Is Jesus’ tomb under an apartment complex in Jerusalem? A new book and documentary claim limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes, found in a first-century burial place in the Talpiot neighborhood of this ancient city may not only belong to Jesus’ family, but also provide evidence Jesus and Mary Magdalene were buried together and had a son. TODAY talked to Simcha Jacobovici, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who wrote and directed “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” and James Cameron, who was the documentary’s executive producer. Cameron, director of such Hollywood blockbusters as “Titanic,” “Aliens,” and “The Terminator,” said he knew making a film on Jesus’ family tomb would be controversial, but it was a story that had to be told. “We now know more about [Jesus] than we’ve known for literally thousands of years. I think that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “I think that’s the power of film.” Here’s an edited version of the interview:
TODAY: The 10 ossuaries were excavated from a tomb found at a construction site in 1980. How did you become involved in trying to identify them as belonging to the Jesus’ family more than 20 years later?
Simcha Jacobovici: I got involved in making a film called “James, Brother of Jesus” a few years ago in 2002. An ossuary surfaced through the antiquities market in Israel that said shocking words: James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. If this inscription was authentic it was the first tangible, carved-in-stone proof that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. I was brought into that project by Herschel Shanks, who’s the editor of the Biblical Archeology Review. And I ended up making a film on that particular bone box, which become controversial because there is a trial right now as we speak. It starts again on the 27th that the owner of that bone box. That bone box was not found in situ by archeologists. It didn’t have provenance. They didn’t know where it came from. It came through dealers. And some people charge that the words “brother of Jesus” were forged and were added on later. So I covered that.
In the course of that investigation, I came across a cluster of bone boxes that said, Jesus, son of Joseph, two Mary’s, a Matthew, and a Judas, son of Jesus. They were sitting on warehouse shelves like in “Indian Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark,” just sitting there being ignored. And no one argued about their provenance. They were authentic. And I thought oh my God, has anyone actually investigated this? And one thing led to another. I came to Jim Cameron with the evidence that I had at that time. And the result is what we are unveiling now.
TODAY: Why go to Mr. Cameron?
James Cameron: Go ahead. (Turns to Jacobovici.) I don’t know why you did. You have to tell them. (Laughs.)
Jacobovici: For two reasons. One is that the book, which has just come out at the same time as the film, is co-written by Dr. Charles Pellegrino and myself. Charles Pellegrino is a friend of Jim Cameron and they had written a book on the Titanic. They know each other. The second thing is that when we needed to put the film together, we know it obviously had to be a film of a certain stature. And we needed somebody to work on it with us who had that stature. And Charles Pellegrino said the man is James Cameron. He’s the man. I had only known Jim Cameron as the maker of the “Titanic” and blockbusters like that. I didn’t know him as someone interested in all these documentaries. Really in a sense he was a documentary filmmaker as well. So when we all got together and he started cross-examining me on the facts as any executive producer or an editor at a newspaper, we all realized that we had a good team, and we moved forward: Charlie, Jim and I. It’s been two- or three-year journey.
Cameron: It’s almost exactly two years. It was March of ‘05 that Charlie introduced me to you and that I heard about this project for the first time. I knew very little of first-century Christianity at the time, but I’ve studied it pretty intensely since then. I don’t pretend to be an archeologist and I don’t pretend to be an historian, but when I get interested in a subject, I’ll read voraciously on it. So I wanted to qualify as a proper member of the team. We also knew that the investigation would take us on a journey — and it did. We couldn’t have predicted exactly where it would have come out; we couldn’t have predicted for example, in that we’d be successful in chemically fingerprinting the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb, which I think is hugely significant in the analysis in the outcome of this. So Simcha and I became friends.
I had already friends with Charlie Pellegrino. Charlie and I had become friends during the Titanic investigations. We had dived together at that wreck site and on different expeditions. He knew that I loved a detective story, that I loved forensic archeological investigations. I had consulted with him on some things that he had been doing both at Ground Zero here, which he treated as an archeological site, and at the Vesuvius sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii and [in Santorini.] The Minoan civilization existed on Crete and what was on the island called Thera at the time. I pursue film projects where I think I’m going to learn something, where I believe my curiosity is going to be satisfied in some way. And this was that type of project.
