Bones of Contention


Feb. 26, 2007 — -- In late 1982, Tova Bracha's family moved into a modest apartment in a cluster of cookie-cutter housing units in Talpiyot, a Jerusalem neighborhood. It's a place better known for its body shops and illicit casinos than earth-shattering archaeological finds.

A few days after moving in, her children were playing in the construction debris downstairs and came across what James Cameron's new documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Christ," maintains is the tomb of Jesus and his family.

The kids wiggled into the tomb and found burned Torah scrolls and 10 small caskets bearing the 2000-year-old bones of an ancient Jewish family. Six of them had inscriptions bearing the names Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Greek version of Mary Magdalene.

Bracha immediately phoned the archaeologists from Israel's Antiquities Authority. They sealed the tomb and studied the bones. For years, it was just another of the many tombs of ancient middle-class families who lived roughly in the time of Jesus.

Two years earlier, Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner was the first to find the tomb. He found the tomb and the ossuaries -- the urns or vaults used to hold the bones of the dead -- interesting but of no particular archaeological importance. He said there are more than 900 buried tombs just like the "Jesus" tomb within a 2-mile radius of Talpiyot. Of them, 71 bear the name Jesus and two Jesus, son of Joseph. The tomb in Talpiyot is one of them. But the inscription, he said, was barely decipherable and therefore questionable.

At the time, Jesus was a very common name, as was Mary. But the cluster of all those names together, Jesus, Joseph Mary, not to mention what the filmmakers claim is Jesus' son, Judah, son of Jesus, is indeed unusual. Simply because the tomb is labeled a tomb that "belonged to a Jesus, doesn't make it the tomb of Jesus Christ," Kloner told ABC News.

Jerusalem-based biblical anthropologist Joe Zias goes a step further to discredit Cameron's documentary. "What they've done here," Zias said, "is they've simply tried in a very, very dishonest way to try to con the public into believing that this is the tomb of Jesus or Jesus' family. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus."

Zias pointed out a number of contradictions that he said undermine the claim. Jesus was a very common name at the time -- Mary even more so. Zias said 48 percent of women living at the time were named Mary, Mariam or the Hebrew name Shlomzion. In addition, Jesus' family was poor. Those who paid for the tomb were middle-class, at least. If Jesus' family did have the cash, the family tomb would likely have been situated in Nazareth. After all, Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth.

The film has also sent shockwaves throughout the Christian world, shaking the foundation of a religion established on the tenets that Jesus, a single man who never married, was crucified, died and was resurrected.

Father Peter Boutross of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born, said the findings are false. Like other films before it, and probably future films, Boutross said, Cameron's "The Lost Tomb of Christ" is "an attempt to deny the fundamental truths of Christianity." Jesus did not marry Mary Magdalene," Father Boutross insisted, "nor did he have a son."

The story grabbed front-page headlines in Israel's tabloids Monday. News crews flocked to the site of the tomb. Bewildered locals in this gritty Jerusalem neighborhood didn't quite know what to make of all the ruckus.

Bracha, like her neighbors, would prefer it if the huddle of reporters would free up her stairwell. One neighbor called the police to roust them. Perhaps, he asked politely, CNN, which is parked along the street downstairs, could move its live position so residents could enter the street and maybe reclaim a semblance of privacy.

But ultimately, she said, "Whatever comes of [the film], if it's good for the Christians it's good for me too."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events