With fanfare befitting its subject, The Discovery Channel presented its 2007 pre-Easter special titled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The program was directed by James Cameron (“Titanic”) and Simcha Jacobovici, the latter being also co-author with Charles Pellegrino of the new book The Jesus Family Tomb. This media sensation stems from the 1980 discovery during routine construction work in Jerusalem of a first-century family burial plot. Inside the tomb were bone-boxes (called “ossuaries”) on which were inscribed the names “Mary,” “Mariamne,” “Matthew,” “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Joseph” and “Judah son of Jesus.”
Because these names were so common in first-century Palestine, the 1980 discovery aroused almost no scholarly interest. But by mixing the ho-hum bare facts with a generous stirring of imagination, the above-mentioned producers and authors have cranked out a spectacular tale of the very family tomb of Jesus Christ, featuring Mary Magdalene as his wife and their previously-unknown son Judah. (“Matthew” is supposedly Mary’s unknown relative who somehow got included.)
The actual facts are far less sensational. These six names were all popular at the time these folks lived and died. Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner says that of 900 period tombs uncovered around Jerusalem, 71 have included someone named “Jesus” and at least one other housed a “Jesus son of Joseph.” (James Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary says that he has a first-century letter from Palestine written by one “Jesus” to another “Jesus” and witnessed by a third “Jesus.”) One of every five females in first-century Palestine was named “Mary” (of which “Mariamne” is but another form).
The Discovery Channel boasts DNA testing in support of its story. In fact, its DNA tests prove at most that this particular “Mariamne” and this particular “Jesus” were not related through their mothers. There is absolutely no real evidence, DNA or otherwise, that “Mariamne” is Mary Magdalene; that this “Jesus” is Jesus Christ; that either of these individuals was married to anyone, much less to each other; or that “Judah” is their son.
Besides all that, the New Testament portrays Jesus’ family living in Nazareth of Galilee at the opposite end of Palestine from Jerusalem. By all indications, the family was poor and was unlikely to have a family tomb anywhere. In addition, Jesus’ opponents (but not his family or his followers, to our knowledge) referred to him as the “son of Joseph.” According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both Jesus’ mother and his stepfather were informed by angels that Jesus’ conception by Mary was divinely generated apart from human agency.
The Discovery Channel’s website claims that its presentation poses no threat to Christian faith since it still allows for Jesus to have experienced a “spiritual” resurrection and ascension into heaven. Suffice it to say that neither the Old Testament, intertestamental Jewish literature, Jesus’ enemies or his followers thought in terms of resurrection without the body. This was why Jesus’ opponents expended special effort to guard the tomb in which his corpse was actually placed, requesting and receiving from Pilate a Roman guard specifically assigned to preventing Jesus’ disciples from stealing the body then claiming he was raised from the dead.
They had no need to worry. As it happened, the disciples required the multiple testimony of others and numerous personal appearances by Jesus (including his eating fish and pointing out his crucifixion scars) before they were convinced themselves. Once convinced, however, they paid with their lives rather than recant their own sure testimony that Jesus truly died, was buried and arose from the dead.
James Cameron is a master film-maker and Jacobovici/Pellegrino are skilled authors. Their problem is not any lack of expertise in their respective crafts. Their problem is the fanciful nature of the story they so skillfully tell. For in the bright light of day it is pure fiction. Far from a factual documentary supported by credible evidence, it is only a conjecture built on a supposition resting on a speculation.