Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Da Vinci Code 'archeology' gone to seed

In a marketing ploy worthy of the slickest snake oil hawker, James Cameron (pictured right) of Titanic film-making fame is producing a documentary called "The Jesus Family Tomb," narrating the discovery in 1980 of a burial spot in Jerusalem that contained 10 ossuaries (boxes of bones) which some have claimed hold the mortal remains of, among others, Jesus, his mother Mary, and his disciple Mary Magdalene. He has already enlisted the complicity of the Discovery Channel, which is announcing the completion of the documentary today.

Fr. J. Scott Newman, commenting on the duplicitous money-making extravaganza, writes:
"This sort of thing is by now sadly familiar to a world in which The DaVinci Code is taken for serious history and theology. What is sadder still, however, is this that documentary trots out for one more scandal an ex-priest named John Dominic Crossan, who is now thankfully retired from teaching at DePaul University in Chicago. Crossan is infamous for his work with a group of unbelieving scoffers who call themselves (without irony) 'The Jesus Seminar'. During the new Discovery Channel embarrassment, Crossan once again makes the tired and tiresome declaration that if the bones of Jesus were found and were established beyond all doubt to be the authentic bones of Jesus, his faith would still in no way be changed." (Your Faith is in Vain, Dr. Crossan, Random Thoughts, Feb. 25, 2007)
Apart from the silliness of such an irrational faith, emasculated of any ties to genuine scientific evidence and floating freely two feet above contradiction, is the silliness of what passes for 'scientific evidence' itself in connection with this 'archeological' find. The news, of course, is replete with references over the last few days to the "scientific evidence" involved in this case. For example, PRNewswire, in an article entitled "Discovery Channel's The Lost Tomb of Jesus Reveals New Scientific Evidence Supporting Possible Find of Jesus Family Tomb" (Source: Discovery Channel -- no conflict of interest here, of course!):
SILVER SPRING, Md., Feb. 25 /PRNewswire/ -- Scientific analysis of limestone ossuaries (bone boxes) and physical evidence found in a 2,000-year- old tomb in Talpiot, Jerusalem, provide credible new information that the tomb once may have held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. A new Discovery Channel documentary THE LOST TOMB OF JESUS, from executive producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici, exclusively reveals what might be the greatest archaeological find in history. The film presents the latest evidence from world-renowned experts in Aramaic script, ancient DNA analysis, forensics, archaeology and statistics. Among the major discoveries chronicled in the program is new evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene, also known as "Mariamene e Mara," may have had a son named Judah. (emphasis added)
Or take this article by Jennifer Viegas, entitled "Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found," from the 'Archeology' section of Discovery News (Source: Discovery Channel, again!):
Feb. 25, 2007 — New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world's foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.

The DNA findings, alongside statistical conclusions made about the artifacts — originally excavated in 1980 — open a potentially significant chapter in Biblical archaeological history.

A documentary presenting the evidence, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," will premiere on the Discovery Channel on March 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The documentary comes from executive producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici. (emphasis added)
Now all of this dreadfully silly nonsense is practically sufficient to induce collective incontinence among the overly excited and uncritical fans of Dan Brown, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar. However, we have known about this tomb since it was discovered in 1980. That's nearly three decades ago. Does anyone wonder why no earth-shattering headlines have been forthcoming for all those many years? Anyone with more than bird spit for brains will reasonably suspect there are quite good reasons. Be assured that there are.

The other side of the story

Associated Press Writer, Marshall Thompson, in an article entitled "Scholars, Clergy Slam Jesus Documentary" (Breitbart.com, Feb. 26, 2007), reports that back in 1996 when the BBC aired a short documentary on the subject of these ossuaries, archaeologists challenged similar claims.
Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.

"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.
Pfann is even unsure that the name "Jesus" on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it's more likely the name "Hanun." Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher.

Kloner also said the filmmakers' assertions are false.

"It was an ordinary middle-class Jerusalem burial cave," Kloner said. "The names on the caskets are the most common names found among Jews at the time."

Archaeologists also balk at the filmmaker's claim that the James Ossuary -- the center of a famous antiquities fraud in Israel -- might have originated from the same cave. In 2005, Israel charged five suspects with forgery in connection with the infamous bone box.

"I don't think the James Ossuary came from the same cave," said Dan Bahat, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University. "If it were found there, the man who made the forgery would have taken something better. He would have taken Jesus."
One of the best reviews of the evidence I have seen thus far is Ben Witherington's "THE JESUS TOMB? ‘TITANIC’ TALPIOT TOMB THEORY SUNK FROM THE START" (Ben Witherington, February 26, 2007), who offers a withering deconstruction of Cameron's 'scientific' case. In summary, he observes that:
1) The statistical analysis falls apart under scrutiny. Statistical evidence is only as good as the numbers provided to the statistician. He couldn’t run numbers he did not have. Witherington calls to witness Richard Bauckham's statistical analysis. The results are devastating to Cameron.

2) There is no independent DNA control sample for comparing what was garnered from the bones in this tomb. We would need an independent control sample from some member of Jesus' family to confirm that these were members of Jesus' family. We do not have that.

3) The names allegedly on several of these ossuaries -- Joseph, Joshua (Jesus) and Mary -- are among the most common names in all of early Judaism. This is the ancient equivalent of finding adjacent tombs with the names Smith and Jones.

