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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Response to the "Lost Tomb of Jesus"


Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, we have found their bones. So say the producers of the Discovery Channel special, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which first aired on Sunday, March 4. In a panel moderated by Ted Koppel that aired right after the special, I called the show archaeo-porn — it's the kind of titillating TV you can't help but watch, even if, deep down, you know it's wrong. And this thesis is terribly wrong. The docudrama follows filmmaker Simcha Jacobivici as he finds the family tomb of Jesus or, more precisely, follows him as he tries to prove that a tomb discovered in 1980 was actually Jesus' tomb--but that no scholar or archaeologist had recognized it as such. They simply didn't get the importance of the names Jesus, Joseph, and two Marys on several ossuaries, small coffin-like stone boxes found inside the burial chamber.

If true, The Lost Tomb of Jesus would undermine the faith of millions. Like many biblical scholars and archaeologists, to use William Dever's phrase, I don't have a dog in the fight over faith and resurrection. But, as a field archaeologist and professor of biblical studies, I do have a stake in what archaeology is made to do and how scholars are manipulated on television. It smacks of exploitation.

In both the film and book, a series of experts on archaeology, epigraphy, ancient names, DNA, statistics, and esoteric texts are interviewed. They are not told about the overarching thesis, but each is asked about a single component of the puzzle, which the producers skillfully edit into a compelling story. Confidentiality agreements must be signed for the sake of secrecy, jettisoning peer review, the gold standard of academic integrity. Only the principals involved had the whole picture, and scholars are made marionette-like to play their parts. But last week, after a press conference announced the "discovery," those scholars began to come forward, one by one, questioning or even repudiating the way their words or intentions had been manipulated.

Almost to a person, my colleagues in archaeology and biblical scholarship are condemning the thesis as fraudulent. Why? The case is simply not compelling, And in spite of The Lost Tomb of Jesus's insistence that the secret was buried and forgotten in the Israel Antiquity's Authority's storage facilities since 1980, just like Indiana Jones' ark, this is patently not true. Many scholars, including myself, had written about those names on the ossuaries years ago and concluded that that the discovery was indeed very important evidence about Jewish burial practices at the time of Jesus, but highly unlikely to be Jesus of Nazareth's burial.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus is not science or archaeology, not historical inquiry or serious journalism, though it includes a smattering of each. And maybe archaeo-porn is too harsh-it's not that exploitive. But The Lost Tomb of Jesus should be dismissed as infotainment and not taken as Gospel.

Jonathan L. Reed is professor of religion at the University of La Verne and co-author of Excavating Jesus.

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Citation: Jonathan L. Reed, " Response to the "Lost Tomb of Jesus"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=648

 
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