Film draws on statistical probability for heresy that Christ had a son
NEW YORK - To resolve the question of whether the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have rested in two limestone boxes discovered in a Jerusalem suburb, the film-makers of a new documentary took a novel approach - they turned to statisticians.
But some religious scholars and archaeologists have apparently not been convinced by the numbers.
The filmmakers showed the two boxes on Monday while promoting their documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron.
It will be aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4.
The film argues that 10 first-century bone boxes, called ossuaries, discovered in 1980 might have contained the bones of Jesus and his family.
One of the boxes even bears the title, Judah son of Jesus, hinting that Jesus had a son. The claim that Jesus even had an ossuary contradicts the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
This criticism and others were addressed by a panel of scholars that joined the filmmakers at the New York Public Library on Monday.
James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, said that though literal interpreters of the Bible say Jesus' physical body rose from the dead, "one might affirm resurrection in a more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind".
But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Christianity "has always understood the physical resurrection of Christ to be at the very centre of the faith".
Cameron, who won an Academy Award for directing Titanic, said he was excited to be associated with the Jesus film, which was directed by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.
"We don't have any physical record of Jesus' existence," he said. "So what this film . shows for the first time is tangible, physical, archaeological and, in some cases, forensic evidence."
He said that to the layman's eye "it seemed pretty darn compelling".
Jacobovici and archaeologist Charles Pellegrino are also the authors of The Jesus Family Tomb, newly published by Harpers.
Jacobovici said that a name on one of the ossuaries, Mariamene, supports the argument that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family. In early Christian texts, he said, Mariamene is a name of Mary Magdalene.
Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, but the burial site identified in the documentary is in a neighbourhood nowhere near the church.
In 1996, when the BBC aired a short documentary on the subject, archaeologists challenged the link to Jesus and his family.
Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.
"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said.
Kloner and Shimon Gibson, two of the three archaeologists who discovered the tomb in 1980, attended Monday's news conference where Gibson said of the film's claims: "I'm sceptical, but that's the way I am. I'm willing to accept the possibility."
The film's claims have raised the ire of Christian leaders in the Holy Land.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.
"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this," Pfann said. "But sceptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."
The first ossuary's inscription, written in Aramaic, reads Yeshua bar Yosef, or Jesus son of Joseph. The second, in Hebrew, reads Maria. The third, in Hebrew, reads Matia or Matthew. The fourth in Hebrew, reads Yose, a nickname for Yosef or Joseph. The fifth, in Greek, reads Mariamene e Mara, which the filmmakers said means Mary the master or Mary the teacher. The sixth, in Aramaic, reads Yehuda bar Yeshua, or Judah son of Jesus.
Jacobovici said the ossuaries did not seem extraordinary initially because the names were all common.
But the filmmakers had statisticians calculate the likelihood that any other family in first-century Jerusalem would have had that cluster of names.
"The numbers range from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000 that there is some other family [with the same cluster of names]," said Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto.
Osnat Goaz, a spokesman for the Israeli government's Antiquities Authority, agreed to send two ossuaries to New York, where they were displayed at Monday's news conference "but it doesn't mean that we agree" with the filmmakers, she said.
The ossuaries do not contain any bones. The bones were reburied after their discovery, as is standard practice with archaeological finds in Israel.
But Jacobovici said DNA evidence can nonetheless be collected from the boxes. He said DNA analysis had so far proved that Jesus and Mariamene, the putative Mary Magdalene, were not siblings and therefore could possibly have been husband and wife. - Sapa-AP