The story of Christ goes on

jesus tombIn the aftermath of the Jesus tomb story, it looks like most Christians still believe in what the Bible says about Jesus Christ and few are the worse for the controversy. GetReligion reader Stephen A. urged us yesterday to comment on the actual showing of The Lost Tomb of Jesus Saturday night, and I regret to say that I missed the show. Fortunately, others did see it, but overall I was generally disappointed in the lack of media attention to the film’s premiere.

So be it. The news focused on what the film allegedly revealed and the media felt it was worth the attention. I want to highlight one of the better mainstream pieces on the film by Time‘s David Van Biema. Rather than writing about the controversy, Van Biema writes about why this is happening more and more often. And you’d never guess it, but it’s largely due to Dan Brown:

Then there is what Publishers Weekly senior religion editor Lynn Garrett calls the Da Vinci Code effect. “Speculative histories were out there before Dan Brown wrote,” says Garrett. “But they didn’t make the best-seller lists and their authors didn’t go on The Daily Show.” Or receive a million-dollar paycheck, as was rumored in a recent case.

But Garrett cautions that “it’s not simply following the dollar. Writing popularly, I think, they feel freer.” Scholars are not working more speculatively because Dan Brown made money. His success allows them to write profitably from their adventurous hearts. Mark Tauber, vice president of HarperSanFrancisco, which publishes many of them (HSF did Family Tomb), notes that these academics came of age during the translation of the Nag Hammadi “library” and the Dead Sea Scrolls, troves that opened a window to unorthodox faith during and after Jesus’ life that the Bible and church fathers only hinted at or condemned. The authors can now transmit that vision to a Da Vinci-primed public. Says HSF editorial director Michael Maudlin: “Maybe we have enough evidence to say that our understanding of what happened back then was too simple. Dan Brown didn’t invent it, but he made it sexy.” Says Tauber: “I think it’s wonderful.”

Well, perhaps so. But like many wonderful (and not so wonderful) things, it’s moving forward to a herky, sometimes unintelligible beat. The kind that makes one nostalgic for the deliberate, footnoted revolutionism of Father Brown.

For a review of the film, check out The Journal News (of White Plains, N.Y.) religion reporter Gary Stern’s On Religion. He writes that the film was “very compelling for an hour or so. Increasingly hard to follow (and believe) through the second hour.”

Here’s more:

During the last 40 minutes or so, the show takes on a “Da Vinci Code” feel, contending that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were quite possibly married and had a child. The show also argues that the early church fathers covered up Mary Magdalene’s role as the founder of the Christian faith.

One of several dramatizations showed Mary Magdalene and her son holding one another and weeping during the crucifixion.

I was pretty burned out by the time the whole thing ended, but I stuck around for a very interesting and sometimes tense post-show analysis hosted by Ted Koppel. He really tried to put Jacobovici on the spot, questioning his methods and reasoning. He also let two academics take some real shots at the film.

Jonathan Reed, professor of religion at the University of La Verne and the co-author of “Excavating Jesus,” called the show “archeo-porn.” Ouch. Jacobovici did not like it.

Well, there you have it. I won’t be lining up to purchase the film on DVD, but maybe others should because the whole episode is a nice reminder for religious reporters the next time dramatic revelations are made about religious archaeology.

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  • Jerry

    In an era where dramatic shows on all sorts of topics have replaced serious scholarship and scientific rigor, it’s not surprising that such shows as this one exist.

    In the end, Jacobovici kept insisting that he was simply trying to shine a light on a provocative theory. He seemed genuinely baffled by why the discovery of the ossuaries, way back in 1980, has received so little attention.

    Taking him at his word, the media thrives on sensationalizing the news. A sober discussion of the ossuaries with mundane and more speculative theories would not sell soap. I was in an earthquake with some damage many years ago. I got a call from a relative who wondered if I were still alive because of the scenes of destruction she had witnessed. Of course, those scenes were true. But the distortion came because of the media sensationalizing the event by leaving out the vast areas that had not been touched.

    Or for another example, look at how medical findings are reported. Something can be touted as worthless or a cure, but when you go back to the original story, it’s no where near that dramatic.

    And, of course, dramatic religious “discoveries” are subject to the same process.

  • Stephen A.

    I watched the entire show and the one-hour discussion that followed. Opinion aside, the film was nicely done, was very dramatic and made the archeological exploration very exciting, despite the fact that even the non-archeologist like me could see the flaws in procedure and reasoning from a mile away.

