It’s The Da Vinci Code meets Raiders of the Lost Ark with a little Titanic tossed in. Director James Cameron, teaming up with journalist Simcha Jacobovici, came forward on Feb. 26 with a startling claim: that several stone boxes found in an ancient tomb unearthed in Israel in 1980 contained not only the remains of Jesus but his family as well—including his supposed wife, Mary Magdalene, and son Judah. Those claims, if true, would of course challenge fundamental tenets of Christianity and represent, as Cameron put it, “the biggest archaeological story of the century.”
So is it time to rewrite the New Testament? Skeptics say not so fast. “Would you believe a story by a guy who made The Terminator?” asks Israeli physical anthropologist Joe Zias, who catalogued the burial boxes, or ossuaries, when they were excavated. “We’re talking about people without any credibility whatsoever.”
Cameron’s claim, outlined in a March 4 Discovery Channel documentary, is based on inscriptions etched on six of the 10 ossuaries. Translated from Aramaic, they include the names Jesus, Yose (a nickname for Jesus’ brother Joseph), Mariamene e Mara (another name for Mary Magdalene) and Judah, identified on a box as “son of Jesus.” Bone fragments found in the ossuaries were promptly buried per Jewish custom, but Cameron’s team ran DNA tests on bits of matter still in the boxes; the tests, they say, proved Jesus and Mariamene weren’t brother and sister, and thus possibly man and wife. They also consulted top statisticians to determine the odds of all the biblically linked names, quite common in ancient times, appearing together in the same tomb. “Reports ranged from 2 million to 1 to the most conservative of 600 to 1 in favor of the tomb being Jesus’ tomb,” says Jacobovici.
But prominent scholars call that shoddy science, and Zias says as many as 200 people were likely buried in the same tomb, making the six uncovered names a meaningless sample. “I think they’re mainly attempting to exploit The Da Vinci Code,” says Harvard archeologist Lawrence Stager, noting there were 71 Jesuses buried in the cemetery where the boxes were found. “I would describe this as a sheep-and-donkey show.”