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Claims swirl around 'tomb of Jesus'

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2007

The makers of a new TV documentary claim to have uncovered the biggest archaeological story of the century – the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But several archaeologists and biblical scholars challenge the evidence. One calls it "much ado about nothing much."

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In resurrecting the theme of "The Da Vinci Code," the Discovery Channel film plays into the public fascination and controversy over Jesus and legends surrounding his life. The producers fed that fascination at a New York news conference this week by unveiling two limestone ossuaries on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority said to contain residue from the pair's remains,

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus" will air Sunday, March 4, on the Discovery Channel. It is the work of Oscar- winning filmmaker James Cameron ("Titanic") and fellow Canadian Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-born film director.

The tomb at the center of the story was actually discovered in 1980 in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood. (The BBC covered it in a documentary in 1996.) The filmmakers assert that it is the tomb of Jesus' family. The crypt contained 10 ossuaries, six of them with inscriptions. Four of them reportedly read "Jesus son of Joseph," two names for Mary, and "Judah the son of Jesus."

If the evidence proved convincing, it would represent a challenge to the New Testament and the foundations of Christianity.

Mr. Jacobovici, an Emmy Award- winning investigative reporter, says in an interview that he learned about the ossuaries three years ago from Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner while working on another story. But Professor Kloner, who excavated the tomb in 1980, dismissed the inscriptions as insignificant, saying the names were all very common during that period. Yet as a journalist, Jacobovici says, he was intrigued.

During a three-year investigation, he enlisted statisticians, experts in ancient texts and records, archaeologists, and DNA specialists.

What really pushed him along, he says, was determining that one of the Marys represented Mary Magdalene (the other, they posit, is the mother of Jesus). It is the only inscription written in Greek, as "Mariamene." Jacobovici says that a Harvard professor, François Bovon, has determined from a 4th- or 5th-century text, the "Acts of Phillip," that Mariamene is the name for Mary Magdalene.

"Mariamene provided the linchpin, so the second Mary fell into place," Jacobovici says.

The other evidence presented? DNA tests, which determined that the residues in the Jesus and Mariamene ossuaries showed that the two individuals were not related by blood, leading him to deduce they were married. Then Jacobovici commissioned a statistical analysis by an expert at the University of Toronto, who calculated the probability of this combination of names appearing on ossuaries in the same crypt at 600 to 1.

"The tomb is a fact, the names are facts, the DNA relationship is a fact, the statistical studies are facts," insists Jacobovici. "There was enough to say it's time to bring this to the attention of the world and let a scientific, academic, theological debate begin."