The Jesus Tomb Meets the Internet

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Bruce Feiler New York Times Columnist. Bestselling Author. Dad. My latest book, "The Secrets Of Happy Families," is a bold playbook for families today.

When the story of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is written, it will have an interesting asterisk: As the first of a long list of biblical scams to be perpetrated in the age of the blogosphere. It was a little over a week ago that first broke the news that James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici would be releasing a documentary that claimed to find the burial spot of Jesus of Nazareth, his brother, his mother, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son. They called their claim "the greatest archaeological discovery of all time." Within 24 hours, scores of archaeologists and observers (including me) posted early rebuttals of the claims.

Few had seen the work, because it was embargoed and findings were released at a press conference at "an undisclosed location." The showmanship worked, and for a time they commanded the MSM, including "The Today Show." But by midday on Monday, the rapid file-sharing of the Internet began to create a sort of wiki-brushback. Bloggers from Jerusalem to Dallas, started pointing out the flaws, exaggerations, and fantastic leaps of logic that made the claim untenable. Think this doesn't matter? USA Today, for one, scaled down a large piece on the matter once they learned it had no validity and buried their story on the final page of the paper. Even Discovery added a disclaimer and asked Ted Koppel to narrate a discussion following the airing.

This process was messy, of course. After appearing on CNN, ABC, and debating Jacobovici on CBS, I posted a piece on Huffington Post on Tuesday morning calling the operation a hoax. The piece was both widely quoted and attacked. A week later, I have now seen the show, read the book, and followed the role of the blogosphere. Here's where I think we stand.

1. Not a single archaeologist has spoken in favor of the two central claims of the show: first, that the statistical chance that this collection of names on burial ossuaries in Jerusalem does not belong to the family of Jesus is 600 to 1; and second, that the fact that DNA residue found in the ossuaries of "Jesus, son of Joseph" and "Mariamne," whom the filmmakers claim is Mary Magdalene, are not related matrilinearly means they "must have been married" and had the child in the tomb.

As for the first claim, Jacobovici said in his debate with me and elsewhere that we should not ask archaeologists to do statistics. We should ask statisticians. By week's end, even the statistician he relies on the film, Andrey Feuerverger, was backing off his claims, stating that he only ran math based on the information given him. "It is not in the purview of statistics to conclude whether or not this tombsite is that of the New Testament family. Any such conclusion much more rightfully belongs to the purview of biblical historical scholars who are in a much better position to assess the assumptions entering into the computations." He then adds, "In this respect I now believe that I should not assert any conclusions connecting this tomb with any hypothetical one of the NT family."

As for second claim, the evidence that the film and book produce is almost comically low. The film asked scientists to perform DNA tests not on any bones, but on "residue" found in only two of the ossuaries, the one belonging to "Jesus" and the one belonging to the Mary they claim to have been Mary Magdalene. That's all. The DNA concluded they did not come from the same family. There is no evidence the two ever met, no evidence they are the same age, no evidence they were married, no evidence they had any children. None. As Charles Pelegrino, one of the filmmakers, explained to me in the green room at CNN: They didn't even test the residue of ossuary they claim to have belonged to the child. He thinks they could do so "in about twenty years."

Dr. Carney Matheson, the scientist from Lakehead University who did the DNA testing for the filmmakers, has pointed out publicly that his work was mangled. "The only conclusions we made was that these two sets [from the "Yeshua" and "Mariamne" ossuaries] were not maternally related," he said. "To me it sounds like absolutely nothing." He added, "There is a statement in the film that has been taken out of context. While marriage is a possibility, other relationships like father and daughter, paternal cousins, sister-in-law or indeed two unrelated individuals are also possible."

Yet another of the archaeologists in the show, the one who analyzed the names, has also now declared herself outraged. "I think it's completely mishandled. I am angry," said Tal Ilan. [To see a list of all the professional reactions, click here.] The bottom line: In a field notoriously splintered with academic rivalries, there is unanimity that the claims cannot be proven. Sure they are possible in an abstract way, but they hardly rise to the level of conviction presented in the film, the book, and the press conference.

2. One signature of the blogosphere in its recent role as check and balance to the MSM has been the ability of unexpected sources to add small pieces of information that individually have no power but collectively with other such pieces of information become important. That happened in this case with remarkable swiftness. One small example: After joining this debate in a vocal way, I received one such tip from Kentucky pointing out that Jacobovici was involved in directing the film about the James ossuary. That find, a few years ago, was announced with the similar claim that it was the "biggest archaeological discovery of all time." The Israeli Antiquities authority has declared the find a forgery and the person who unveiled the ossuary to the world is now on trial for fraud. To his credit, Jacobovici does say the James ossuary was fake (he skirts over his role in promoting it), but then proceeds to dismiss the claim of forgery and link the James ossuary to the Jesus ossuary in question. Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who did the original excavation that Jacobovici is reinterpreting, has dismissed this assertion definitively (the tenth ossuary had no inscription, he says flatly) and called the conclusions the filmmakers have reached "nonsense." The point is: The information that Jacobovici directed a film with similar extravagant claims a few years that has now been proclaimed a forgery was left out of the original press about the film. Within hours, the blogosphere added that to the mix.

3. While the blogosphere deserves a lot of credit for deflating this Hindenberg, I was struck, as a newcomer, by its ferocity. I, for one, was criticized roundly - not least for being a Christian apologist. Fair enough, I was doing criticizing as well. Yet a few clicks of the Internet would have revealed that I'm not Christian; I'm Jewish. I'm not a Fundamentalist; I've written widely calling on liberals to get over their knee-jerk hostility to all things Scriptural and take back the Bible for their own purposes. I love archaeological debunkings of the Bible (if you're looking for great one, try Baruch Halpern's David's Secret Demons). The problem I had then, and have now, with this project is not that they're challenging the Bible but that they're grandstanding against the Bible in such a flamboyant fashion with such flimsy evidence.

In the end, the wiki-critique was a bit messy coming together (and individual parts of it were done by the MSM itself), but it was efficient. By cobbling together different voices around the world, a unified narrative emerged. If that process sounds familiar, it's a lot like how the Bible was put together, just a lot slower and not in public.