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The Jesus Hoax

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The headline on CNN captured the question: Major Revelation or Titanic Fraud? And the first thing to say about the claims by "King of the World" James Cameron and "investigative journalist" Simcha Jacobovichi to have single-handedly debunked Christianity is that they're hardly the first to try. For 200 years, frauds and charlatans have popped up every few months claiming to "prove" that the Bible is true or that it's false. As it happens, Cameron and Jacobovichi claimed only last summer to have "proved" the Exodus. Well, which is it? Either their first documentary is false, or this one is false. Of course, they don't care. They profit either way. (In fact, both are false.)

But for those who do care, here are the problems with their argument. First, at the risk of further promoting their hucksterism, the background. The filmmakers claim that burial boxes found 27 years ago outside Jerusalem contain the remains of Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene. DNA evidence "proves" that Mary was his wife and that they sired a son also found in the cave. If true, this would indicate that Jesus was never resurrected from the grave, thereby debunking a central claim of Christianity.

I'm not even a Christian, but I did live in the neighborhood where this cave was found, and I've spent most of the last ten years spelunking in far more important caves, from Jerusalem to Baghdad, looking at the relationship between the Bible and archaeology. Here's why they're wrong.

1. Caves like the ones where the ossuaries were discovered are commonplace in the area and were very familiar features of this neighborhood in the 1st century B.C.E. and C.E. The archaeologist who traveled with me for WALKING THE BIBLE and WHERE GOD WAS BORN, Avner Goren, made the fascinating point to me today that bodies used to be buried in groups but with the introduction of individualism from Greece, they started burying people in single boxes and labeling them. Basically, the bodies would be buried for a year, the family would come back and collect the bones and put them in an ossuary (a stone box). Then they would take the box out once a year and have a memorial service, as Jews still do today with candle lighting.

2. A family from Nazareth would not be buried in Jerusalem. Jewish custom holds that a body should be buried within 24 hours. I recently heard of a family that hired a private plane to get a body from Cleveland to Jerusalem in time. It would have been impossible to get a body from Nazareth, in the Galilee, to Jerusalem in this time period. Also, there's no way for a family to tend a grave this far away. So the idea of a multi-generational family tomb for Jesus in Jerusalem makes no sense. Even the archaeologist who discovered the cave originally, Amos Kloner, has dismissed the show as "nonsense."

3. The names on the ossuaries are very common. As Avner pointed out, 21 percent of names of women are Mary; Joseph and Jesus (Joshua) are among the top four male names. The presence of these names in a tomb would not have been rare. The name Jesus has been found in dozens of tombs over the years. Further, we have no evidence that this is a family tomb; it could have been a communal tomb, or a neighborhood tomb."There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb," Kloner said. "They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE."

4. The DNA evidence that Jesus was not connected to the Mary buried in the tomb does not prove anything, other than they are not related matrilnearly. For all we know, they could have been related patrilinearly. Or, they could never have met. There is no evidence the female body belonged to someone who was "married" to anyone else in the tomb. There is no evidence she was the mother of anyone else in the tomb. And we can be sure they checked that! So the claim that Jesus fathered a son with the "Mary" in the tomb is bogus.

Avner is a contemporary of Amos Kloner and has known him for decades. "It takes courage to say that the names on these ossuaries were very common," Avner said, "especially when it might benefit him to say otherwise." As for the filmmakers: "There is something cheap about playing on the emotions of people."

And therein is the truth of this tale: This exploitation of quasi-science is hardly new, but it's still tawdry. The bottom line: There is more truth in Dan Brown's fiction than in James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovichi's fact.

Update: To watch a clip of me debating Jacobovichi, click here.