TODAY: Where you concerned at all, or aware of, the controversy that would arise from this discovery? The idea, as you said on TODAY, that it challenges the resurrection.
Cameron: Yes, I think we certainly understood that this would be controversial. And by the way, we welcome peer review. We think that this is a significant find and we think that this bears a lot more study than a Discovery Channel documentary has the resources to do. Did we talk about the repercussions of this? Of course, we did. In fact, I was even hesitant to get involved in this project I had to think, do I want this in my life. But ultimately my decision was as a documentary filmmaker, a story this important needs to be told. So I decided to pursue it.
Now in respect with the resurrection, and Simcha can speak to this as well, neither one of us are theologians, but certainly we’ve been dealing with biblical scholars, biblical archeologists, and so on, so we have a passing knowledge in that area. The resurrection itself is not challenged. Jesus may well have risen. And having risen, according to the scriptures, walked the earth, for an additional 40 days, appeared in corporeal form and spiritual manifestations, including a child, and including someone that his disciples didn’t recognize at first and things like that. And then ultimately ascended to heaven.
Where you get stuck is the physical ascension to heaven, taking his bones and body with him to heaven, instead of leaving them behind on earth. Many Christians don’t take that literally, some do. That is where I think there is going to be controversy or denial or pushback or people think it is a fake or whatever they want to say. Again, we’re not theologians and we’re not even archeologists. We’re documentary filmmakers, so we can only report what the experts are saying. I think if you see they film and you read the book, you’ll see that a very compelling case is made and it does ask many questions and many people should discuss this.
Jacobovici: I’m not a Christian, but philosophically speaking, but philosophically speaking, people are jumping to the conclusion that finding physical evidence of a burial place of Jesus is some how challenging the resurrection. Logically, it really isn’t. I’ve spoken to some theologians and they’ll have to weigh in. Since Christian theology holds that Jesus was dead for three days and he rose. During those three days whether he was in this tomb or that tomb doesn’t deny or confirm resurrection. So I think people are jumping to a conclusion that is really not part of the investigation of this film. Yes, the ascension, if people believe in a spiritual ascension, there is no issue. People believe in a physical ascension then that’s something Christian theologians will have to discuss. But what we have done, we have just come back and reported a set of facts. There is a tomb. There are inscriptions in it. They match the gospel story. They match the noncanonical text: The text that didn’t make it into the Christian bible.
Cameron: And the Synoptic Gospels are well matched. It was interesting last night we were talking to James Tabor, who was one of our consultants, one of our experts on this. He’s the head of religious study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he was saying, if someone had come to me and asked me to profile what I would expect to find in the Jesus family tomb, I would’ve said that there first of all there would be the tomb of James, because he succeeded Jesus in the early Christian church. He ran it for a while before he was himself was martyred. So it would be the tomb of James. He would have the wherewithal to create to greener the family tomb. In there would be the mother. Mom would be there. Mary Magdalene would be there. The brothers would be there. The sisters would be there. And Jesus would have been there. We believe the unmarked ossuaries contain the bones of the sisters. And if you look at what was in the tomb it almost exactly matches what biblical school and history would have expected to find in the tomb.
Jacobovici: You have to remember that the tomb was dismissed in 1980, when it was first discovered, for two reasons. It wasn’t even published. Even a report wasn’t written. We wouldn’t have known it existed except for literally a handful of archeologists. Like four people; five people. It was dismissed today by people who haven’t seen the film. They are still dismissing. One is yes there were two Marys, but the second Mary wasn’t Mary Magdalene, and these were common names. Therefore, there is nothing to it. It’s like finding John, Paul, and George, but it doesn’t mean you found the Beatles. The people who were dismissing this as common names were archeologists. Yes, they have a skill set, but it’s not statistics. So what we did was we asked statisticians if is this impressive, if this is compelling. And what they said was individual the names may be common, but the cluster is statistically compelling.
TODAY: The other controversy here is the role Mary Magdalene played. If the ossuary contained her bones that would change some of the tenants of Christianity.
Cameron: No, it doesn’t really change anything. Mary Magdalene is in the canonical gospels. She’s the woman in the New Testament mentioned most next to Jesus’ mother. She’s mentioned all over the place. She’s at the crucifixion; she’s at the resurrection. Why is this woman in the story? It was much later, centuries later, that this idea that she was the fallen woman who was redeemed, that she was the prostitute. That was not there originally and if you find these other texts that talk about her, we find a very different picture of her.
