Academy Award-winning director James Cameron is at the center of a controversy that strikes at the heart of some of Christianity's fundamental beliefs. Cameron has made a documentary that suggests first century tombs found in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb contain the remains of Jesus Christ and his family. In New York this week, scholars and religious leaders alike began lining up to debunk the film's claims.
When Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson arrived at the entrance to a long, hidden tomb in a southern Jerusalem suburb in 1980, he knew it held historical value. After all, the ten ossuaries – first century Jewish stone coffins which held the remains of the dead – would help historians better understand Jewish life during the time of Christ.
Gibson says, "We viewed it as a general, as a normal family tomb of a Jewish family from the first century AD, based on the appearance of the tomb. Based on the inscriptions all these names were known, none of them to us seemed to be unusual."
Neither Gibson, nor his two colleagues Amos Kloner and Yosef Gat, believed at the time that these limestone coffins could be the modern day key to cracking a real-life Da Vinci Code.
Cameron is the executive producer of the Discovery Channel's The Lost Tomb of Jesus. He told reporters in New York that the ossuaries not only might have contained the remains of Jesus Christ, but also could have been the final resting place of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and Judah, the [previously unknown] son of Jesus.
"There will certainly be those that will in some way say that we are attempting to undermine Christianity, and that's really very far from the case,” Cameron says. “I think what this find does, and what this film does, and what this investigation does is it celebrates the real life existence of these people."
The film's director, Simcha Jocobovici, researched the ossuaries for more than two years. At the center of his studies are the inscriptions written on the outside of six of them. The manner in which two of the names are written led the filmmakers to believe they can be uniquely attributed to Mary Magdalene and Joseph.
Another ossuary – which perhaps is the most controversial implication – contains the inscription "Judah, son of Jesus."
The filmmakers contend that it is more than just coincidence the names on the coffins, with the exception of Judah, match the Biblical names in the family of Jesus Christ. Statisticians consulted for the film concluded the odds are remote that another family in Jerusalem at the time with the same names could be buried in the same tomb.
Filmmaker and researcher Simcha Jocobovici says the range was "two million to one in favor of this tomb, on the low end, and 600 to one [on the high end] in favor of the tomb" being that of Jesus.
Archaeologist Charles Pellogrino joined Jacobovici in conducting research for the film. Together, they tested the so-called human residue in the two ossuaries connected to Mary Magdalene and Jesus to determine their relationship through DNA. The samples did not match, lending support to the argument that the remains in these two ossuaries could be husband and wife.
"I'm an agnostic with no particular religious axe to grind,” Pellogrino says. “I've come to this point, and as far as the actual historical Jesus existing, and the people of this tomb and what they were trying to teach us. I for one am a believer now – at this stage. Who knows what future evidence will show?"
It is not the first time a documentary has suggested the ossuaries were related to Jesus. In 1996, the BBC interviewed Amos Kloner – the lead archaeologist in 1980 – about their significance. He promptly dismissed any connection. This conclusion is a major reason why the ossuaries have been largely ignored in the archives of the Israeli Antiquities Authority up to this point.
Kloner was also interviewed for the current film. He continues to emphasize that the names on the ossuaries were common names in Jerusalem in the first century, and that any link to the family of Jesus is preposterous.
While Gibson also participated in the research for the current film, he too remains skeptical.
"Now that we have this idea which has been put forward, I have to say that I'm skeptical, but that's the way I am,” Gibson says. “I'm willing to accept the possibility here, but I'm not going to deny that there is an interesting set of variables here which I need now to think about and look into more detail. I think a lot of new research needs to be done."
The filmmakers state that these findings are only the beginning of the debate about whether or not the tomb – still largely intact below a garden in a Jerusalem housing complex – belongs to the family of Jesus.
They hope future advances in DNA technology will help them explore deeper questions of whether or not Jesus was also a husband, and a father.