For the past 2,000 years, the world has known that Jesus Christ died and went to heaven. Every Catholic child can recite the story of Maria Magdalene, who wiped Jesus' agonizing face at Via Dolorosa, arrived at his burial site in Jerusalem two days after he was buried, opened the tomb, and was astounded when she found the tomb empty. Christian fate maintains that Jesus was resurrected, appeared before his followers, and went to heaven 40 days later.
Now comes a documentary movies' director and producer, one named Simcha Jacobovici, and insists that the holy man is resting in peace right here, under our noses, in a cave in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem, right next to his family members. Not only we did not know; neither did the archaeologists or the theologians.
Jacobovici, a Canadian Jew who was born in Israel
and is viewed as one of the world leading documentarists, published his findings at a news conference in New York last week, starting a huge storm. Newspapers all over the world gave this news item front-page headlines, leading TV shows addressed it, and the Internet filled with thousands of comments.
This was immediately followed by remarks by senior archaeologists, maintaining that though Jesus may not be up in heaven, he definitely is not in that Jerusalem cave, as Jacobovici claimed. Archaeologist Prof. Amos Kloner told
Yedioth Ahronoth last week that "there is no scientific proof that this is indeed is the burial site of Jesus and his family."
Jacobovici insists, however, and Hollywood-based director and producer James Cameron joined him on a long and fascinating journey whose findings will certainly challenge the Christian world, if not rock it badly.
Jacobovici himself was stunned by this surprising revelation. He too was skeptical at first, but after three years of work, he is certain that he made all the necessary tests before emerging with this new gospel.
He claims that everything he says is reliable, credible, and tested, and it is all in “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which was last week aired for the first time on the international Discovery Channel, and will soon be carried by British Channel 4, Canadian Vision Channel, and Israel's Channel 8 (next Monday, at 9 p.m.).
Last week, after the New York press conference ended and dozens of reporters and photographers took their gear and left, wearing their huge overcoats, Jacobovici looked exhausted. "I believe this is the most important film I ever made," he said and crushed in a chair.
Just like the Indiana Jones films, our story begins with fragments of information from an older fellow. Herschl Shanks, editor of the popular US periodical Biblical Archaeology Review, decided to share strange information he had obtained with Jacobovici and met him in Toronto in the winter of 2002.
Shanks toured the producer's offices, stopped to take a closer look at his trophy cabinet (where he saw two Emmy's, two Gemini's, gold medals, and a host of other decorations), and said: "So you are serious, eh?" Jacobovici just smiled.
"He told me," Jacobovici recalled, "that a sarcophagus was found, with a carved inscription reading 'James bar Joseph ahuy deJosua' (Aramaic: Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Josua). Failing to understand what this information had to do with me, I asked him, what is a sarcophagus, and who is James? He explained that, according to the New Testament, Jesus had two brothers, one of whom was named Jacob.
He also said that there is disagreement on whether that inscription was false or authentic, but it is a first archaeological finding that shows that Jesus existed. He asked me if I were interested and whether I could so something with that. I told him that I will look into it and ever since that day, for the past 5 years, I've been eating, living, and dreaming Jesus."
Entrance to 'burial cave' (Photo: AP)
He did not know how far he would go with his research when he started. Arriving in Israel, Jacobovici met with Prof. Amos Kloner, an authority on burial in Jerusalem during the Second Temple era. Kloner laughed when Jacobovici asked him about that sarcophagus. "Why are you so interested?" he asked. "If it really is Jesus' brother," Jacobovici said, "it is amazing."
"Josua was a common name in those days," Kloner explained, "so it does not mean we are speaking of Jesus' brother, but if you are so interested, why don't you examine the sarcophagus of Jesus himself?"
Jacobovici did not see that coming! He and the professor went to the storage site of the Antiquities Authority in Bet Shemesh, where a long line of stone-carved sarcophaguses stood in the sun. Kloner pointed at one of them. Its inscription read, Josua bar Joseph.
"I asked Kloner, 'Why are you ignoring this?' 'Well,' he replied, '10 percent of the Jews then were named Josua, so it is insignificant.' 'OK,' I told him, 'and how many of the thousands sarcophaguses you found carry the name of Josua son of Joseph?' 'Two,' he said. 'One was bought in the Jerusalem market in the 1930's and no one knows where it came from, and this is the other and it was found in a burial cave in Talpiyot.'
"It turned out that 10 sarcophaguses were found there, and six of those were marked with the names of Mary; Mariamene; Matthew; Josua son of Joseph; Josa (Joseph, Jesus' brother); and Judah son of Josua.'And you did nothing with that?' I asked him. 'No,' Kloner said. 'They were common names. I would have treated the whole thing differently had we found the name of Maria Magdalene there.' Now, I knew that Kloner was an expert archaeologist, but the whole thing was odd and I could not forget about it."
When he returned to Canada, Jacobovici asked one of his assistants whether he had heard of Mariamene, the name that appeared on one of the six sarcophaguses.
"The man sat by his computer, Googled it, and I saw him go pale. I sat next to him and we saw that at a conference on the issue, in Harvard, it was established that Mariamene is Maria Magdalene. That was her name. This was established by François Bovon of the Harvard Divinity School.
