Can we call Lost Tomb a hoax now?

jesus tombQuestion: does anyone other than the good folks behind the Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus believe the claims that this crypt contained the bones of Jesus Christ? I have yet to see any independent confirmation anywhere, or anyone (other than the filmmakers) expressing a single bit of confidence that any of this could be true.

Considering that everyone (other than the reporters covering the matter and the filmmakers) is saying this thing is bogus, what are we to make of the coverage? It’s a legitimate story that this film is being made and makes the claims it does, but at what point does it tip over into a hoax?

A second-day story by Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman appropriately carries the headline “‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt.” Cooperman is a day behind the coverage, but that extra time seems to have given him a chance to write a more balanced article and find sources outside the usual suspects:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.

Scorn for the Discovery Channel’s claim to have found the burial place of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and — most explosively — their possible son came not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.

“I’m not a Christian. I’m not a believer. I don’t have a dog in this fight,” said William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars. “I just think it’s a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated.”

Most of the coverage has been somewhat skeptical of the initial claims. Reporters generally understand that this is essentially a publicity stunt.

But if the only people who believe these claims are the filmmakers, why did reporters treat it initially with the premise that one side claims one set of facts leads to a certain conclusion while another side disputes that conclusion? It seems rather clear that the side of the filmmakers consists of just them and their pets. (National Review‘s Dave Konig has released new information that somehow the filmmakers forgot to mention Monday.)

One answer to that question could be contained in the following quote from a Laurie Goodstein story in The New York Times:

“This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. “One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don’t know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call ‘fantastic archaeology.’”

Professor Stager said he had not seen the film but was skeptical.

Mr. Cameron said he had been “trepidatious” about becoming involved in the project but got engaged out of “great passion for a good detective story,” not to offend and not to cash in.

“I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century,” he said. “It’s absolutely not a publicity stunt. It’s part of a very well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way that makes sense, with proper documentation.”

Note Stager’s statement that he has not seen the film. Has anyone seen the film? Is there a difference between “not seen the film” and “had not been allowed to see the film”? Reporters might want to ask that question and clarify it for all of us.

For a bit of historical perspective, check out an Atlantic Monthly essay by former editor Cullen Murphy. It documents the state of Jesus studies in 1986.

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  • Mike

    Not before seeing the movie first! Check out the OFFICIAL website:

  • Dennis Colby

    I have yet to read a blog entry about this story without encountering a comment from someone urging us all to “check out the official website.” Discovery Channel: Enough.

  • J.Jones

    “before viewing the film or reading the book. … the day the book became available. Even though both the book and the film are popular presentations they are worth hearing/reading before passing judgment.” — James Tabor

    This is always Tabor’s refrain: “Buy my book, buy the dvd, buy the study guide, buy my documentary before passing judgment.” He’s played us for the fool once too often.

  • Martha

    The real marvel to me is the revelation that James Cameron can’t speak English. (I guess I should have put that as ‘MARVEL at the ASTOUNDING REVELATION of a LONG-HIDDEN SECRET that will turn the WORLD of HOLLYWOOD upside-down!!!!’)

    “Theologist”? “Trepidatious”? Somebody get this man a speechwriter – or some remedial English classes – stat!

  • Eric W

    Perhaps this will have the unintended effect (unintended by James Cameron and his fellow anti-Christians, at least) of making Christ’s resurrection a topic of discussion at a level that it wouldn’t otherwise have been this Easter among non-Christians, and thus give Christians an opportunity again to explain why efforts to find Christ’s body and/or His “spouse” and “children” are futile. When this is the best that the anti-Christians can do to try to disprove the resurrection and/or Jesus’s celibacy and His spouseless and childless death on the cross, then it may have the reverse effect – i.e., to cause people to hear the case for the Gospel and the resurrection.

    We can at least hope.

  • Chris Rosebrough

    We can already debate and refute the claims of this film because they’ve already published the ‘evidence’ for their claims on their websites.

    I am a theologian and teacher within the chruch and have reviewed the statistical and DNA evidence published by Cameron and Simcha and it is VERY EASY to refute.

    I’ve written a rebuttal to their evidence and it is published at

    Please take the time to read it. I believe it is important that we tackle their claims head on otherwise they could easily assert that we are avoiding the evidence.

  • Jennifer Emick

    Short answer? No, you can’t call it a hoax. Even glossing over the fact that all of the dismissal has been done before the case has even been presented, calling this a hoax implies fakery or deceit, which is not evident.

  • holmegm

    >calling this a hoax implies fakery or deceit, which
    >is not evident.

    Well, the alternative to “hoax” is perhaps even more unkind to the filmmakers.

    If they *really* believe that “DNA says this body is probably related to that body, therefore we ‘know’ that one of them is Jesus!”, then, well … let’s just say some remedial education is in order.

  • Chris Bolinger

    As our friend Mike reminded us, the name of the game for Cameron and the Discovery Channel is viewers. Don’t rush to judgment until you see the movie. Even if you think that it’s a hoax, you gotta see the movie!

    An old show biz motto is: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Cameron and company, having watched the near hysteria over “The Da Vinci Code”, did a deft job of working the press to get the publicity machine into high gear. Now it’s running on its own.

