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Titanic Find or Sinking Feeling? February 26, 2007
text by Eric A. Powell
photos by Samir S. Patel

An amazing "discovery" is announced just in time for a book publication, documentary premiere, website launch, and Easter.


Reporters from around the world piled into the auditorium of the New York Public Library's main branch for the revealing of the latest discoveries on what is becoming known as Jesus' family tomb. Executive producer of an upcoming documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, filmmaker James Cameron provided both star power and opening remarks.

For anyone who followed the unveiling of the now-discredited "James Ossuary" in Toronto in 2002, this morning's press conference at the New York Public Library was eerily familiar.

A day after the Academy Awards, director James Cameron and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici were giving a captivating performance before an international throng of journalists, introducing the world to still two more ossuaries, limestone boxes they suggest once held the bones of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Unlike the "James Ossuary," which was unprovenanced and came to light after an extended trip through--and likely with an embellished inscription--the murky world of the Israeli antiquities market, these ossuaries were excavated in 1980 at a first-century A.D. Jewish burial site by archaeologists.

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James Cameron looks on as dour security guards complete the "reveal"--pulling the sheets of black crushed velvet that had covered the two first-century ossuaries found in 1980 in the Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem. The ossuary on the left might refer to Mary Magdalene, while the one on the right may contain the inscription "Yeshua bar Yosef," or "Jesus, son of Joseph." Cameron and documentary director Simcha Jacobovici shield their eyes from the reflection of television lights on the box that they think once contained the bones of the "king of kings." They are joined by Discovery Channel president Jane Root; theologian and archaeologist James Tabor of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, author Charles Pellegrino, and archaeologist Shimon Gibson, a member of the team that first excavated the ossuaries in 1980.

Guaranteed to generate headlines in a post-Da Vinci Code world, the announcement was timed to the airing of The Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery Channel March 9, the publication of The Jesus Family Tomb by Simcha Jacobovici and co-author Charles Pellegrino, and the launch of The central claim put forth by the book, television documentary, and website, is that a tomb discovered in 1980 during construction of an apartment block in Jerusalem once held the remains of Jesus, his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, brothers Matthew and Josa, and a Judah, possibly the son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The names were etched on six of the 10 ossuaries found at the site, all of which have been held in storage by the Israeli Antiquities Authority since their discovery. The bones found inside the ossuaries were reburied in unmarked graves after their discovery, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition.

The interpretation of the site as the family crypt of Jesus is not new. Known as the Talpiot tomb, the site was the focus of a 1996 documentary aired on BBC that made similar claims. At the time, the hypothesis was roundly dismissed. But now, Jacobovici and Cameron have claimed techniques not employed by the BBC crew might show that the tomb was the final resting place of Jesus' earthly remains, though the press conference made clear they are far from offering definitive scientific proof.

[image] Tabor, Jacobovici, Cameron, and Pellegrino discuss the finer points of the ossuaries, including why they believe the followers of Jesus had placed his bones, and the bones of his family, in such plain receptacles. The answers are not yet clear. Some skeptics, however, point out that even if the family could afford such a tomb it would have been at Nazareth.

The team commissioned DNA studies of residue found in the ossuaries, and found that samples taken from the supposed ossuaries of Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not related. The team did not detail how they could be certain that the DNA samples were actually from bones of the ossuaries' original occupants (perhaps they were mixed or disturbed during the collection of them for reburial?). Nonetheless, and without other justification (at least at the press conference) they take this to mean the the two individuals were possibly married.

The team also claims that new statistical analyses of the names, very common ones for the period, shows that the odds of them occurring together in one cluster are very long. Just how long depends on the assumptions fed in to the statistical model, but they estimate the odds to be 600 to 1 that the same names could appear in a cluster not related to the biblical Jesus. (The press kit compared the statistical significance of finding the names together to the probability of some future archaeologist finding the names George, John, Paul, and Ringo together in a Liverpool burial, which inevitably sparked speculation in the media pool that this could be proof that Jesus was the fifth Beatle.) Of course, the fly in the statistical ointment is the number of assumptions in the calculation, in this case many about the supposed relationships of the tomb occupants. So, there could be some circularity in this argument.

As Pellegrino and Gibson look on, Cameron fields questions about how the Christian world might react to the discovery of the ossuaries, and the DNA they appear to contain. The first portion of the analysis showed, according to Jacobvici, that the remains in the "Mary Magdalene" box and the "Jesus" box were not related, and therefore it's possible that they were married. [image]

Another scientific study commissioned by the filmmakers is said to show that the patina on the ossuaries from Talpiot matches the patina on the James Ossuary, suggesting to the team that James was once buried in the tomb as well. Records show that at least one of the ossuaries originally excavated subsequently went missing. Jacobovici points to the James Ossuary as the last missing piece of the puzzle, though he acknowledges the artifact has a controversial background. The inscription on the box, "James Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus," has been demonstrated to be at least half fake. Studies of the box show that "Brother of Jesus" was recently added to the inscription by forgers. Moreover, a recent news report states that an FBI expert witness at the trial of Oded Golan over the "James Ossuary" and other dubious antiquities, has testified that Golan had photos of that ossuary taken in the 1970s.

Joining Cameron and Jacobovici on stage this morning were a number of experts, including Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Israel, and a member of the team that originally excavated the tomb. After a lengthy description of the original condition of the tomb, Gibson confessed to being skeptical about the claims that the site was Jesus' tomb, though he added he was trying to keep an open mind about the possibility.

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Among the other inscriptions claimed to be on ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb is one that says "Judah, son of Jesus," but this one was not displayed with the "Mary Magdalene" or "Jesus" boxes at the press conference. The agreement was that still photographers in the front would remain seated during the press conference so that television cameras at the back could have an unobstructed view of the ossuaries. After the press conference, they were given free rein to photograph ossuaries and push away television cameramen.

Two respected biblical scholars also encouraged the scholarly community and the public to keep open minds about the find. James Tabor, a theologian and archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as well as the author of the recent book The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, is closely identified with the project. At the press conference he spoke with authority on questions ranging from the theological dimensions of the discovery to the statistical study of the names, and dismissed a question dealing with the possibility of cloning Jesus with a description of the degraded condition of the DNA. In his book, it should be noted, that Tabor suggested that Jesus was actually the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera, a conclusion obviously at odds with the Cameron and Jacobovici's interpretation of the cave and its finds. James Charlsworth, the director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary and editor of Archaeology and Jesus, was the other prominent scholar on hand. In his remarks he often returned to the idea that the debate over the tomb was just beginning, but his excitement, though restrained, was almost palpable.

But by and large the scholarly community is lining up against the claims made by Jacobovici and Cameron. "It makes a great story for a TV film. But it's impossible. It's nonsense," former Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Amon Kloner told the Jerusalem Post. Kloner oversaw the original excavation of the site, and published a scholarly article describing its contents. "There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the first century."

Ultimately, the questions raised by this "discovery"--Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene a couple? Did Jesus have a son? If so, who are his descendants? Does the discovery disprove the literal truth of the Bible--are familiar to anyone who has followed the current mania for radically re-thinking the origins of Christianity combined with media extravaganzas and marketing hoopla. Be sure to check back with for more about the tomb.


Many of the morning's conclusions about the ossuaries have been greeted by skepticism, including from some of the experts on the stage, but there's no denying their power to generate headlines.

Eric A. Powell is senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY. Samir S. Patel is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America