The Orthodox Jewish director of a new documentary about Jesus’ purported burial chamber is beating back a flurry of attacks, saying that Jewish archaeologists and Christian scholars are threatened by the implications of his claim.
“Israeli archaeologists don’t like to find anything connected with Jesus, because it seems to ‘Christianize’ Jewish history, and Christian scholars don’t like to find any early stuff, because it ‘Judaizes’ Christianity,” the director of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” Simcha Jacobovici, said in an interview with the Forward. “If you find actual evidence of Jesus and his movement, it may turn out that it was more of a Jewish movement, so both sides are uncomfortable.”
The premise of the film — that a 2,000-year-old tomb discovered in 1980 in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem may be the crypt of Jesus and his family — has launched a tidal wave of criticism from some archaeologists and Christian leaders. Critics say it is nothing more than a publicity stunt on the part of Jacobovici, a 53-year-old Canadian documentary filmmaker, and the movie’s executive producer, James Cameron, the Hollywood director who made “Titanic.”
The film is set to air Sunday evening on the Discovery Channel. It will also be shown on Channel 8 in Israel, where news of the documentary has created something of a stir in a country where archaeological debates about Christian artifacts generally raise few eyebrows.
If the claim that Jesus’ bones were in fact laid to rest in a limestone box turned out to be valid, it would undermine the belief system of a wide swath of Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, who hold as a central tenet of their faith that Jesus’ body was physically resurrected. Also at odds with their theology is Jacobovici’s proposal that one of the 10 boxes in question — known as ossuaries — belonged to Jesus’ wife, the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, and another to Jesus and Mary’s child, Judah. According to Christians, Jesus was celibate and produced no offspring.
To forge his argument, Jacobovici weaves together DNA evidence, New Testament scholarship and archaeological evidence, which some critics — including Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner, who first excavated the tomb 27 years ago and is featured in the film as a skeptic — say is not definitive.
Much of the case rests on inscriptions on six of the ossuaries written in either Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek letters, which spell the names “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Maria” and “Matthew,” among other names of the biblical savior’s family members. As some scholars point out, those names were so common in first-century Israel that to conclude that the grouping of them necessarily connotes the family of Jesus of Nazareth is far-fetched. To buttress his conclusion, Jacobovici enlisted the help of a statistician, whose most conservative calculation set the odds at 600-1 in favor of the tomb being that of Jesus.
According to the film’s line of argument, the inclusion of the name “Mariamne e Mara” — which can be translated as “Mary the Master” — is the linchpin of the puzzle, based on recent New Testament scholarship showing that “Mariamne” was the real name of the historical Mary Magdalene figure.
Jacobovici, who was born in Israel, received Emmys in 1995 and 1996 for “outstanding investigative journalism.” Still, his detractors are many, and they point to his last documentary, “The Exodus Decoded” (2006) — an exploration of the biblical Exodus of Jews from Egypt — as evidence of his questionable tactics. After appearing in the film as an expert, Austrian Egyptologist Manfred Bietak published a paper in the Biblical Archaeology Review trouncing Jacobovici’s conclusions in the film and complaining that his interviews were selectively edited.
Ronald Hendel, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said that, based on the Exodus documentary — also produced by Cameron — he wouldn’t trust any of the assertions made in the current project. “These are hucksters and snake-oil salesman” who “play fast and loose with historical details,” said Hendel, who published his own harsh review in the Biblical Archaeology Review, debunking the conclusions of the Exodus film. “He’s simply trying to make a gaudy case out of evidence that doesn’t bear those interpretations,” he said, “and that’s precisely what he did with the Exodus film.”
Jacobovici defended his past and current work, saying that he feels “embarrassed” for his critics. “They like dots, they don’t like pictures,” he said. “Each one wants to be an expert on his dot, and I’m into connecting dots.”
In past years, Jacobovici, who holds an Master of Arts in international relations, made a name for himself as a Jewish leader in Canada. He rose up through the ranks as a student activist, founding the Canadian national union of Jewish students, Network Canada, and later becoming president of the International Congress of the World Union of Jewish Students.
The controversy surrounding Jacobovici’s latest documentary comes at a time when Jews on the right and in the political center are roundly taking to task more liberal Jews who air public criticisms of Israeli policy. When Israel is facing a grave threat from a nuclear Iran and is under siege from the international community, they say, it is destructive for Jews to be chiding Israel. And at a time when Israel could use all the friends it has — chief among them evangelical Christians — might a film made by a Jew that pokes holes in Christian faith be better left unseen?
Not so, said Jacobovici, who balked at the suggestion that he should rein in his work so as not to offend Christians. “I’m not a theologian, and I’m not challenging anyone’s faith,” he said. “I’m a reporter, and I’m reporting the news.”
His Christian critics, however, say that they do take the documentary as a direct challenge to their faith. Chief among these critics is Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, which defends the rights of Catholics. But even Donohue, who in past years has accused the “secular Jews” in Hollywood of pursuing an anti-Christian agenda, left Jacobovici’s religion out of his critique.
“There’s no question that there is an animus in Hollywood toward Christianity,” Donohue said. But, he added, Jacobovici’s Judaism doesn’t factor into this particular case. Donohue also said that he was surprised by Cameron’s involvement with the movie industry’s “cultural left,” which he believes seeks to discredit Christianity. “I don’t think of James Cameron as Harvey Weinstein,” he said.