By Fr. George Welzbacher
March 11, 2007
Unhappy at the thought of squandering even so much as an hour on a hoax, I was not among those last Sunday evening, March the fourth, who booked a flight into fantasy, courtesy of the Discovery Channel. I am referring, of course to the program "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", a presentation by one of Hollywood's big-name directors, James Cameron, of "evidence" that a crypt discovered a quarter of a century ago in East Jerusalem by two Israeli boys and now sealed off beneath the foundations of a residential high-rise contains the tombs (and until recently, so the program alleges, contained the mortal remains) of the Lord Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, together with those of a putative son Judah, among others. The names inscribed on the ossuaries (stone boxes containing bones), names such as Yehoshua (Joshua or Jesus) and Marianme (identified arbitrarily as Mary Magdalene), were by no means uncommon in biblical times. Mariamne, for example, was the name of Herod's very famous favorite wife-he had ten wives that we know of-though, favorite or not, she was eventually put to death on suspicion of treason. To argue that names such as these could only denote Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala is absurd.
For those who might object to my expressing an opinion on these matters inasmuch as I didn't watch the program let me quote from a review in The New York Times by Alessandra Stanley. Ms. Stanley has served for many years as an astute foreign correspondent for the Times, covering the Mediterranean world. Her review, based on an advance showing of the film, appeared in the March 3rd edition of the Times.
* * * * *
Leaning on Theory, Colliding With Faith
By Alessandra Stanley
...It is unlikely that many Christians will lose sleep-let alonefaith-because of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" on the Discovery Channel tomorrow.
The documentary, which carries the seal of approval from its executive producer James Cameron ("Titanic"), has already caused some ado, however, with bold assertions that clash with conventional Christian doctrine. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son, Judah, according to the filmmakers. And all three were laid to rest in a family tomb that is now buried deep beneath a Jerusalem complex.
And of course, the filmmakers' claim that they identified the burial remains of Jesus of Nazareth- including traces of DNA-suggests that he was not bodily resurrected, after all.....The archaeological arguments are plausible but not persuasive: this is a breakthrough that relies more on "what if" than "here's how. " And even an amateur can see that the ifs are stacked to support one hypothesis. But it is a fashionable one. Early Christian Gospels [apocryphal Gnostic gospels, i.e., heretical fictions] suggesting that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and a respected apostle in her own right, not a fallen woman, are the foundation of Gnostic studies by scholars like Elaine Pagels-as well as of the plot of the Dan Brown best seller "The Da Vinci Code."
The filmmakers get around reasonable doubt with the twin pillars of cable documentaries: hokey costume drama re-enactments and state-of-the-art robotic cameras that see around corners and down dark holes. And to add a fillip of legitimacy, the Discovery Channel will follow the film with a panel discussion led by Ted Koppel.
"The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is ... scripted like a cryptology treasure hunt and centered on the Indiana Jones-ish persona of Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-bom filmmaker based in Toronto, whose recent documentary "The Exodus Decoded," on the History Channel, argued that the Jews really did flee Egypt by parted sea. (But in 1500 B.C., a century or so earlier than most scholars suggest.)....
The story begins with a shot of an actor as the crucified Jesus, hanging lifeless on the cross, his eyes staring sightlessly into the horizon. That is followed by a different re-enactment: In 1980 two boys exploring a building excavation site in the East Talpiot, a Jerusalem neighborhood built on land annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, stumble on a crypt.
Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority found 10 limestone burial boxes, known as ossuaries, and 6 had inscriptions. The remains were reburied, as required by Jewish religious tradition. But the ossuaries were catalogued and stored in a warehouse and mostly ignored until Amos Kioner, an archaeologist, wrote an article in 1996 about the inscriptions on the ossuaries found in the Talpiot tomb. The documentary's case relies on the interpretation of those inscriptions, and Mr. Jacobovici's team of scholars asserts that they translate as Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene and Judah, as well as Matthew and Joseph, who, according to the filmmaker, were brothers of Jesus.
Andrey Feuerverger, a mathematics professor at the University of Toronto, calculates that the odds that all six names would appear together in one tomb are 1 in 600, calculated conservatively--or possibly even as much as one in one million.
Mr. Feuerverger explains his method while standing against a chalkboard covered in equations, but an easier explanation is an analogy to the Beatles, included in the Discovery Channel press kit. Future archaeologists who may find a tomb in Liverpool with the names, John. Paul and George mav consider the names too common to draw conclusions. But if the name Richard Starkey, the real name of Ringo, is also there, then bells will ring. (That example was presumably left out of the film for fear of appearing impious; John Lennon got into huge trouble in 1966 by saying that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus.")
Mary Magdalene is the Ringo of this inquiry. The film argues that the inscription "Mariamne e Mara" is a form of the name Mariamne. [sic]
"There's only 1 chance in 600 that the Talpiot tomb is not the Jesus family tomb, if Mariamne can be linked to MaryMagdalene,"the narrator says. "But can she?"
And Mariamne, according to the filmmakers, is the name given Mary Magdalene in the Acts of Phillip, a fourth-century text about Mary Magdalene's brother, that is disputed by some scholars but is taken as gospel in the film [No reputable historian would rank The Acts of Philip as serious history].
Almost all the scholars interviewed support the filmmakers' case, though one doubting Thomas is included, David Mevorah, a curator at the Israel Museum. "Suggesting that this tomb was the tomb of the family of Jesus is a far-fetched suggestion, " he says. "And we need to be very careful with that. "
The filmmakers are careful to build suspense around Mr. Jacobovici's efforts to rediscover the tomb that was sealed and reburied to make room for an apartment complex in the 1980's.
The film crew is able to put a robotic carnera down a pipe to a tomb they hope will be the original Talpiot tomb found there and emptied in 1980. It isn't, because it still has ossuaries lying undisturbed. Mr. Jacobovici, an eternal optimist figures that this second tomb supports the identity of thefirst. And his logic can seem like circular-to the point offallacious-reasoning.
"The idea of finding Jesus' tomb might not seem so outlandish if we could locate tombs belonging to his followers, " Mr. Jacobovici says to his crew.
Soon after he adds, "A1though we found ourselves in the wrong tomb, perhaps these finely crafted ossuaries, so close to the Talpiot tomb, are somehow connected to Jesus or hisfollowers."
In other words, because this is Jesus' tomb, the nearby tombs are likely those of his followers; because those nearby tombs are likely those of his followers, this must be the tomb of Jesus.
By film's end, this sleuth of science seems to have fallen under a spiritual spell. When a blind woman helps him locate the buried tomb, he says it is "almost prophetic." When he and his crew try to remove the cement slab that sealed the Talpiot tomb, he is moved by the symbolism of the act. "Felix" he says to Felix Golubev, a producer, "you realize we're rolling a big stone."
They were not allowed to explore the tomb for long, however. Saying the Discovery team did not have permission, the Israel Antiquities Authority ordered it resealed ....
All kinds of touchy issues are raised by "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which could someday lead the Discovery Channel to wish it had left the Talpiot tomb unfound.