"It was then that I realized that what Archaeologists know, theologians do not know, and vice versa, and that I must put their findings together piece by piece, like a detective. At that moment I decided that I am going for it, that I want to ask the questions and get some answers, whatever happens."
Jerusalem, 1980. Tractors are breaking grounds for a new neighborhood in Talpiyot. Uriel Maoz, then a child, lived across from that site. On a Friday afternoon, when he toured the construction site with his friends, he saw that the bulldozers exposed an entrance of a cave. The children approach it and discovered a hand-cut stone arch with a large triangle and a circle inside it carved on it.
Maoz told his parents and his mother, Rivka, called the Antiquities Authority. Among others, archaeologist Dr Shimon Gibson arrived there and found 10 sarcophaguses, some decorated with carved flowers, lying there in four niches. Six of them carried names.
Gibson carefully drew the inside of the cave, inch by inch, and the Antiquities Authority collected the tombs and took them to the Rockefeller Museum. The bones that were in them were collected, wrapped and it was decided, in agreement with the ultra-Orthodox community, that they will be examined and then reburied. Multi-story buildings started growing above the cave.
It took Prof. Kloner 16 years to publish the findings of the cave: the drawing, the sarcophaguses, and the inscriptions. Everyone is certain that they are authentic, dating back to the Second Temple. No one knows why it took so long to publish.
Shortly before the reports were published, a BBC TV crew arrives in Israel to make a documentary on the early days of Christianity. It was allowed to film the sarcophaguses. The film does not deal with them, but after it was aired, they were mentioned in an article published in Britain because, experts said, it was feared that Israel might be accused of hiding them.
The Kloner report, however, chose to ignore an interesting piece of information. According to Dr. Gibson's written account, there were three skulls on the ground, next to the sarcophaguses. This was very strange and rare, and nothing like it was ever found in other burial caves. Kloner does not even hint that this could be the family of Jesus Christ.
Jacobovici went on with his research, and held a series of meetings with statisticians. I would like to know what the probability is, he asked them, that the series of names indeed belonged to Jesus' family. Most of the experts he conferred with estimated that it does. Among others, he met with Prof. Andrey Feuerverger of the Department of Statistics at the University of Toronto, an expert on probabilities.
"I sat with him, and he listened to me and did not laugh," said Jacobovici. "He said, we cannot examine each name alone, but we can look at the entire combination. Suppose, he said, we placed the entire population of Jerusalem at the time, some 100,000 people, in a football pitch and a man with a loudspeaker called: all those named Josua, please stand up.
"Some 10 percent of the men, who are 50 percent of the total, stand up. We have 5,000 men standing. The loudspeaker guy now says: Only those whose father was named Joseph please remain standing. Then he calls on those among them whose mother was named Mary, then those who had brothers named Josa and James, and so on.
"Eventually, you will have very few people standing. I gave him the data I had and he worked on this for nearly a year. It turned out that in that period, 4% of the men were named Josua, and 25% of the women were called Mary (Maria, or Miriam). His model eventually established that the probability that this was not the burial cave of Jesus and his family is 1:600."
Simcha Jacobovici (Photo: AP)
While Feuerverger was busy with his calculations, Jacobovici went to Harvard to see Prof. Bovon, who established that Mariamene was Magdalene, based on a 700-years old text that was found in 1974 in an old monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. That was the most perfect copy ever found of The Acts of Philip, one of the books that were eliminated from the New Testament, where Philip’s sister, a woman named "Mariamene" was mentioned. Bovon believes this woman to be Mary Magdalene.
Medieval traditions maintain that Mary was deported from Judah and spent the rest of her days in France
(???!!! Perhaps Zefat???!!!), so how did her coffin arrive in Jerusalem? Prof. Bovon found that according to The Acts of Philip, she died in Jerusalem. This was all Jacobovici needed to know. He realized he was on the right track. He raised $5 million for the project, swept international TV channels in his enthusiasm, and made the production come true. Now, he went to Jerusalem.
Jacobovici's team started looking for the original cave 25 years after it was sealed. They examined dozens of decades-old construction plans and blueprints, comparing them with archaeological reports. They found that in the early 1980's, two caves were sealed and that, under the pressure of time and the ultra-Orthodox, one of them was never inspected. They also discovered that there were only 20 meters between the two, but were unable to find their precise location. This too, was solved miraculously, as legends go.
"In the course of my work, I met with a theologian, Prof. (James Tibor) of the North Carolina University. We first talked about the sarcophagus with the inscription of 'James bar Joseph ahuy deJosua' and Tibor thought it came from some cave in Silwan. When I said I didn’t know, he asked if I think it came from the Talpiyot cave. I had not given him the details of the story then, but later, when I did, he almost fell off his chair.
"When we started looking for the cave, everyone was certain it was impossible to reach because new condominiums were built right on its mouth. One day, Tibor called me and said, 'you won't believe this. I was in Jerusalem and told Dr. Gibson about the cave, and he said he was one of those who studied it. I said it was a shame it no longer exists, and Gibson said that, though he was not there for 27 years, he remembers it was right under the balcony of some house and can be reached.' It was my turn to fall off my chair: first the statistics, then Bovon, and now the cave!"