    Like Stern, I have to give Koppel a LOT of credit for his excellent and professional grilling of the filmmakers, since they bore the burden of proof here. And kudos to them for putting themselves on the line after the show. Koppel was ready with documents from those who were interviewed in the film who thought they were misquoted or had their quotes taken out of context, most notably, the statistician. Dr. Tabor was a vocal defender of the film, as was Jacobovici. The archeologists (one using that incredibly biting “archeo-porn” line) were given ample time to point out fallacies in logic and the general sloppiness in reasoning the filmmaker used to connect A, B and C.

    That said, personally, I think the theologians blew it. The Catholic priest simply said his faith wasn’t shaken, and appeared to disparage science. The woman from the Seminary (forgot her name) was the one who pointed out the logical leaps and the fact that the film made assumptions, then worked backwards to prove them true – like when they tested DNA samples and, when the two (belonging to “Jesus” an “Magdalene”) didn’t match, the film concludes that they must have been married. A LOT of logical leaps in that one.

    I’m shocked that none of them used the “G” word: Gnostic. I agree that the second half of this film was transparently Gnostic in its approach, constantly citing the Acts of Philip as a reference. Koppel grilled Jacobovici about the use of the powerful tool of reenactment to lend credence to the idea that Jesus and Mary’s SON was at the cross – an EXCELLENT insight into media’s power. Jacobovici’s response that he used an authentically Jewish-looking actor for Jesus missed the point, and was his worst response.

    Now for my view: I think this really was a remarkable and significant discovery, but not of the tomb of Jesus. My theory is that this could very well have been a 3rd or 4th century Gnostic forgery of Jesus’ tomb, complete with wife and perhaps a child. Including Matthew may have been an apparent attempt to include the Gospel writer – a stretch, but not for ancient Gnostics, perhaps. The symbol on the tomb may, I believe, turn out to be a Gnostic one.

    The difference between myself and the filmmaker is that I won’t set out to PROVE this theory by finding only evidence that backs it up and ignoring the rest. And I would (if I did pursue it) let the evidence take me where it led me. That makes for a good scientist, a good archeologist and a good documentary filmmaker (as well as a good reporter.) Sorry this was so long.

  • Ed

    I was disappointed that the after-program didn’t spend more time focusing in on the central issue – the importante of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I was more disappointed that of the three theologians, only one of them had the guts to agree with the Apostle Paul’s assertion in I Cor. 15 that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the lynchpin upon which the rest of the Christian faith hangs. For the woman on the left, that doesn’t really surprise me. She was the Liberal (theologically speaking) representative, but for a Roman Catholic Priest (and by all indications a theologically orthodox one) to not jump in on that point shocked and saddened me.

    Was anyone else absolutely flabbergasted when the scientific advisor said that (and I’m paraphrasing here), “most theologians over the course of church history think that it wasn’t a physical resurrection.” At that point I knew the level of this man’s scholarship, at least on this topic – sloppy.

  • Thadeus

    I watched the show and was glad to see that humour can still run with religion. I laughed during the entire thing. Everything that they, heretics, showed is nothing but hypotheticals. But for those who do not have strong Faith could be easily persuaded by it.
    As on Orthodox Christian, we believe, well know, that the actual “tomb” of Christ is not as important nor a needed identity because for us, we believe in the Risen Lord, who ascended into Heaven, along with his mother, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary.

  • Dennis Colby

    Slightly off-topic, but why would Gnostics want to create a forgery to suggest that Jesus had a wife and son? Wouldn’t most Gnostics argue the opposite point, given their dislike of the material world and disapproval of procreation?

    Anyway, I think it’s interesting how much of a bust this turned out to be. The week after the “shocking and sensational” discovery, who’s talking about it? The Anna Nicole Smith story had more legs.

  • Thadeus

    “The Anna Nicole Smith story had more legs.”

    Ha ha ha, thats great!!!! (and sooo true)

  • alexei


    It’s not that simple. Many Gnostics showed their ‘disdain’ for the material world through out-and-out hedonism.

    Not only that, but I believe their gospels suggest that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene. So there’s plenty of reasons for them to create a forgery.

  • James Davis

    Dan apparently missed my newspaper’s two-part coverage of the show on March 3. I talked to archaeologists and New Testament scholars, and found that just about everyone who wasn’t involved with producing the program was scornful of it. Our radio and TV writer, Tom Jicha, was among them: In his review, he said that if you took a drink every time the narrator said “perhaps,” you’d have been bleary-eyed by the halfway mark.

