Jesus Documentary Stirs Heated Debate

Filmmakers Simcha Jacobovici, left, and James Cameron sit behind a stone ossuary that they say may once have held the remains of Jesus and his family, at press conference in New York, Monday, Feb. 26, 2007.
To resolve the question of whether the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have rested in two limestone boxes discovered in a Jerusalem suburb, the filmmakers of a new documentary took novel approaches — including turning to statisticians.

Some religious scholars and archaeologists, however, have not been convinced by the numbers.

Filmmakers showed the two boxes on Monday while promoting their documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and airing on the Discovery Channel on March 4.

It argues that 10 first-century bone boxes, called ossuaries, discovered in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family.

One of the boxes even bears the title, "Judah son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus had a son. The claim that Jesus even had an ossuary contradicts the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

A panel of scholars that joined the filmmakers Monday at the New York Public Library addressed that criticism and others.

James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that while literal interpreters of the Bible say Jesus' physical body rose from the dead, "one might affirm resurrection in a more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind."

But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Christianity "has always understood the physical resurrection of Christ to be at the very center of the faith."

Cameron, who won an Academy Award for directing "Titanic," said he was excited to be associated with the Jesus film, which was directed by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.

"We don't have any physical record of Jesus' existence," he said. "So what this film ... shows is for the first time tangible, physical, archaeological and in some cases forensic evidence."

He said that to a layman's eye "it seemed pretty darn compelling."

Jacobovici denied that his film is an attack on one of the basic tenets of Christianity, that Jesus rose from the dead.

"I'm not a theologian. I'm not attacking anybody," Jacobovici told CBS' The Early Show. "I'm a reporter. I'm reporting a set of facts. … It's a fact the tomb was found. It's a fact that Jesus son of Joseph was buried in this tomb. There's two Marys, there's a Judah son of Jesus. These are facts. So what we're doing is reporting saying, hey world, pay attention, don't discuss theology. First, let's discuss the facts and then let's see the implications on theology."

Jacobovici and archaeologist Charles Pellegrino also are the authors of "The Jesus Family Tomb," newly published by HarperSan Francisco. Jacobovici said that a name on one of the ossuaries, Mariamene, is a major support to the argument that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family. In early Christian texts, Mariamene is a name of Mary Magdalene, he said.

Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in the documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.