  • Martha

    I have no intention of slogging through that frankly scary website – did you see the introductory film with obligatory voiceover-of-doom and pop-up graphics? – so I hope some kind-hearted reader can answer this burning question:

    Given that this family plot seems to have everyone there (mom, missus, junior, uncles galore), where’s Joseph? As in, ‘Joseph the father of the guy who says he’s the son of Joseph’? If the whole family are there, where’s poor old grandpa Joe? If he’s supposed to be home in Nazareth, then why aren’t Mary and the brothers there too?

    Poor St. Joseph – neglected once again!

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  • Dennis Colby


    The case is presented in detail at the Web site set up by the Discovery Channel. I have yet to hear of a single scholar other than James Tabor who takes it seriously. All of the methodologies used to arrive at the conclusion reached by Cameron and Co. are deeply flawed. This is PT Barnum-esque theatrics at its finest.

  • Stephen A.

    I recently viewed about good-sized snippet of the film “The Secret,” and then I read everything I could about it online. When I told someone that it was apparently a combination of New Age pseudo-science and “magic wishes”, she disagreed, then said, “You need to watch the whole movie before passing judgement on it.” Of course, I was urged to buy it on the Official Website. (I refuse. Watch most of it on YouTube instead. Prepare to laugh. Hard.)

    As for the Jesus tomb hoax, it will fade quietly without much fanfare, much like the James ossuary hoax (which is, incredibly, being brought up again by some in the media, as if it was never proven to be a hoax!)

    As for news coverage of this hoax, let’s try these headlines:

    “Bones of Muhammed found in tomb near Dome of the Rock. Wife, children found in same tomb.”

    How about “Scholar Says Evidence Suggests Buddha Did Not Exist.”

    Reprecussions, anyone? “Balance” in coverage? I think not. What would happen is, in the first case, it would never make it to print, out of sheer fear. In the second case, the media would heap skepticism and doubt on the credibility of the source spreading the story – as should be happening in this Jesus tomb case.

    Frankly, these other examples would simply not happen. Because Bible-believing Christians are such good punching bags, the bizarre hoaxes are treated a lot more reverentially by the MSM, as if destroying the faith of those “narrow-minded” people was somehow a noble and positive thing. (I’m sure some liberals will counter this by saying it’s just “corporate bias” or some such foolishness. Nope. This is pure bias.)

  • Jennifer Emick

    Whether anyone takes it seriously (or whther it is even possible) is irrelevant- a hoax is a deliberate falsehood, which this clearly is not.

  • Stephen A.

    Jennifer, how on earth can you say that it’s NOT a deliberate falsehood? Do you know for a FACT that it’s not a deliberate hoax?

    Granted, we don’t know for a fact that it IS one, but the evidence thus far that’s been revealed – along with common sense – tells us it is.

    There have been too many deliberate hoaxes in the past – the Hitler diaries and the James ossuary, to name two – for us to not be very, very skeptical here.

    Given the fact that liberal theologians are swarming around this documentary, and are featured in it (as I’ve seen in the previews on TV) reporters need to question the motives of the filmmakers.

  • Stephen A.

    I’d be interested in a follow-up on the coverage of this docudrama and the pseudo-theological debate that followed it this past Sunday.

  • Stephen A.

    India is apparently more conservative and Christians there have more “power” than in the supposedly fundamentalist-ruled USA:

    India won’t air ‘Jesus Tomb’ documentary
    The documentary, directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron, had its worldwide premier on Sunday.

    The Discovery Channel has announced that it will not broadcast the “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” in India after protests from various Christian groups, led by the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, the India Catholic News Service reports.

    The documentary, directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron, had its worldwide premier on Sunday.

    Protesters said the documentary, which claims to have found the burial place of Jesus, his alleged wife, Mary Magdalene, and their son, Judas, trivializes the Christian faith.

    Father Babu Joseph, the spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said in a statement against the film, “the documentary is not based on proven historical fact. Historically speaking, evidences closer to the event have more authenticity than evidences dished out after 2000 years. According to Biblical and non-Biblical sources, it has been believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that is the basis of entire Christian faith and tradition.”

    Numerous archeological experts, such as the internationally renowned Holy Land archeologist, Professor Amos Kloner have also criticized the documentary. Kloner, who revealed the findings of the very same dig 10 years ago, criticized the filmmakers’ marketing strategy and said it is not based on proof, the Jerusalem Post reported last week.

    Kloner said a similar film was released 11 years ago, and the new film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, is simply a renewed effort to create controversy in order to make a profit.

    The Discovery Channel’s Delhi office reportedly expressed regret for offending the Christian community.

  • Al

    To the ‘extreme theologist’

    While I admire your defensiveness at what seemed to be another “hoax”, I noted that your website made rebuttals against the “assumptions” before the film was even aired. To your suggestion of the lack of evidence of Jose as Jesus’ brother, read Mark chapter 6 and recalculate your odds. And I think if you can believe that a man can float up to heaven body and all, Phillip can preach to whomever he likes. And if you mean to discount all the gnostic gospels on the basis of Jerome’s selections, I would just like to hear where those dozens of alternative biblical accounts came from. Your website just further proves that you are making the assumptions, not the Discovery Channel, and reveals that Christians are afraid to face the truth that despite Jesus of Nazareth’s amazing teachings, he might just be a real person like you and I, with a body, a family, and a tomb. As a follower of Jesus, you might want to try at being a little more open minded and not so rash to pass judgements over others whose arguments are just as (if not more) credible than your own.