4) The historical problems are too numerous to list here, but some of the chief ones include:
A) If the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth, and the family was still in Nazareth after he was apparently dead and gone, then it makes little sense that he would be found be buried (alone at this point) in Jerusalem.

B) One of the ossuaries has the name Jude son of Jesus, but we have no historical evidence of such a son of the Jesus of the Gospels, and no historical evidence he was ever married.

C) The Mary ossuaries (there are two) do not mention anyone from Migdal, but simply the name Mary -- about the most common of all ancient Jewish female names.

D) Names like Matthew on another ossuary don't match up with the list of brothers' names.

E) If the tomb of Jesus was empty, as attested by all ancient accounts (even Jewish and Roman authorities); and if it takes a year for the flesh to desiccate before a man's bones can be put in an ossuary; and if Jesus' body was long gone from Joseph of Arimethea's tomb before that time -- then one would require the hypothesis of the body of Jesus having been moved elsewhere to decompose before being put in an ossuary -- an hypothesis without a shred of historical evidence to support it.

F) Implicitly one must then accuse James, Peter and John (mentioned in Gal. 1-2-- in our earliest NT document from 49 A.D.) of fraud and coverup, of perpetrating a fraudulent myth of Jesus' bodily resurrection for which they and others were prepared to die -- all of which makes little sense.
5) The antiquities dealer (Oded Golan) from which the James ossuary was procured, attests that it came from Silwan, not Talpiot, and had dirt in it matching the soil from that location in Jerusalem, whereas the ossuaries from Talpiot came out of a rock cave from a different place, without such soil in it. "To theorize that there was a Jesus family tomb, and yet the one member of Jesus' family who we know was buried in Jerusalem for a long time did not come out of the ground from that locale contradicts this theory. Furthermore, Eusebius reports that the tomb marker for James' burial was close to where James was martyred near the temple mount, indeed near the famous tombs in the Kidron valley such as the so-called tomb of Absalom. Talpiot is nowhere near this locale."

6) James Tabor, who has been co-opted into this project, authored The Jesus Dynasty in which he said a great deal contradicting Camron's documentary, about the Talpiot Tomb and about Jesus being buried in Galilee, and nothing about an ossuary that claims Joseph is the father of Jesus.
And then, as Witherington notes, there is this:
In the Toronto Star article from Sunday’s paper, we find that the unraveling has begun before they even hold the news conference today--- here is a brief quote from the article written by Stuart Laidlaw, "Jesus tomb claim sparks furor":
“But there is one wrinkle that is not examined in the documentary, one that emerged in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks ago at the fraud trial of James ossuary owner Oded Golan, charged with forging part of the inscription on the box.

Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary, showing it in Golan's home, was taken in the 1970s, based on tests done by the FBI photo lab. The trial resumes tomorrow.

Jacobovici conceded in an interview that if the ossuary was photographed in the 1970s, it could not then have been found in a tomb in 1980.

But while he does not address the conundrum in the documentary, he said in an interview that it's possible Golan's photo was printed on old paper in the 1980s.”
In fact, as noted earlier, the same article (in the Breitbart.com link) reports that Professor Amos Kloner from Bar Ilan University has already told the German press “It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever." As Witherington notes, his opinion is important since he did extensive work and research on this very tomb and its ossuaries and came to negative conclusions published in a journal in 1996. In short, this is old news, to which has been added only the recent DNA testing and statistical analysis neither of which makes the case the film makers want to make.

For those wanting much more on the historical Jesus and James and Mary, see Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History--Why We Can Trust the Bible (Harper-Collins, 2006).

For a list of various blog responses to the Tomb Theory, visit Codex: "The Jesus/Talpiot Tomb: Around the Blogosphere."


The long and the short of it is this: this is a media fabrication and a hoax motivated by the desire for notoriety and monetary gain, just like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Cameron sees Brown laughing all the way to the bank and wants in on some of the action. This would not be worth another second of your precious time except for the fact that, as in the case of Da Vinci Code, millions of gullible people are falling for the dreadful nonsense and we should be prepared to disabuse them of it -- gently, but firmly -- by clearly setting out the criteria distinguishing chicken soup from chicken spit.

[Hat tip to Fr. J. Scott Newman and Fr. Al Kimel]

Update 5:20pm
For a good laugh, check out Jeff Miller's post, "The Da Vinci Tomb" (Curt Jester, Feb. 27, 2007). Among other things, he writes:
New York City resident Joe Templer is quite up in arms about this blatant attack on his faith and the faith of millions. "This claim that Mary Magdalene is buried in a tomb in Jerusalem is crazy. Everybody knows that she is really buried in the Louvre Museum in Paris." Joe Templer is not alone in his anger, many fans of the Da Vinci Code are up in arms about this claim of finding Mary Magdalene's bones. Another city resident Jean Priory is also upset about this new documentary that is getting so much attention on shows like Larry King Live and the morning news shows. "The idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child named Joshua is quite laughable. They certainly never had a son, but a daughter named Sarah. This is a direct attack on the Sacred Feminine. Why is he trying to eliminate our faith in the mystical power of the earth and mother goddess? Shame on you James Cameron."

. . . Tour operators in Paris and England are quite distraught about the economic impact on the Da Vinci Code tourism industry if this myth of Mary Magdalene being buried in Jerusalem becomes accepted.

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