  • dpulliam


    I’m sorry I miss your paper’s coverage. Can you share with us a link?

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Ed asked,

    Was anyone else absolutely flabbergasted when the scientific advisor said that (and I’m paraphrasing here), “most theologians over the course of church history think that it wasn’t a physical resurrection.”

    My response: I saw that too, and it took me aback. Most mainstream theologians today might take that position, but over the course of church history, such a position has definitely been in the minority. I think most theologians of the past 2000 years have affirmed Jesus’ physical resurrection.

    My favorite statement on the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection is a poem by John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”

  • Al

    You know what I have found so amazing about this website? I have never found so many lay archeologists and scholars in my life all talking to each other. I don’t think that the gnostics would waste their time with something like that. I’d give them a bit more credit. And we will never know for sure whether this is the tomb of Jesus or not because despite the scholarship of the esteemed commentators on this website, none of us were there and the majority of you are so biased with Christian rhetoric, I seem to think that if Jesus stood right in front of you, you would say it was a hoax, too.

  • Camassia

    Not only that, but I believe their gospels suggest that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene. So there’s plenty of reasons for them to create a forgery.

    The idea that the Gnostic Gospels say that comes from a tendentious modern interpretation. One or two of them do describe Mary Magdalene as a favored disciple, but they don’t actually call her his wife, and they certainly don’t say anything about kids.

  • Stephen A.

    Al, I’m not sure that either you or I know the full credentials of everyone here, and frankly, if a filmmaker can play theologian, anyone can.

    As noted above, I think inventing “proof” of a married Jesus would be consistent with their beliefs, as noted in the Acts of Philip and elsewhere, and was certainly a tactic consistent with the times. The physical resurrection wasn’t that important to them, either, since they believed that the flesh is utterly corrupt and not part of God’s design – only the spirit counted to them. Which made it kind of spooky hearing the filmmaker and narrator spouting this same doctrine, even though it has not been accepted by anyone within the Christian tradition in 1700 years or so.

  • Stephen A.

    Now, apparently the Discovery Channel is trying to “bury” this special, and doesn’t at all seem that proud of it, according to this report (excerpt below):

    Discovery Channel’s controversial James Cameron-produced documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” drew the largest audience for the network in more than a year on Sunday night, but the network has taken several recent steps to downplay the project.

    Departing from normal procedures, the cable network didn’t tout its big ratings win. The network also scheduled a last-minute special that harshly criticized its own documentary, and has yanked a planned repeat of “Tomb.”

    Last week, Discovery abruptly scheduled a panel debate to air after the documentary, moderated by Discovery newsman Ted Koppel. Discovery’s announcement of the panel emphasized that Mr. Koppel “has no connection to the production of ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’” and that “the panel will explore the filmmakers’ profound assertions and challenge their assumptions and suggested conclusions.”

    When the panel discussion aired, guests criticized the documentary as “archaeo-porn” that played fast and loose with the facts.

    The day after the March 4 airing, Discovery yanked a planned repeat of “Tomb” from its more hard-news-branded Discovery Times Channel.

    When the Nielsen ratings revealed that “Tomb” averaged 4.1 million viewers – Discovery’s largest audience since September 2005 – the network declined to put out a press release touting the numbers, as would be standard practice for a highly successful premiere. The second-season premiere of Discovery Channel’s “Future Weapons,” for instance, earned a media announcement for its audience of 2.5 million. A network representative, however, insisted Discovery was not trying to bury “Tomb.”

    The story does mention that it will run again on its Spanish-language station. That’s something, I guess, for Cameron to hang his hat on.

    Full story:

  • James Davis

    Dan: Here are the links for the Sun-Sentinel stories on The Lost Tomb, although I don’t know how long the links will work. We made a big deal of it because the “Judah, Son of Jesus” ossuary, mentioned in the program, is currently on exhibit at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. James Cameron even tried to borrow it for his press conference.,1,5381252.story,1,7956805.story

  • James Davis

    “The idea that the Gnostic Gospels say that comes from a tendentious modern interpretation. One or two of them do describe Mary Magdalene as a favored disciple, but they don’t actually call her his wife, and they certainly don’t say anything about kids.”

    Quite true, Camassia. In addition to which, none of the Gnostic Gospels was written within a century of the gospel events. So the writers never met anyone who was connected with the story, and probably never met anyone who met anyone who was.