Keywords: "Lost Tomb of Jesus”; Simcha Jacobovici; Jerusalem; Talpiot; Jesus; James; Maria; Mary Magdalene; Mariamne; Matthew; Magdala; ossuary; DNA; patina; tau
Got your attention, didn’t I? Well, Simcha Jacobovici will hold your attention rapt from the minute you look at his new film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. It’s the most fascinating TV show I’ve seen for years. Jacobovici is not really an archaeologist and certainly not naked, but a talented Israeli-Canadian filmmaker who always wears something that looks like Muslim prayer cap.
Is the story true? Well, you must judge for yourself. Most people, I suppose, prefer to believe it’s untrue, but not I. The thesis seems more credible than I expected before seeing the show. Probably it’s because Jacobovici, the director and protagonist, is smart, scholarly, easy-going, committed, pleasant, and (I think) honorable. We get to watch him investigating an astonishing mystery — live, unrehearsed and unscripted.
In 1980 a tomb (see photo) was accidentally uncovered by a construction crew in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. It contained ten ossuaries 2000 years old. In six of them were inscribed roughly the names of those whose bones were in each box. The Israeli antiquities authorities took the ossuaries, catalogued them, removed the bones and had them buried in sanctified ground. The boxes themselves have been kept in storage ever since and the tomb was sealed. Ten years or so ago the BBC produced a documentary about it. And two years ago, Jacobovici began work on his own doc, prompted by directing a film about an ossuary that turned up suddenly in museums — supposedly that of James, the brother of Jesus.
For about 100 years, at the time of Christ, the Jewish practice was to place the shrouded corpse for one year in a family tomb cut out of rock. Then the mourners would come and move the bones to a stone box (ossuary) which would be put into a special hollowed-out area of the cave, where it would remain forever — or anyway until the archaeologists arrived 2000 years later.
The Talpiot tomb contained bone boxes inscribed with the names of Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Jose (a rare nickname for Joseph, mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as Jesus’s brother; Matthew; Mariamne, and Judah, son of Jesus.
The adoptive father Joseph was not represented in the family tomb. Nobody can identify this Matthew as a member of Jesus’s family, but the name appears regularly in his mother’s genealogy. The most difficult name in the collection was that of Mariamne — a Greek version of Mary that was the term actually used to refer to Mary Magdalene, or Mary from the Greek-speaking town Magdala.
One ossuary had gone missing after the discovery of the tomb in 1980; Simcha believed that it might have been the James bone box.
Jacobovici does his sleuthing well. We follow his bold search for the sealed tomb, which he opens and crawls inside to explore. He also uses scientific evidence well. He asks a statistician to calculate the odds that these particular names, all of which had been famous in ancient times, would all occur together by chance and match the identities of Jesus’s known family. (The answer: about 1 chance in 600.) The odds get even more remarkable if you count Mariamne and James.
He had comparisons made between the patina of the James ossuary and that of one from the presumed family tomb. They matched, whereas shards from other locations did not. This lent weight to the argument that the James box had indeed spent centuries in that very tomb. He antique dealer who had bought the James ossuary claimed he had procured it in about 1980; again, this suggests that the box was stolen the same year that it was initially uncovered. (There is evidence in the other direction, however. Though the inscription on that box had certainly read “James, the son of Joseph,” a forger may have added the phrase, “and brother of Jesus.” The dealer is being charged with forgery, and during a photo may been found that dates back to the 1970s, before the tomb was discovered. If that proves to be the case, there is no way that the box can be authentic.)
Simcha found bone residue from the Jesus and Mariamne boxes and had the DNA analyzed by scientists who were not told the names of their subjects. Though they could not identify the nucleus DNA, they could compare the mitochondrial DNA. It revealed that these two individuals did not have the same mother. To be buried in the same family tomb, they must have been husband and wife, not siblings.
If Jesus was a husband, he might also have been a father – the parent of Judah. Jacobovici explains that the lives of Jesus and his male kin would have been in danger, since he was considered a claimant to the Davidic throne. To protect the child, Jesus and his followers would have kept his identity secret. though there are several hints in the Gospels, such as mention of a little boy who cuddles with Jesus at the dinner table.
Along the way, Simcha discovers some cultural aspects of that original Judeo-Christian community. Notice the entrance to the tomb: There’s a chevron above the door with a circle under it. We see additional symbols of this kind on two of the other ossuaries of Judeo-Christians. There is also an X mark on several ossuaries – not the shape of a Christian cross that we might recognize today. According to the Israeli museum curator, the cross was not used as a Christian symbol until the fourth century. However, Jacobovici argues that this is not a cross but rather a “tau” letter – the last letter in the alphabet. Its significance is that this is the end, finished. Jesus said, “I am the alpha and omega ” — in Hebrew, the “aleph and tau.” He thinks that the symbolic cross actually evolved from this x rather than originating as a representation of the crucifixion.
I learned a lot from this narrative — especially about Mary Magdalene. She was mentioned in the Bible 14 times, always as an honored person. The story that she was the adulteress whom Jesus saved from being stoned, or a prostitute, or the woman who anointed his feet and dried them with her hair, these are all stories invented to discredit her centuries after her death. She was actually the sister of Martha and the Apostle Philip. She and Philip were missionaries who preached to the Greek Jews. She healed and baptized, and was considered an apostle herself. She wrote a Gospel and Philip wrote the Acts of Philip, but both texts were burned by the increasingly patriarchal church authorities after their death. So powerful was her influence after Jesus’s death that one of the biblical historians interviewed on the show said that she was the real founder of Christianity. I had not known that women had been ordained during the earliest years after Jesus died.
I checked Google to see how people are reacting to this surprising story. Naturally, there are more critics than believers. It is clear from the rhetoric of the critics that this archaeological exploration upsets them greatly. There can be grounds for skepticism, of course, but the only evidence that strikes me as powerful is the alleged photo of the James ossuary dating back to the 1970s. If you take James out of the set of ossuaries, the statistical improbability of this particular combination is reduced. But it still remains remarkable. Jacobovici says that the fact that clinched the case for him was the discovery of Mariamne’s name as the correct one for Mary Magdalene. To me, that is indeed a powerful piece of evidence for, rather than against the argument.
What I hope is that someone properly recorded the location of the bones they buried in 1980. Someone has to go dig them up and perform DNA tests on them. What would we expect to find from the DNA of a guy like Jesus? Would half of the chromosomes twinkle or glow under the microscope? I can hardly wait.
But I should not joke. Simcha Jacobovici himself does not approach this research in any way that could offend anyone. He’s Jewish, but he shows exactly the same respectful attitude that the Christian theologians and biblical scholars express in the film. This project is not about settling religious scores against the devout. Yet it is mainly the devout who will be shocked by the film.
Never mind that. Let the research go forward. I find myself laughing with delight at each new discovery.