TODAY: That will remind people of “The Da Vinci Code.” Do you think that that is going to blur some of the claims are you are making in this documentary?
Cameron: We began this documentary before I had read the “The Da Vinci Code” and well before the movie was released. We were a year into it at that point. Actually, there was some discussion at the Discovery Channel that we should come out before “The Da Vinci Code.” We had enough information to tell a story at that time, but we hadn’t done our forensic investigation. And we elected to continue with our forensic investigation and we actually put a year between us and “The Da Vinci Code” to let these ideas marinate. I actually thought it was a good thing.
“The Da Vinci Code” is actually well researched. It’s not necessary accurate in all places, but there are a few ideas in there that have significance. For instance, when I look at it as paving the way for some of these ideas that some people may consider to be quite radical, but were rather well researched in that movie. The idea that Mary Magdalene might have been Jesus’ companion or even his wife is a fairly radical, even though amongst scholars its been discuss for some time. But as a public concept it hasn’ been out there. The thing that people need to remember is that this is not fiction. The film that we’ve made is a film of an investigation, an investigation done by a small group of journalists, working with the some of the best archeological experts, biblical scholars, and biblical historians in the world, who have been involved in this film under non-disclosure agreements for a year or more. So, this is not fiction and people really have to make that distinction in their minds.
TODAY: What do you think is going to happen? The tomb where the ossuaries were found has been resealed. At this point, what do you think is going to happen with the release of the book and the documentary?
Cameron: Well, I think that there’s a lot more investigations that have to be done. It would be nice to get access to the tomb again, take more patina samples. There are some inscriptions there that have not been translated yet. There are things that still need to be studied. There are other tombs in the region that need to be studied. And I think what should ideally happen now, once the dust settles, the serious scholars who work in this field should get involved, should look at the evidence and argue about it. They all have different opinions, different perspectives, different agendas, and different backgrounds. But they also have different pieces of knowledge. There is a limit to what we can do on a small documentary film budget. This is an important find and an important hypothesis that we’re putting forward. We have enough evidence to say with confidence that it is. But other evidence could come in tomorrow that challenges that. That’s in the nature of any scientific investigation.
TODAY: This can be one of the great archeological discoveries of our lifetime. How does it compare to your other work?
Cameron: Well, I don’t put my ego in this, so I don’t take great satisfaction in attaching my name to something like this. I’m just very curious. I’m a curious guy. I can’t turn away from an investigative story, when it comes to the forensic analysis. I’ve done 33 dives, to the titanic wreck site. I’ve spent over 50 hours piloting robotic vehicles at that wreck trying to piece together what happened during the disaster. How the ship broke up, comparing the historical record with the forensic record. We did the same thing with the Bismarck. I’ve made five documentaries in the past few years. In fact, I haven’t made a feature film in 10 years. So this is kind of my new life. I love documentary filmmaking.
When I got involved with Simcha, he was in progress with at the time which was called “Exodus Decoded,” which looked at the eruption on the island of Thera, which is now Santorini. The remnants of that volcano are now the islands of Santorini. And I got involved in that project because I was fascinated by the Theran and Minoan civilizations. They were at least the equivalent of the Egyptians of that time and they got blown up. Maybe that was the origin of the Atlantis myth. But it was a fascinating area of study and so I got involved in that project. That was my first official archeological project, even though I’ve studied archeology my whole life — as a layman. That lead to this.
This is such an amazing story. I followed my curiosity. I was fascinated by early Christianity and how it all began. How did these ideas take root? How did they ultimately transform western civilization? You trace it back and at the source there was one man preaching to the poor; people who were herding goats in a small country was dominated, under the boot heel, of Rome at the time. And some how this idea took hold and flourished and is the one of the mainstays of our western civilization. That’s pretty fascinating and the idea of tangible physical evidence of his life, his relationships with other members of his family. We now know more about him than we’ve known for literally thousands of years. I think that’s pretty amazing. I think that’s the power of film.
TODAY: “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” will be shown on the Discovery Channel on Sunday, March 4. Thank you for joining us today.
Cameron: It’s been my pleasure.