The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a new documentary produced by Academy Award-winning director James Cameron, claims that an ancient family tomb, unearthed in 1980 during construction of a Jerusalem apartment complex, once held the bones of Jesus’ family, including His mother, Mary, His “son” (Judah) and Mary Magdalene, supposedly Jesus’ wife.
Such a claim threatened to cast doubt on long-held fundamental beliefs of professing Christianity. It is no wonder the film created a firestorm of worldwide attention and polarized reactions before it aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4. Yet the documentary received universal criticism and negative reviews from professing Christians, atheists and secularists alike. Archaeologists and secular scholars rejected the film’s claims, declaring that substantial evidence is lacking and that the logic is faulty.
David Mevorah, curator of the Israel Museum: “Suggesting that this tomb was the tomb of the family of Jesus is a far-fetched suggestion” (NY Times).
Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “This whole case [for Jesus’ tomb] is flawed from beginning to end” (Washington Post).
Amos Kloner, one of the first men to excavate the tomb in 1980, called The Lost Tomb of Jesus “nonsense” (AP).
Joe Zias, the archaeology curator of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, dismissed the documentary as a “hyped-up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest” (ibid.).
The scientific tests and evidence used in the film are under heavy scrutiny. One procedure, called “patina fingerprinting,” which examined the mineral content of the different caskets, was used to “link” the casket of Jesus’ brother James to the other caskets in the tomb. Yet this scientific method has never been used in archaeology before—it was invented solely for this film.
The documentary was introduced with this statement: “Leading scientists and theologians have not reached agreement on the meaning of this archaeological discovery and questions remain. We invite viewers to apply their own judgments and interpretive skills.”
The film’s experts and makers then proceeded to use vague terms—“most likely”; “probably”; “if”; “perhaps”; “we are only speculating”; “the evidence strongly suggests”—linking these and other qualifiers to circumstantial and inconclusive “evidence,” which was used to jump to wrong conclusions.
One tomb is inscribed with the name “Mariamne e Mara,” a specific form of the name Mary. The filmmakers then linked this to Mary Magdalene, stating that “Mariamne” is referenced in the apocryphal book The Acts of Philip—which was written more than 200 years after Mary Magdalene’s death!
“Mara,” the film asserted, means “master.” With this definition, the claim was made that Mariamne (i.e. Mary Magdalene) was a spiritual teacher, minister or even an apostle, as indicated in The Acts of Philip. Yet this book was rejected when the writings of the New Testament were canonized—all the other books clearly state that only men could be ordained ministers of God. (See I Timothy 3:1-5 and Titus 1:6.)
More “proof” was presented when maternal DNA tests were done on samples found in the caskets to determine the relationship of Jesus and Mariamne. When no maternal genetic connection was found, the filmmakers asserted the individuals must have been married. However, this DNA testing only proves the people in the caskets did not share the same mother. This left several other possibilities: They could have been cousins, paternal half-siblings, uncle and niece or aunt and nephew.
In other words, this evidence presented to support the film’s claims is highly-circumstantial at best.
Dr. Daniel Gall, an associate professor of environmental science and archaeology at Mount Olive College, stated that the filmmakers skipped the usual scientific method used for archaeological discovery. “The accepted scientific method for such discoveries—research, testing, reproducible data and peer-reviewed conclusions—has not been followed…All that is done and then we go public, not before” (Goldsboro News-Argus).
According to Joe Zias, who was the curator for anthropology and archaeology at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum from 1972 to 1997, and who had personally numbered the tomb’s caskets, “[The film’s director] has no credibility whatsoever…Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession” (Newsweek).
William Dever, retired professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, said this about the possible motives behind the film: “I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years, and so have many other archaeologists…It’s a publicity stunt, and will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction” (Washington Post).
The Lost Tomb of Jesus has been universally panned, even by scholars who do not believe in the existence of God or that Jesus was literally the Son of God, born of a virgin mother.
However, in refuting the documentary’s claims, some theologians said Christ was physically resurrected, yet others believe He was spiritually resurrected, leaving His body behind. Which is true?
We will examine this in Part 2, to be posted later this week.