A new holy-relics controversy has manifested itself overnight, best summed up by a typical headline [26 Feb 07] “I've Found The Coffin Of Jesus, Says Film Director”. It is the result of Titanic director James Cameron’s NY press announcement of a documentary speculating on the identity of three of a set of ten ossuaries – 1st-century limestone caskets or bone-collection boxes. These were found some time ago in a hidden private crypt south of Jerusalem, in a rock-cut family tomb similar to the one described in the Bible as belonging to Joseph of Arimatheia.
The existence of the "Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries" has in fact been known to archaeologists for decades. However it is only now, in the post-TDVC era, when a Hollywood director announces he has completed a £2 million feature documentary on the relics at a press conference that the press picked up the story. For before that, Cameron and his partner, Israeli-Canadian documentarist Simcha Jacobovici, worked for three years in secret. They obviously anticipated the controversy that has now enveloped around them, for they kept the matter quiet until only ten days before its TV airing. The Lost Tomb Of Jesus will air March 4th on the Discovery Channel in the USA and later on Channel 4 in Britain. (Trailer here or here.)
A companion book is being published: The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery That Will Change History Forever, co-written by Jacobovici with Charles Pellegrino (Cameron’s collaborator on his Titantic followup deep-sea documentary /book project). The names they associate with three of the 6 inscribed caskets in the tomb were what guaranteed world-wide headlines - "Jesus, son of Joseph," Mary (his mother’s name) and Mariamne (supposedly Mary Magdalene).
The problem with anyone claiming to have found the bones of Jesus is that contradicts the idea he was bodily resurrected from the dead and ascended to heaven, and there is some equivocation here, Cameron saying they don’t have Jesus’s actual bones. Yet they cite DNA tests done on the ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’ bone fragments that their owners were not related by blood – hence their being interred together indicates they were probably related by marriage. And then there was the question of the children …. One of the boxes is inscribed "Judah son of Jesus." This is new to Biblical tradition (in the DVC-HBHG tradition, there is only a daughter, Sarah), though there are now claims that a few fleeting references could refer to a son.
The producers must also have been aware not only of controversies over films like TDVC and books like HBHG, but also of archaeological ones also – notably the long-running ‘James-brother-of-Jesus’ ossuary scandal, which is still ongoing. (I’ve been collecting clippings on it since at least 2002.) It may in fact be related, a missing piece in the new jigsaw puzzle. One of the ten ‘Jesus family’ caskets disappeared and its bone contents were ‘destroyed.’ Now some suspect this missing tenth casket was the mysterious one that surfaced earlier, from nobody knows where (the area is basically a war zone) with the controversial inscription ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus' - in Aramaic Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua – the New Testament’s James The Just, who became leader after his brother’s crucifixion. The existence of a true, non-divine brother (not just half-brother) is inherently controversial in Christian terms - as one headline put it, “Ossuary Suggests Mary Wasn't A Virgin.” (Its finder says he has bone fragments taken from this ossuary, which he has declined to have analysed.) He was charged with forging the second part of the inscription, but academic opinion remains sharply divided on this. (The argument is over presence or absence of an ageing patina over the lettering of the 2nd phrase. A new piece of evidence, an old photo showing the entire inscription, has just turned up.) The owner of a popular American Christian magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, champions it, having got it put on display in a Canadian museum (insured by Lloyd's of London for US$1 million), and producing a book and a TV documentary.
However here there is no question of any modern forgery with the "Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries", ossuary (re-)burial being a Pharisee practise based on a belief in bodily resurrection, abandoned when the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 destroyed the old ways. Israeli antiquities authorities have said in fact the inscribed names were common ones for the era. Despite the hype, this is not the first documentary on the ‘Jesus Tomb’, it having been the subject of an Easter 1996 BBC-TV special The Body In Question produced after the Israeli Antiquities Authority first publicised the find in their own IAA magazine. The UK press got hold of the story and the Sunday Times ran an in-depth pre-broadcast ‘spoiler’ feature, "The Tomb That Dare Not Speak Its Name", saying the discovery "challenges the very basis of Christianity."
Current press reports say the argument still “strikes at the foundation of Christianity in the same manner as the novel The Da Vinci Code” for Cameron is claiming the coincidence of these Biblical names occurring by chance is too remote. Predictably, Cameron is touting this nevertheless as “one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.” Just as predictably, within hours of the press conference, church and scholarly forces began massing against the film, sight unseen.
One could build a metaphor around Cameron’s association with Titanic (act of hubris stopped by encountering an immovable object), but perhaps it’s best just to leave it for now and see how the story develops.