A year ago the Discovery Channel delivered a cheery Easter message to America’s Christians: Jesus is dead – and we found his tomb.
After much fanfare and hype, The Lost Tomb of Jesus aired on March 4, 2007 to an audience of 4.1 million viewers. The documentary, which was directed by the journalist Simcha Jacobovici (better known as the host of The Naked Archaeologist) and produced by James Cameron (better known as the director of Titanic and True Lies), revealed that the Biblical account of Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and subsequent Resurrection was just wishful thinking. The truth, they claimed, was that the deceased Jesus was brought to his family tomb in Jerusalem, where he remained good and dead.
And Jacobovici and Cameron had the facts to prove it. For example, they revealed a stone ossuary (a repository for bones) that just possibly might have the words “Jesus, son of Joseph” on it. (The handwriting is poor, so scholars disagree on the actual inscription.) Another of the ossuaries has the name “Mary” on it. And another one is inscribed “Mariamene e Mara,” which — if you squint your eyes just right — looks like “Mariamne,” which was used by a writer more than 200 years later to refer to Mary Magdalene. Get it? That fits perfectly with the chronicle of ancient wisdom known as The Da Vinci Code, which asserts that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married! Even more startling, one of the other ossuaries bears the name “Judah, son of Jesus,” who must have been the son of Jesus and Mary (obviously born before Mary rushed off to have her daughter in Gaul, as The Da Vinci Code attests).
With so much evidence to support their case, no sane person could deny that these filmmakers had made a monumental archaeological discovery. One wonders what real archaeologists do all day! The documentary further backed up its case with plenty of dramatic reenactments, high-tech graphics, and even a statistical study that put the odds against its being wrong at more than 600-to-1.
Having presented their discovery, Jacobovici and Cameron sat back and waited for the accolades of the scholarly community to roll in. They’re still waiting. You see, as it turns out, the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” wasn’t lost at all. It wasn’t the tomb of Jesus either. Instead, it was the Talpiot Tomb, discovered by archaeologists – real ones — more than 25 years earlier. It had long since been analyzed, and the results published in a scholarly journal. The conclusion of the experts was that it was a fairly standard cave tomb of a wealthy Jewish family of the first century. The names on the ossuaries, including “Jesus,” which is a form of “Joshua”, were very common at that time. Heck, one in five women were named “Mary”! There was no more reason to believe that the Jesus of this tomb was Jesus of Nazareth than there is to believe that James Cameron is actually James Dean.
Even before The Lost Tomb of Jesus aired, there arose a firestorm of scholarly objection to it. First Prof. Amos Kloner, the lead archaeologist and original author of the report of the Talpiot Tomb, declared that the whole documentary was “nonsense.” Then a swarm of other archaeologists and historians around the world (including myself) joined in, explaining why there was no good reason to believe that the tomb had anything to do with the Jesus of the New Testament. For example:
‐ Jesus and his family were not from Jerusalem, the location of the Talpiot Tomb. If we imagine that Joseph was not a carpenter but, say, a prosperous camel merchant, then he might have been able to afford a nice family tomb like this — but wouldn’t he have put it where he actually had a family? Like Bethlehem or Nazareth? Certainly he would. Of course, Joseph was a carpenter, which means that he couldn’t have afforded the tomb in the first place.
‐ If Jesus did have a family tomb in Jerusalem, why does the New Testament insist that he was laid to rest in the new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea? And why no mention of that Judah kid?
‐ There is absolutely no historical testimony to corroborate any of the claims of the documentary. Indeed, all of the ancient sources, from the Pauline letters to the Gospels to early Christian tracts to Eusebius, contradict its conclusions.
‐ The much touted 600-to-1 odds were based on assumptions for which there is no evidence – such as that the people of the tomb were of one generation, that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, and that Jesus’ family was from Jerusalem. The consulting statistician, Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto, subsequently distanced himself from the documentary, saying that he was only working with the assumptions given to him.
