Forget about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christianity’s holiest site is not located within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, as 2 billion Christians might have thought, but about two miles to the south in a cluster of box-shaped apartment buildings.
Or, at least, that’s what Simcha Jacobovici wants you to believe. The Canadian-Israeli filmmaker is convinced that a Jesus-era tomb he recently explored with a team of archaeologists contains the remains of some of the earliest followers of Jesus and possibly those of the man who buried him.
Jacobovici says the combination of the “Patio Tomb” with another nearby tomb that he claims was that of Jesus and his relatives makes this residential neighborhood of East Talpiot the site of what he calls the “Big Bang of Christianity.”
“Where we’re standing right here is the beginning,” he said this week outside the building erected atop one of the two 1st-century tombs. “To my mind, this is the most important archaeological find ever maybe — of the past 100 years for sure.”
Not everyone agrees.
Biblical scholars and historians have pounced on what they see as false and sensationalized claims. They say that Jacobovici and his team explore with an agenda — hyping what fits their preferred narrative and conveniently omitting what contradicts it — and that their brand of archaeology is more fiction than science.
“It sounds like they’re trying to act out ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ” says Robert Cargill, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa.
Jacobovici’s ambition is not to appear at the top of biblical scholars’ most-wanted list. He says all he wants is to bring the tools of investigative journalism to archaeology.
In recent years, he has focused much of his attention and energy on biblical archaeology, setting out to “decode” the biblical past and specializing in making controversial assertions.
He caught the attention of the Christian world nine years ago, when he made a documentary about an ossuary said to have contained the bones of James, believed to be the brother of Jesus. But it was Jacobovici’s “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary that really got Christians and religious academics riled up. Some blasted his “anti-Christian bias,” while others berated what they saw as inconclusive evidence and erroneous interpretations. One religion professor dubbed the 2007 film “archaeoporn.”
In the movie, Jacobovici suggested that the tomb was not only that of Jesus but also held the remains of his wife and child. The new tomb, which is the subject of a documentary to be aired in the United States by Discovery Channel on Thursday, is sure to prove more palatable to Christian orthodoxy, but it will have little chance of appeasing the academic community.
“The point of the current claim is to prove that the first tomb was in fact the tomb of Jesus and his family,” says Jodi Magness, a specialist in early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There is not a shred of archaeological and literary evidence to support it.”
The Patio Tomb is similar in structure to the “Jesus Family Tomb.” It consists of small niches dug in limestone that contain ossuaries — small stone boxes designed to hold the bones of the deceased. The most significant discoveries are an inscription in Greek letters on one of the ossuaries and carvings on another.
James Tabor, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who was part of Jacobovici’s team, says the inscription can be understood to mean “God, Jehovah, Raise up! Raise up!” He and Jacobovici interpret this as the earliest statement of faith in resurrection.
The reading of the inscription has spurred a healthy amount of discussion among scholars, but Tabor and Jacobovici’s interpretation of one of the carvings has been rejected outright. Where they see a stick-figure Jonah emerging from a great fish heading downward, others see a vase, a perfume bottle or a pillar but no fish and no Jonah.
“The image on ossuary 6 is not Jonah’s great fish spitting out a seaweed-wrapped head of Jonah,” says Cargill, who favors the Greek vessel interpretation. “Fish don’t have handles.”
Whether it is a fish matters because Tabor and Jacobovici say Jonah’s tale mirrors Jesus’s resurrection, as he spent three days inside the belly of the whale the way Jesus is said to have spent three days in his tomb before coming back to life.
When it comes to who exactly was buried in the Patio Tomb, the mystery remains. Based on the short distance — less than 200 feet — between the two tombs and other contextual clues, Jacobovici posits that it might be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the man said to have taken possession of Jesus’s body. In any case, Jacobovici says, these were Jesus’s contemporaries.
“These people must have known him,” he says. “They must have heard him preach.”
Biblical archaeology has long lent itself to debate and controversy. Biblical texts can be interpreted in various ways, and little archaeological evidence related to Jesus and his disciples has been found. While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is widely accepted by Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, death and resurrection, others have proposed alternative sites. Tabor, for example, suggests that the crucifixion took place on the Mount of Olives.
Jacobovici went to great lengths — literally — to explore the Patio Tomb. He commissioned a robotic arm mounted with a camera to survey the tomb without setting foot in it. Excavations of Jewish tombs are extremely sensitive in Israel, as religious activists — often ultra-Orthodox Jews also known as Haredim — condemn any disturbance of the dead.
“Legally, we could dig a tunnel and excavate, but you would have 100,000 Haredim burning tires,” Tabor says.
Given the hundreds of similar tombs in the area, the robotic arm could prove useful for future excavations. Cargill also says that the inscription and carvings found in the tomb are significant regardless of their interpretation.
As to the residential neighborhood of East Talpiot becoming a hot spot for Christian pilgrims, there seems to be some more convincing to do. Five years after the movie was broadcast worldwide, the alleged tomb of Jesus remains an unmarked concrete slab in an overgrown grassy area.
Brulliard is a freelance writer.