NY Times, February 27, 2007
Crypt Held Bodies of Jesus and Family, Film Says
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
A documentary by the Discovery Channel claims to provide evidence that
a crypt unearthed 27 years ago in Jerusalem contained the bones of
Jesus of Nazareth.
Moreover, it asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that
the couple had a son, named Judah, and that all three were buried
The claims were met with skepticism by several archaeologists and New
Testament scholars, as well as outrage by some Christian leaders. The
contention that Jesus was married, had a child and left behind his
bones — suggesting he was not bodily resurrected — contradicts core
Two limestone boxes said to contain residue from the remains of Jesus
and Mary Magdalene were unveiled yesterday at a news conference at the
New York Public Library by the documentary's producer, James Cameron,
who made "Titanic" and "The Terminator." His collaborators onstage
included a journalist, a self-taught antiquities investigator, New
Testament scholars, a statistician and an archaeologist. Several of
them said they were excited by the findings but uncertain.
"I would like more information. I remain skeptical," said the
archaeologist, Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the W. F. Albright
Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, in an interview
after the news conference.
In recent years, audiences have demonstrated a voracious appetite for
books, movies and magazines that reassess the life and times of Jesus,
and there is already a book timed to coincide with this documentary,
which will be on the air next Sunday.
"This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with 'The Da Vinci
Code,' " said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology
of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. "One of the problems
is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world
that they don't know what is real judicious assessment and what is
what some of us in the field call 'fantastic archaeology.' "
Professor Stager said he had not seen the film but was skeptical.
Mr. Cameron said he had been "trepidatious" about becoming involved in
the project but got engaged out of "great passion for a good detective
story," not to offend and not to cash in.
"I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century," he
said. "It's absolutely not a publicity stunt. It's part of a very
well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way
that makes sense, with proper documentation."
The documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," revisits a site discovered
by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority in the East
Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1980, when the area was being
excavated for a building.
Ten burial boxes, or ossuaries, were found in the tomb, and six of
them had inscriptions. The Discovery Channel filmmakers say, and
archaeologists interviewed concur, there is no possibility the
inscriptions were forged, because they were catalogued at the time by
archaeologists and kept in storage in the Israel Antiquities
The documentary's case rests in large part on the interpretation of
the inscriptions, which they say are Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene,
Matthew, Joseph and Judah.
In the first century, these names were as common as Tom, Dick and
Harry. But the filmmakers commissioned a statistician, Andrey
Feuerverger, a professor at the University of Toronto, who calculated
that the odds that all six names would appear together in one tomb are
one in 600, calculated conservatively — or as much as one in one
One box is said to be inscribed "Yeshua bar Yosef," in Aramaic, an
ancient dialect of Hebrew that is translated as "Jesus son of Joseph."
The second box is inscribed "Maria," in Hebrew. Maria is the Latin
version of "Miriam" — a name so common in first century ancient Israel
that it was given to about 25 percent of all Jewish women. But the
mother of Jesus has always been known as "Maria" (which in English is
"Mary"). The documentary says that while thousands of ossuaries have
been discovered, only eight have had the inscription "Maria" spelled
phonetically in Hebrew letters.
The third box is labeled "Matia," Hebrew for Matthew, and the
filmmakers cite a reference in the New Testament to buttress their
claim that Mary had many Matthews in her family and it would make
sense to find one in the family tomb.
The fourth box is inscribed "Yose," a nickname for the Hebrew "Yosef,"
or "Joseph" in English. Again, the filmmakers turn to the New
Testament Gospels, which refer to four "brothers" of Jesus: James,
Judah, Simon and Joseph. Scholars disagree whether these were actual
brothers, companions or cousins, but the filmmakers infer that the
inscription refers to a brother of Jesus.
Perhaps the most shaky claims revolve around the inscription on the
fifth box, which the filmmakers assert is that of Mary Magdalene. It
is the only inscription of the six in Greek, and says "Mariamene e
Mara," which the filmmakers say can be translated as "Mary, known as
The filmmakers cite the interpretation of a Harvard professor,
Fran�ois Bovon, of the "Acts of Phillip," a text from the fourth or
fifth century and recently recovered from a monastery at Mount Athos
in Greece. The filmmakers say that Professor Bovon has determined from
the "Acts of Phillip" that Mariamene is Mary Magdalene's real name.
The filmmakers commissioned DNA testing on the residue in the boxes
said to have held Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There are no bones left,
because the religious custom in Israel is to bury archeological
remains in a cemetery.
However, the documentary's director and its driving force, Simcha
Jacobovici, an Israeli-born Canadian, said there was enough
mitochondrial DNA for a laboratory in Ontario to conclude that the
bodies in the "Jesus" and "Mary Magdalene" ossuaries were not related
on their mothers' side. From this, Mr. Jacobovici deduced that they
were a couple, because otherwise they would not have been buried
together in a family tomb.
In an interview, Mr. Jacobovici was asked why the filmmakers did not
conduct DNA testing on the other ossuaries to determine whether the
one inscribed "Judah, son of Jesus" was genetically related to either
the Jesus or Mary Magdalene boxes; or whether the Jesus remains were
actually the offspring of Mary.
"We're not scientists. At the end of the day we can't wait till every
ossuary is tested for DNA," he said. "We took the story that far. At
some point you have to say, 'I've done my job as a journalist.' "
Among the most influential scholars to dispute the documentary was
Amos Kloner, former Jerusalem district archaeologist of the Israel
Antiquities Authority, who examined the tomb in 1980.
Mr. Kloner said in a telephone interview that the inscription on the
alleged "Jesus" ossuary is not clear enough to ascertain. The box on
display at the news conference is a plain rectangle with rough gashes
on one side. The one supposedly containing Mary Magdalene has
six-petalled rosettes and an elaborate border.
"The new evidence is not serious, and I do not accept that it is
connected to the family of Jesus," said Mr. Kloner, who appears in the
documentary as a skeptic.
New Testament scholars also criticized the documentary as
theologically dangerous, historically inaccurate and irresponsible.
"A lot of conservative, orthodox and moderate Christians are going to
be upset by the recklessness of this," said Ben Witherington, a Bible
scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "Of course, we
want to know more about Jesus, but please don't insult our
intelligence by giving us this sort of stuff. It's going to get a lot
of Christians with their knickers in a knot unnecessarily."
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.