"The Lost Tomb of Jesus" may not offer the full-bore showmanship of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault on live TV, but it presents an unholy mix of showbiz and reportage nonetheless.
For the seven people on the planet still unaware of the program and the firestorm it has spawned, the Discovery Channel documentary all but says that the remains of Jesus and his family were placed in limestone ossuaries, or bone caskets, that were discovered in 1980 beneath the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. (The bones, like all archeological remains in Israel, were reburied in a cemetery.)
If true, this find would shatter the central arc of Christianity, which holds that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. "It doesn't get any bigger than this," asserts James Cameron in the publicity materials. Cameron, the director of "Titanic," knows big when he sees it. He is a producer of the show along with Simcha Jacobovici, the Israeli-born Canadian who wrote and directed.
There's more. One of the ossuaries, the show purports, may well have held the remains of Judah, the son of Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene. Yes, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" treads the road of "The Da Vinci Code," which holds the pair to have married. Upon learning this news, more than a few viewers will moan to their TV screens, "Here we go again," while others will cry, "I knew it!"
There were 10 ossuaries found in 1980 during construction of an apartment complex in Talpiot. Six were inscribed with names. The first, written in Aramaic, reads "Yeshua bar Yosef" -- "Jesus son of Joseph." The second, written in Hebrew, reads, "Maria," or "Mary" in English. The third, in Hebrew, reads "Matia," or "Matthew" in English. Fourth, also in Hebrew, is "Yose," a nickname for "Joseph," whom the show suggests was a brother of Jesus.
Fifth, in Greek, is "Mariamene e Mara," which, according to the show, translates as "Mary, known as the master." This is the biggest stretch, because it argues this is none other than Mary Magdalene. The sixth, in Aramaic, reads, "Yehuda bar Yeshua" -- "Judah son of Jesus."
The program never states categorically that Jesus and his relatives were buried there, but it conservatively places the odds that they aren't at 1 in 600, based on the calculations of a statistician.
Some archeologists and New Testament scholars already dispute these findings and more are sure to surface. Among them is Amos Kloner, former Jerusalem district archeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who inspected the ossuaries in 1980 and dismisses Jacobovici's thesis. And legions of Christians, obviously, blanch at the very idea that the body of Christ never left earth.
Ted Koppel will moderate a panel on all this immediately after the show.
Jacobovici's team uses a robotic camera to locate the tomb, and he eventually enters it, all shock and awe. At some point, an official from the IAA arrives to toss him out. There is robust grandstanding here, but then the show is suffused with a labored tension from start to finish.
However astonishing Jacobovici's claim may be, it is, at the end of the day, impossible to disprove. Who knows? Then again, we cannot say with absolute certainty that Jesus did not rise from the dead and settle in New Jersey.
Sam Allis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.