Filmmaker James Cameron's latest documentary project asks the 2,000-year-old question: Did Jesus exist, and what is the biblical accuracy of the canon of Catholicism?
At a news conference Monday packed with national media, an unlikely lot of scientists, theologians and moviemakers unveiled two ossuaries, or limestone coffins, that they said held the skeletal remains of Jesus, son of Joseph, and his wife, Maria Magdalena, also known as Mariamene e Mara.
The group's claims -- that it found the first scientific, statistical and theological evidence of Christ's existence along with an unexpected son named Judah -- seemed at once credible and cryptic.
But the news conference was only a teaser to more commercial machinations: a book and a television movie produced by award-winning directors Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici.
On March 4, the Discovery Channel will air "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which follows the suspenseful journey into the origins of the ossuaries that were discovered in a first-century Jewish burial cave in Jerusalem in 1980 but were never conclusively connected.
In conjunction with the film, HarperSanFrancisco is publishing a companion book, "The Jesus Family Tomb," co-authored by Jacobovici and paleontologist Charles Pellegrino, with a foreword by Cameron.
A 'Titanic'-Size Story
Cameron -- the not-so-media-shy director who declared he was "king of the world" when he won an Oscar for best director for "Titanic" in 1997 -- said that he had never doubted the existence of Jesus, but that there had never been any evidence until archaeologists had unearthed the ossuaries.
If, indeed, the ancient coffins contain the bones of Jesus and his family, the whole notion of the Christian resurrection will be thrown into question.
The announcement came just one day after the Academy Awards, suggesting to some that their timing was right for promotion.
"This is not a publicity stunt," Cameron said. "It's part of a well-considered plan to reveal the information to the world in a way that makes sense with proper documentation."
The film offers the latest evidence from world-renowned experts in Aramaic script, ancient DNA analysis, forensics, archaeology and statistics, according to promotional material from Discovery.
It will also be aired by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, the Canadian channel Vision, and the Israeli Channel 8, all of which were co-producers of the documentary.
"My impression is this is a prostitution of religion and archeology," said Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "This is just the sort of thing archaeologists will tear apart and ask for what proof you had -- and whether it was a fraud or for real."
Not since the successful book and movie "The Da Vinci Code," which also postulated that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, have science and the church seen such a face-off.
Archaeological Dig Turns Up a Surprise
The ossuaries were two of 10 such coffins that had been discovered 27 years ago at a 2,000-year-old tomb in Talpiot, outside of Jerusalem. Scientists working with Cameron said that the time frame was biblically accurate within a century -- dating sometime between 14 B.C. and the year 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed.
Statistician Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto told reporters that because of the match of all the family names, odds were about 600-1 that the ossuaries were genuine.
Six of the ossuaries found in the cave were engraved in cursive with the names of Joshua, son of Josef; Maria; Mathew; Joseph; and Jesus' son. Even if these were all common names in the first century, he said, it's still a good bet the remains belong to Jesus' family.
"If there were 50,000 people in a football stadium, and all who were named Jesus were asked to stand up, there would be 2,097," he said.
"Then you asked how many had a mother named Mary, and it would be down to 397 very quickly, and a father Joseph, and it would be down to 123. And if you asked for those with a brother Joseph, you would have less than one left. If you have this kind of uniqueness, it shows."
The ossuaries were sent to Carney Matheson at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, who conducted a mitochondrial DNA analysis on microscopic bits of matter recovered from the boxes. He was not told their suspected identity.
Matheson, an associate professor in the anthropology department, determined that the remains were not maternally related and that they were either a father and daughter or husband and wife.
Given that this was a family burial place reserved for spouses and blood relations, the documentary makers deduced that the remains belonged to a couple: Jesus, son of Joseph, and Mariamene e Mara.
"What I did was only a small piece of the puzzle," Matheson said. "Remember, the conclusions they have drawn are not mine as I have not seen all the evidence nor am I qualified to analyze all the evidence."
But Canadian Jacobovici was more convinced. "This has been a three-year journey that seems more incredible than fiction," he said. "This technology that allowed this discovery was only science fiction in 1980."
Skeptics Have Their Say
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, derided the discovery as self-serving.
"Not a Lenten season goes by without some author or TV program seeking to cast doubt on the divinity of Jesus and/or the Resurrection," he said, noting that the 2002 discovery of Joseph, the brother of Jesus, was condemned by the Israel Antiquities Authority as a forgery.
"It's time the Discovery Channel discovered ethics and stopped with the sensationalism," Donohue said.
Georgetown's Reese also questions how scientists can determine the grave belongs to Jesus, even with DNA studies.
"How do you prove it's Jesus even if it's written all over the tomb. There were plenty of other people named Jesus. This kind of study should be presented as an academic study with an archeological association," Reese said.
"This is just prostitution to make money," he said. "I feel sorry for real archaeologists who spend weeks and months in the sun sweating over grains of sand. I think they'll be outraged at this kind of poaching on their field with shoddy work."
The scientists at the news conference agreed that with knowledge came responsibility, but they defended their work. Filmmaker Cameron also emphasized that the findings did not rule out a belief in resurrection.
Even Reese agrees that science and religion are not incompatible.
The Catholic position is that science and faith do not come into conflict, Reese said. "Good science and good faith have their own spheres and methods of analyzing the world. Just because poetry is different from mathematics doesn't mean one is right and one is wrong."
"We need to get back to the fundamentals in religion: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and don't kill people in wars," he said. "This kind of crap is a distraction from what true religion and the true message is."