The Editor’s View: Archaeology, Hollywood Style

You’ve got to hand it to Hollywood producer James Cameron: He’s not about to let his lack of knowledge, credentials, and competence stand in the way of announcing a major archaeological find.

On March 4, the Discovery Channel aired a Cameron-produced documentary titled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” In it, various “experts” argue that a tomb uncovered in 1980 in Israel actually contains, among others, the ossuaries of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene, and James. A statistician on the program calculated that the odds were 600 to 1 that a tomb would carry this combination of names. On that basis, Cameron and friends believe that this was indeed Jesus of Nazareth.

But it gets better. After DNA testing on the remains, researchers concluded that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not blood relatives, and thus must have been married (the only way to explain why they’d be entombed together). Finally, in a new twist, the documentary claims that one of the other ossuaries—labeled “Judah, Son of Jesus”—actually contains the remains of their child.

All of that makes for quite a head-line, which appears to be what the filmmakers were after all along. If this were a serious academic discovery, it would have been announced in an appropriate setting—most likely at or near the site itself. Cameron opted instead for a glitzy press conference in New York.

He shouldn’t have bothered. Within days, a veritable roll call of prominent historians and archaeologists of the ancient world stepped forward to devastate his claims. Consider just two of the problems with his core thesis:

1. “Jesus,” “Mary,” and “James” were three of the most common names in ancient Israel. Finding them together in a tomb is as surprising as finding John and Mary Smith buried in any cemetery in the United States.

2. Much of the filmmakers’ case rests upon identifying one of the ossuaries with Mary Magdalene. However, archaeologist and biblical scholar Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land corrected their reading of the engraving. The ossuary actually reads “Miriame and Mara,” not “Mary, Known as Master,” as Cameron and crew had thought. So not only is Mary Magdalene absent, but there were actually the remains of two women in the container.

Even some of the experts Cameron used in the documentary have now turned against him. Carney Matheson, the project’s DNA expert, dismissed Cameron’s conclusions about the remains, saying, “To me it sounds like absolutely nothing.” Tal Ilan, the Israeli scholar whose Lexicon of Jewish Names formed the basis for the statistical calculations in the film, was likewise displeased. “I think it’s completely mishandled,” she told an interviewer. “I am angry.”

Cameron’s main sidekick in the project is Simcha Jacobovici, an investigative journalist who seems unusually gullible when it comes to religious hoaxes (an entrepreneur with a fistful of “magical” beans would do well to pay him a visit). A few years ago, Jacobovici lent his credibility—such as it was—to the St. James ossuary “discovery.” He still stands by its authenticity, even though the Israeli Antiquities Authority dismissed the ossuary as a hoax, and the forgers were subsequently indicted. I don’t expect he’ll budge on this latest find.

As for Cameron, once he’s made his millions on this project, he’ll likely return to the fantasy world of Hollywood. Terminator 7 isn’t going to direct itself, I suppose. I do hope that in the future Cameron and his ilk will leave history to those who take it seriously. But then, maybe I’m the gullible one.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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