At some point the people at the Discovery Channel seem to have realized that they had purchased the archaeological equivalent of “cold fusion.” As more and more scholars denounced the show, they made an unusual move: They called Ted Koppel and gave the hard-boiled newsman a few days to put together a post-documentary program in which Jacobovici could defend himself face-to-face against the academic naysayers. But before turning Jacobovici over to the professors, Koppel presented some research of his own: Written responses from experts used in the documentary who claimed that their remarks had been mischaracterized or falsified. Jacobovici strongly denied this, then spent the rest of the show dodging arguments lobbed at him by exasperated scholars itching for a fight. It was good TV.
After a few days, though, the buzz died down, and The Lost Tomb of Jesus seemed as old as last week’s TV Guide. Having cashed his checks, James Cameron went back to making movies. Simcha Jacobovici, on the other hand, continued to maintain that there was a strong possibility he was right. Meanwhile he went back to his regular show, The Naked Archaeologist, in which he is neither naked nor an archaeologist.
Over the past year, the scholarly consensus on the tomb has become virtually unanimous. As Dr. Jodi Magness of the Archaeological Institute of America wrote, the documentary’s claim is “inconsistent with all of the available information – historical and archaeological — about how Jews in the time of Jesus buried their dead, and specifically the evidence we have about poor, non-Judean families like that of Jesus. It is a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support.”
So that’s that?
Well, not quite. On January 13-16, 2008, the Princeton Theological Seminary hosted a symposium in Jerusalem that brought together leading scholars and archaeologists, including Kloner and Joe Zias, the former curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Jacobovici attended as well, as did plenty of news cameras and journalists. When it was all over, Time reported that the symposium’s experts were “deeply divided” on the question of whether this was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth or not. Jacobovici described himself as “vindicated.” And there was even a bombshell: The widow of Joseph Gat, one of the original archaeologists of the tomb, claimed that her husband had always believed it was the tomb of Jesus but had remained silent because he feared a backlash of anti-Semitism. Time and CNN left the impression that the stuffy scholarly community was finally coming around.
When the symposium’s scholars returned home and picked up their copy of Time or switched on CNN, they got quite a shock. Deeply divided? That wasn’t the symposium that they had attended. Aside from that Naked Archaeologist sitting in the corner, they couldn’t remember much of anyone arguing that the Talpiot Tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth. Why did CNN give all that air time to Jacobovici and none at all to the fifty-some experts taking part in the symposium? They were upset, to say the least.
And so the experts revolted. Geza Vermes, a fellow of the British Academy and professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, wrote that the arguments of Jacobovici and the documentary were “not just unconvincing but insignificant” and “most of the fifty or so participants shared this opinion.” A long list of distinguished symposium attendees wrote their own letter decrying the press reports: “Nothing further from the truth can be deduced from the discussion and presentations.” They noted that the deceased Mr. Gat, whatever he may or may not have said, “lacked the expertise to read the inscriptions” on the ossuaries. “To conclude, we wish to protest the misrepresentation of the conference proceedings in the media, and make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance — including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb — either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly speculative.”
If the scholars were expecting an apology from Time or CNN, they were sorely disappointed. Neither one seems to have even noticed their protest. Both organizations still have the stories posted on their websites. After all, archaeologists are such spoilsports. There’s no sense in letting them ruin a perfectly good story.
The scholarly case on the tomb may be essentially closed, but the sensationalist fantasies are alive and well. After all, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, can’t make all the money, can he? It’s frustrating, though — particularly for scholars who have spent their careers trying to uncover and disseminate the truth. One cheesy documentary, it seems, is worth a thousand good books and journal articles.
In time, though, the Lost Tomb of Jesus and its parent, The Da Vinci Code, will fade away, joining the long parade of past pseudo-history fads like Erich Von Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods? and Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision.
Christians will just have to make due with the Empty Tomb.
–Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. His newest book, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — And America is Building — A New World (Dutton), will be released in July.