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Claims in ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ documentary unsupported by historical evidence, Union professors say

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 26, 2007 – Like “The DaVinci Code” before it, a new documentary about the supposed discovery of Jesus Christ’s body is based on shoddy scholarship that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, according to a group of Union University professors.

The Discovery Channel is set to air “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on March 4, by filmmakers James Cameron, director of “The Titanic,” and Simcha Jacobovici. Cameron and Jacobovici claim that a group of 10 stone caskets, or ossuaries, discovered in 1980 in the Jerusalem suburb of the Talpiot contained the bodies of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Joseph, Mary and others from Jesus’ family.

In addition, the documentary argues that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that the two had a son.

But George Guthrie, the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union, said these claims are highly unlikely, for a number of reasons.

First, Guthrie said the names deciphered on the caskets were tremendously common to the time and place.

“The names of ‘Mary,’ ‘Joseph’ and ‘Jesus’ all were very common in Jesus’ day, taken from heroes of the Jewish Scriptures,” Guthrie said. “So, it would be like us finding a tomb with the names ‘Sue,’ ‘Bill,’ ‘John son of Bill’ and ‘George.’”

Guthrie also questioned the filmmakers’ reliance on DNA evidence to draw their conclusions. “We have no remains from any of the biblical characters with which a DNA sampling from the caskets can be compared,” he said.

Guthrie argued that the best of New Testament scholarship has agreed with the New Testament literature that Jesus was not married, and said that conclusions to the contrary are “propositions built on thin air.”

Finally, Guthrie said the historical evidence itself makes the filmmakers’ claims hard to believe. In first century Jerusalem, Guthrie said bodies were typically buried temporarily for a year and then their bones gathered and placed in the ossuary in the family tomb. These ossuaries were often marked with names, as in the Talpiot discovery.

“The filmmakers are therefore suggesting that the body of Jesus lay decaying in a family tomb in Jerusalem at the same time the early Jerusalem church was expanding because of its belief in a resurrected Messiah,” Guthrie said. “Yet, we have no evidence from any ancient document, Christian or non-Christian, that points even to rumors that the body or bones of Jesus were there in Jerusalem.”

Guthrie added that both biblical and extra-biblical sources point to the brothers of Jesus, most notably James, as among the Christians of the first century.

“Yet, would James and the others not known of this family tomb and the body of Jesus there?” Guthrie asked. “As believers, his family members confess the resurrected Jesus. No opponent of Christianity points to the tomb. No followers of Jesus revere the tomb. There is no evidence -- beyond the circumstantial evidence of exceedingly common names -- that points to this as being the tomb of Jesus’ family. The name associations are interesting, but the evidence does not bear the weight of the proposition.”

Ray Van Neste, associate professor of Christian studies at Union, said he’s not surprised by the baseless claims of the documentary.

“James Cameron showed his inability to handle real history in regard to the Titanic – less than a century ago,” Van Neste said. “Why should we take him seriously with respect to events two millennia ago?”

Van Neste also said it was interesting to consider the credentials of those who are suggesting that the tomb belongs to Jesus and his family.

“Though the tomb was discovered almost 30 years ago and the casket inscriptions were decoded 10 years ago, most scholars have concluded that the tomb was simply a normal burial plot of an unknown family,” Van Neste said. “It was filmmakers – first from the BBC, then Cameron and Jacobovici -- who suggested that the caskets belonged to Jesus and his family.”

Greg Thornbury, dean of Union’s School of Christian Studies, questioned the motivation of the documentary’s producers, saying they may have been more motivated by financial gain than by a commitment to historical and archeological integrity.

“Trying to disprove the facts of Christianity has become a cottage industry,” Thornbury said. “Take ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ for example, and the money it made for author Dan Brown. I’m sure that fact is not lost on James Cameron or the people at the Discovery Channel.”


Media contact: Mark Kahler, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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