what he does best, which is to make hugely entertaining movies such as True Lies. It turns out that most lies, even when they’re presented as the gospel truth, are in fact false.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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