Oh Jesus: Pseudoscience comes to the Discovery Channel

1 03 2007

If you thought you had escaped the overblown religious and secular hype surrounding the idiotic DaVinci Code, you’re probably wondering why claims about Jesus and Mary Magdalene are still flying around. I don’t have television so I’ll have to miss it, but on March 4th the Discovery Channel will air The Lost Tomb of Jesus, where an journalist purports to have found the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their offspring (!). Who are the geniuses behind this vapid DaVinci Code rip-off? Simcha Jacobovici is the main proponent of the pseudoscientific claims, winning awards for his filmmaking but not exactly someone I would trust scientific data from. James Cameron pulls a Mel Gibson as producer, backing up Jacobovici all the way, enthralled with the hypothesis that he’s found Jesus. What is most puzzling to me is if this tomb really is what the gaggle of wingnuts say it is, why it was not opened up to scientific study, scrutiny, and peer-review rather than making a media circus out of it? That takes away a lot of credibility from the onset, when filmmakers want to “tell a story” and claim they have incontrovertible scientific evidence that was never opened up to the scientific process to begin with. Said one of the archaeologists who worked on the tomb in 1980

It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s completely impossible. It’s nonsense.

I personally like a recent quote archaeologist Joe Zias made about the film better, Zias explaining

Simcha has no credibility whatsoever,” says Joe Zias, who was the curator for anthropology and archeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 and personally numbered the Talpiot ossuaries. “He’s pimping off the Bible… He got this guy Cameron, who made ‘Titanic’ or something like that—what does this guy know about archeology? I am an archaeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, ‘Who is this guy?’ People want signs and wonders. Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession.

To provide some background, the tomb in question is named Talpiot Tomb, and is located in Jerusalem, Israel. It was discovered in 1980 during construction of an apartment complex, archaeologists determining that the tomb is between 538 B.C. and 70 A.D in age (that’s quite a span). Inside the tomb were three skulls and ten ossuaries (“bone boxes”),10 bearing names, the bones buried in unmarked graves because of religious tradition. Much of the “evidence” seems to hinge on the inscriptions on the ossuaries, and wikipedia lists them as follows (although they are indeed hotly disputed)

* Yeshua` bar Yehosef – “Jesus son of Joseph”
* Maryah – “Mary”
* Yoseh – “Joses,” short for “Joseph”
* Mariamene e Mara – “Mary also known as Mara” – (the only inscription in Greek)
* Mattiah – “Matthew” (no relation ever given of a Matthew as being related to Jesus)
* Yehudah bar Yeshua` – “Judas son of Jesus”

All of these are common names, and of course someone who was a Christian could be buried with “son of Jesus” inscribed on their ossuary, especially being that Christianity is a paternal and followers are often referred to as “sons” or “daughters” or “brothers”/”sisters” of Christ. It’s also curious that the only inscription in Greek is for one of the Mary’s, perhaps this woman being named after the famous Mary of Magdalene. Whatever the truth behind it, it’s curious that these tombs, discovered over 20 years ago, are only now inspiring media attention, most archaeologists saying the find is of no major consequence. If there was an possibility of this being the “real deal,” wouldn’t it be one of the most heralded discoveries of all time, archaeologists clamoring to get involved with it? Like I said earlier, the timing is also suspect, coming out the winter following the box-office stinker that was the DaVinci Code (this discovery tying in quite well with the bogus story).

This quote from Lawrence Stager pins things down rather well

“This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ” said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. “One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don’t know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call ‘fantastic archaeology.’”

It really is amazing how little Biblical history is conveyed to the faithful, metaphorical meanings and abstractions often taking precedence over putting Scripture into context. For my own part, I get much more out of reading the Bible when I know the historical context for the parables rather than just being content with getting the gist of the story. It’s almost important to note that although Christianity is the #1 religion when surveys are done, belief in various tenets varies greatly (just look at all the denominations), and given the current broad acceptance of various forms of pseudoscience, it’s little wonder that people would get taken in by something involving their own religion. It is interesting, however, that some religious leaders/groups have dismissed the film outright because it contradicts the Bible or what their perception of the Bible is. I’m not suggesting that we should give Cameron and his crew the benefit of the doubt, but it is important to at least identify and qualify erroneous claims so they can be effectively confronted and dismissed; just saying “I don’t believe that because God tells me it didn’t happen that way” is not a real argument.

The film also makes claims about DNA evidence obtained from “residue” in the ossuaries, the bones themselves previously buried and unavailable for study. The whole study is rather tenuous, the filmmakers claiming that because the mitochondrial DNA they tested showed an adult male and female were not related but in a family plot, they must have been a couple, and because the inscriptions may say Jesus and Mary, therefore Jesus had children, also buried with him. You can see how idiotic this all is, right?

In fact, there are many claims made about the “true tomb of Jesus” in various places in the world. One website claims that Jesus’ tomb is in India, another claiming that Jesus was really buried in Japan. Contrast this with the belief of many conservative Christians that there would be no bodily evidence of Jesus left as he was taken into heaven in body and spirit. If there’s anything I’ve learned from investigating the history of the Bible on my own, it’s that everyone has an opinion and many are heavily invested in the outcome of the scant evidence that exists. Some want to prove the Bible is historically accurate 100%, others want to prove Jesus never existed at all; the truth, I think, lies somewhere in-between but is inaccessible to us at the moment.


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2 responses

14 04 2007
Don Thieme

I did not watch the Discovery Channel program and was pretty skeptical already about this supposed discovery. You do a good job of summarizing the opinions of archaeologists who know the site and biblical scholars.

14 04 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the compliments Don; I actually put together something of a review/reaction to the documentary in this post. It seems like more people associated with this documentary are starting to distance themselves from it and Jacobvici. In the end, I’m sure the “myth” will continue for some time to come (there are still geocentrists after all) but hopefully the bad documentary will encourage scholars to speak out on the issue and engage the public with the real data behind archeological finds relating to the history of religion.

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