Archaeologists and clergymen in the Holy Land derided claims in a new documentary produced by James Cameron that contradict major Christian tenets, but the Oscar-winning director said the evidence was based on sound statistics.
"The Lost Tomb of Christ," which the Discovery Channel will run on March 4, argues that 10 ancient ossuaries — small caskets used to store bones — discovered in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family, according to a press release issued by the Discovery Channel.
One of the caskets even bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son. And the very fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
Cameron told NBC'S TODAY show that statisticians found "in the range of a couple of million to one in favor of it being them." Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the documentary, said the implications "are huge."
"But they're not necessarily the implications people think they are. For example, some believers are going to say, well, this challenges the resurrection. I don't know why, if Jesus rose from one tomb, he couldn't have risen from the other tomb," Jacobovici told TODAY.
Goes against conventional wisdom
Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in Cameron's documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.
In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the 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.
Cameron said his critics should withhold comment until they see his film.
"I'm not a theologist. I'm not an archaeologist. I'm a documentary filmmaker," he said.
The film's claims, however, have raised the ire of Christian leaders in the Holy Land.
"The historical, religious and archaeological evidence show that the place where Christ was buried is the Church of the Resurrection," said Attallah Hana, a Greek Orthodox clergyman in Jerusalem. The documentary, he said, "contradicts the religious principles and the historic and spiritual principles that we hold tightly to."
How possible is it?
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.
"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this," Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."
"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 — 10 being completely possible — it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."
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."
Bone-box controversy resurrected
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."
None of the experts interviewed by The Associated Press had seen the whole documentary. Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government agency responsible for archaeology, declined to comment before the documentary was aired.