The team arrived on site with Dr. Gibson. They knew that following the demands of the ultra-Orthodox, the caves were equipped with ventilation pipes so that the souls if the dead could move freely. They found the pipes and received the house owner's permission to inspect them. They sent most advanced optic fibers down that pipe, but it turned out shut. "It is clogged," a team member said. "I believe the contractors just stuck a pipe there to please the rabbis."
Someone suggested we call a plumber. Time was pressing. The neighbors were becoming curious. Jacobovici, who wished to keep his inspection secret, urged his men to carry on. A plumber came and opened the pipe and now their advanced camera started sending pictures from six feet under. Jacobovici was shocked. "I have good news and bad news," he told his men. "The good news is that we reached an unknown cave with sarcophaguses inside that are intact, but the bad news is that this is not our cave."
And so they went looking for the other cave. Jacobovici and his people ran up and down that hill, when suddenly a blind woman approached them and said: "I know where that cave is. They built nothing over it. Children used to play in it, so they closed it."
"It was surreal," Jacobovici remembered. "That blind woman pointed us to the opening of the cave, where we found a cement piece attached to the stone. We lifted it, rolled the stone, and went in. The first thing I saw was Hebrew letters flying in the breeze we brought in."
It turned out that before the opening was sealed, the ultra-Orthodox used to 'bury' scripture there. Time and moisture made the paper crumble and when they opened the door, tiny pieces went flying in the sudden breeze.
The excited team members filmed and took pictures of the insides of the cave, until one of the neighbors called the Antiquity Authority, and an inspector came quickly, and ordered them to leave.
Now things became a bit more complicated. The Authority issued a court order against Jacobovici, forcing him to stay in Israel and he had a lot of explaining to do before the whole thing was settled.
"All in all," he said, "it was a one-time event. The authority was fully cooperative while we made the film, helping us with everything we asked." The team was allowed to inspect the sarcophaguses at all times, and it even removed some organic substance from Mariamene's and Josua's sarcophaguses for DNA tests.
"There were constant ups and downs. Many times we found ourselves in a dead-end and we were often frustrated. We were not sure how far we wanted to go with our tests. The DNA test, for example, was quite risky. It was a family tomb, so it may be assumed that Mariamene was buried there only because she was the wife of Jesus.
"We decided to run the test to establish that she was not genetically related to Jesus. We could have kept quiet, take no risks, and avoid a possible discovery that the two were siblings. It took months. The test was very complicated. We were very tense before the results arrived."
The results, however, were conclusive: Mariamene and Jesus were not blood relations. They were buried together probably because they were married. So, who is Judah bar Josua? Jacobovici: "We claim he is the son of Jesus, whom the tradition mentions as his favorite disciple, the one who sat in his lap during the Last Supper."
Jacobovici is certain that he found the grave of Jesus. "The only other possible option is that there was another man named Josua, who had a father named Joseph, a brother named Josa, and two close women, one named Maria and the other Mariamene. This is the only other option."
So how do you explain the fact that Israeli archaeologists missed this entirely?
"You are an Israeli, so you are familiar with the Israeli nature: 'leave me alone; it cannot be.'"
Was there a deliberate decision not to expose the facts?
"A conspiracy, you mean? I do not think so, but they kept telling me: 'You might be starting an irresponsible move here. How can you tell the Christians that we found the bones of Christ?' I believe this is something unconscious. People do not want to study Jesus. I do not know why no one made the extra two steps and went to the statistics department, for example, to examine this.
"I believe this is ideological. This was how they treated all our other findings: they claimed that the crosses we found on the sarcophaguses mean nothing; that the names mean nothing; that their combination is insignificant; that the DNA test is insufficient. I find it hard to accept that this was accidental, that there is nothing political involved.
"Besides, we felt that our job was to start, not complete the investigation. We want to present our initial findings and say: OK. Our job is done. Now it is the job of the professionals to carry on with the tests. They should examine things without ideology, without theology, and without ego. They should look and see. For me, the arduous journey has come to end, but the real work does not end with the film. It starts there."
Shot for some two years in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and other sites, the film shows a comprehensive reconstruction of the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago. Salah Bachri, son of Muhammad Bachri, plays Jesus; Ronit Elkabetz plays his mother, Mary; Hadar Razon plays Mary Magdalene.
Reactions abroad, Jacobovici said, were enthusiastic. Among other things, they received the positive view of Prof. Michael Stone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who studies the Second Temple era.
"He saw the film, was positively impressed, and said that work should start now. To me, this is a very important remark because the man is an authority. At the same time, I do not know what will happen now because I was never involved in anything like this.
"I know that Prof. Kloner is still very skeptical. Last week, they talked to him from CBS and asked whether he believes they should take DNA samples from Jesus' tomb. 'How can you take DNA from God?' he asked. I don’t know what he meant exactly, but it is clear to me that he is not taking this whole thing seriously, which is a shame."