Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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A Titanic and Unsubstantiated Claim

On Sunday, March 4th, the Discovery Channel aired what was claimed to be a “documentary” entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The filmmakers included producer John Cameron (Director and Producer of the film Titanic), and director Simcha Jacobovici.

The program makes some very disturbing claims. It asserts that the 10 ossuaries (bone boxes) found in an ancient tomb in a suburb of Jerusalem at one time contained the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and an individual known as “Judah, son of Jesus.” The program claims that the odds overwhelmingly point to this being the tomb of Jesus Christ, and that DNA tests done on some remains found in the ossuaries indicate that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

The tomb and ossuaries were discovered about 25 years ago, and are well known to archaeologists. It is striking that those who initially examined the find never entertained the view that the tomb was the significant find now being claimed by the filmmakers.

The program makes use of sophisticated special effects and dramatizations to influence viewers. On several occasions while being questioned by critics of his methods, director Jacobovici stated, “My job as a filmmaker and a journalist was to tell a story.” In response, Tom Koppel, who was hosting the discussion which followed the initial airing of the program, noted, “You dramatize. I’m not sure with most newscasts [if that would be okay]. You dramatize.” Further, Koppel stated, “Visual imagery carries a certain power that the spoken word does not. You have made recreations in which you show Jesus and Mary Magdalene. You don’t say that it happened but by depicting it, you lend a power to that theory that it wouldn’t otherwise have.”

In other words, instead of examining the evidence using the scientific method, verifying and submitting the findings to peer review, and reaching only the conclusions that are established by the evidence, the program takes the short cut of forwarding the most controversial (and potentially lucrative) viewpoint in an attempt to make money.

And, it certainly seems to be a successful strategy, both in making money and in influencing people to believe their theories. Notice the following quote from Gazzette.net (a Maryland online newspaper), concerning a survey made following the initial viewing of the film:

The results from a national focus group show 48 percent of Americans say the tombs shown in the ‘‘Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary on the Discovery Channel are probably Jesus’ family tombs. The study was conducted by mediacurves.com, a service of HCD Research, before and after the documentary aired. Among Christian respondents, 44 percent said the tombs are not Jesus’ family tombs after watching the documentary.

The movie The Davinci Code (released last year) made it obvious that an undiscerning public is easily swayed by even the most outrageous claims if they are made accompanied by Hollywood special effects and storytelling.

In contrast to the gullible public, notice the criticisms leveled at the program by various archaeologists, and others who are familiar with the tomb under consideration, as well as the so called “science” used by the filmmakers to support their claims:

  • “I call it ‘archaeoporn,’” stated William Dever, an archaeologist with 40 years experience of digs in the Middle East. “It’s exciting, but in the end, it’s wrong. It isn’t a long lasting relationship.”
  • 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 filmmakers play fast and loose with their “evidence.” For example, the DNA tests reveal only that the two individuals did not have the same mother. This is a far cry from the claim that they were married. Also, the claim that the inscription “Mariamne e Mara” which appears on one of the ossuaries is properly translated as Mary Magdalene is widely panned by experts. Here, the filmmakers make the same claim as the Davinci film. The phrase indicates “master”, and the filmmakers claim that this indicates Mary Magdalene to be one of Jesus’ apostles, or a leader among the early disciples. The statistical claims that the names found in the tomb indicate a 600-1 probability that this is the tomb of Jesus are also wildly exaggerated according to experts. The names found in the tomb are among the most common to the period.

Christians should recognize this for what it is, a wild and ridiculous attack on our faith. Just because it is on television with slick production values in no way gives credence to the outlandish nature of the claims.