Friday, 2 March 2007

Losing the truth in Jesus's "lost tomb"

Posted March 02 2007 at 09:29 AM

From Matthew Kalman, Jerusalem

The story has been hyped, the questions raised, and the critics heard from. On Sunday night, when the James Cameron-produced "documentary" airs on American television, viewers get to form their own opinions.

Is a first-century tomb discovered 27 years ago at a Jerusalem construction site really the lost burial place of Jesus Christ? Could the astounding claim that Jesus is buried alongside Mary Magdalene and their hitherto unknown son, Judah, in a large family plot -- which also contained the remains of Jesus's mother Mary -- be true?

Back in 2003, I was asked by the documentary's director, Simcha Jacobovici, to locate many the inscribed burial boxes or ossuaries that are featured in the documentary. I was working as a researcher on Jacobovici's previous documentary about the supposed burial box of James, brother of Jesus.

The ossuaries were stored in the warehouse belonging to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Jacobovici asked for samples of the bone fragments inside the boxes so they could be tested for DNA. He said at the time he wanted to see if the DNA from the supposed Jesus family tomb matched the fragments in the James ossuary. But Jacobovici couldn't test the James fragments because they were long since lost. So that avenue of proof didn't exist.

Jesus's supposed tomb was discovered during construction work in 1980. It was explored and mapped by British archeologist Shimon Gibson. The ossuaries were removed and have been on display at local museums and the antiquities warehouse. The inscriptions with the names Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Judah were published more than 20 years ago. The ossuaries and the tomb were pronounced as the possible burial place of Jesus in a 1996 BBC documentary.

But the assertions not only fly in the face of Christian teaching, they are refuted by the Israeli archeologist, Amos Kloner, who wrote the official report on the tomb.

"The claim that [Jesus's] burial site has been found is not based on any proof, and is only an attempt to sell," said Kloner. "With all due respect, [Cameron and Jacobovici] are not archeologists," he said.

Archeologists acknowledge that the artifacts they discover and study rarely provide concrete answers to the questions about the ancient world -- even less so about "the truth of the Bible," a quest that books like 'The Da Vinci Code' has made so fashionable.

The results are unproven, highly dubious claims, advanced by special effects, marketing campaigns and breathless media coverage of a the kind that accompany 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus.'

"You have to have a publicist, you have to have somebody that says, boy, this is something, let's put this out, right," Professor James Tabor, author of "The Jesus Dynasty," says in Cameron's film.

In the background there exists a multi-million-dollar market in antiquities -- especially in relics that "prove" the Bible. Such items are often stolen from ancient tombs and smuggled out to collectors. Alongside the illicit trade in genuine artifacts, there is an even bigger trade in high-priced forgeries.

The most notorious modern-day case is currently being heard in a Jerusalem courtroom, where an Israeli collector is accused of faking an inscription to create the stone ossuary of Jesus's brother James, which caused a sensation when it was revealed to the world in 2002.

Jacobovici's film about the James ossuary was also broadcast by the Discovery Channel. He even appeared as a defense witness in the Jerusalem trial. Jacobovici claims that the James box is not only genuine but also came from the "lost tomb."

"Absolute nonsense," says Kloner, who catalogued all the burial boxes in the tomb.

Equally questionable are dramatizations in 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus' which viewers are led to believe consists of real footage of bulldozers crashing into caves, archeologists brushing dust from inscriptions and draughtsmen mapping out underground tunnels.

One of the opening sequences, for example, has the caption "Jerusalem, Israel 1980" over scenes filmed less than 18 months ago. Jacobovici himself is shown locating the supposed Jesus ossuary in the warehouse as if for the first time, even though I had led him to it more than three years ago.

The scenes are fakes -- just like the fake artifacts sold to gullible tourists.


Matthew Kalman is a Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent, based in Jerusalem.

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