Certainly, the story of this week has been James Cameron and his Jesus bone box. Here’s an almost complete summary of the story, to get you up to speed with what is sure to be an ongoing saga this year:
The flurry of publicity this week (see a Reuters slide-show) is actually a little surprising, given that the ‘bone boxes’ (properly known as ossuaries) were unearthed at an Israeli construction site in 1980, and there has been comment about them previously over the years (including a 1996 BBC documentary which made similar claims). The recent hype comes about because of a 90 minute documentary which will be shown on Discovery Channel this Sunday (4th March, 2007), produced by Titanic and Terminator director James Cameron, titled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus“.
The ossuaries are said to bear inscriptions matching those of the immediate family of Jesus the Christ, as well as Mary Magdalene (of course suggesting the Dan Brown meme that the couple were married), and also a son of Jesus and Mary, Judah (said to be confirmed by DNA tests).
Jane Root, president of Discovery Channel, says “The evidence is compelling…the consequences are enormous.” However, Amos Kloner, the Bar Ilan University professor who led the excavation in the 1980s, dismissed the claim: “They [say they] are ‘discovering’ things. But they haven’t discovered anything. They haven’t found anything. Everything had already been published. And there is no basis on which to make a story out of this or to identify this as the family of Jesus.”
Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, commented that the documentary “is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code'”, despite not having seen the documentary. However, James Cameron refuted claims of riding Dan Brown’s coat-tails. “I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century,” he said. “It’s absolutely not a publicity stunt. It’s part of a very well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way that makes sense, with proper documentation.”
The makers of the Bloodline documentary released an email update in which they said they…
…think it’s a good thing that the debate continues over the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Of course, we feel that it’s much more likely that, in the climate of the time, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their family came to France and are buried there.
Sporting their own biblical scholar, they quoted Professor Robert Eisenman (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) as commenting about Cameron’s discovery, that “it should be obvious that names of the kind found in the ‘ Jesus Burial Cave’ were so widespread at the time that finding a family tomb with ossuaries inscribed with them proves nothing at all.”
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note the manner in which the discovery is being treated by the Christian base as an assault upon Christianity. From viewing various forums around the Intarweb, this seems to be a common feeling amongst Christians – that this is just the next attempt to discredit their religion, in a similar vein to The Da Vinci Code. This perception obviously arises out of the suggestion that Jesus was married, and that the discovery of his mortal remains argues against his ascension. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the film is a “made-for-television hoax“, while Catholic sources were very skeptical of the documentary.
Beyond the James Cameron versus Christianity debate though, there is another controversy which seems to have been brewing for some time. Some have noted the allegedly fraudulent ‘James Ossuary‘ as being a bone of contention (no pun intended) between Christians and Jews, with the Israeli Archaeological Authority (IAA) going up against Christian supporters of the alleged Biblical relic and most notably Hershel Shanks and his Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS). There is a similarity in that case with the new finds – Israeli archaeologists debunking claims of ‘Christian’ discoveries – although with the twist this time that many Christians will be siding with the Israelis.
But wait, a further twist: some have made a claim for the authenticity of the James Ossuary because it is rumoured to have come from the same dig as the new ossuaries, with Cameron’s team identifying the same patina on their ossuaries as on the James Ossuary (see Archaeology.org’s cynical coverage, which also has some excellent images of the press conference). However, just last week photos were submitted in the forgery case against antiquities dealer Oled Golan, suggesting it had been held since 1976. Ironically, though these images are supposed to validate Golan’s claims for authenticity of the James Ossuary, the photos may invalidate any suggestion that the ossuary was part of the Jesus ossuary collection (although it could be claimed that it was looted before the ‘official’ discovery of the tomb).
Interestingly, just to muddy already murky waters, one of the scholars present at the James Cameron press conference was James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty. As the Archaeology.org coverage notes, in his book Tabor suggests that Jesus was actually the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera, “a conclusion obviously at odds with the Cameron and Jacobovici’s interpretation of the cave and its find.” Another, Shimon Gibson – who was a member of the team that originally excavated the tomb – confessed to being skeptical about the claim…though he did urge keeping an open mind about the possibility.
And perhaps that is the best advice. Certainly, there is reason for skepticism. But every argument deserves to be heard, as I’m sure they will over the coming weeks and months.