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Media circuses are hardly rare occurrences here in Jerusalem.
In fact, as I write this column, workers with CNN International are setting up a big blue tent (I kid you not) just across the street from my apartment building, preparing to broadcast a report by correspondent Ben Weideman from underneath the protective canopy on a stormy March afternoon.
I should mention that the view from my central Jerusalem street is usually worth filming whatever the weather, especially facing north toward Mount Zion and the biblical Temple Mount.
That was not the case with my former home in the East Talpiot neighborhood. While the view from my top floor flat was not all that bad, it was hardly noteworthy. I mainly looked out at dozens of other tall apartment buildings that dominate the southeast Jerusalem suburb.
But something allegedly quite historic was lurking in the shadows of the stone-faced apartment building located just next to mine: The burial tomb of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene and their son Judah, not to mention his Jewish mother and other family members!
Ben Weideman was among hundreds of Israeli and international journalists that recently filmed stirring reports near an innocuous cement slab located in East Talpiot. The unpretentious slab lies in the corner of a small fenced in rose patch planted along a narrow footpath just below the apartment building that I lived next to for 15 years.
The media was reporting on the “historic discovery,” announced in New York by Titanic film producer James Cameron and Israeli born-Canadian documentary maker Simcha Jacobovici, that the slab probably covered the entrance to the Jesus family tomb! The stunning late-February proclamation was intentionally timed to promote the men’s television program on that riveting theme, broadcast one week later on the U.S. Discovery Channel, and also in Great Britain and here in Israel.
I first got wind of the contention that the bones of Jesus and family were unearthed in my humble neighborhood when the BBC broadcast that momentous claim in a 1996 television documentary. As I walked past the site in the months and years after the screening, usually on my way to the nearby East Talpiot supermarket and post office, I often recalled the relatively short controversy that the British documentary sparked.
But this time, the dustup seems destined to linger much longer in the air, coming as it does in the titanic wake of Dan Brown’s best-selling “Da Vinci Code” and producer Ron Howard’s subsequent blockbuster film.
There is just one tiny problem with the super-hyped Jesus-tomb claim: Nearly all archeological experts dismiss it out of hand, or at least note it is both highly improbable and entirely unprovable, and therefore hardly worth mentioning.
By now, most everyone has heard the main reason why. The Hebrew names Yeshua (Jesus), Miriam (Mary), Judah, and Yoseph – all found inscribed on stone burial ossuaries situated inside the ancient tomb when it was discovered by Israeli construction workers in 1980 – were extremely common monikers in the time of Jesus. To allege that they point to the family tomb of Christianity’s revered redeemer is a giant stretch, to say the least.
But Cameron and Jacobovici claim another name was found inside the tomb that nearly seals their case – Mary Magdalene! It is almost statistically impossible that her unique second name would be found with the others if we were not talking about the tomb of the world-renowned Jesus of Nazareth and his relatives, they maintain.
American scholar Stephen Pfann, who serves as a locally trained textual scholar and paleographer at Jerusalem’s Holy Land University, has just conducted an intensive examination of the ossuary that supposedly held the bones of the Messiah’s alleged bride. He insists that the burial box is inscribed with two apparently unrelated names, the second of them “Mara,” the Greek version of Martha, not Magdalene. He discerned that the two names were etched in distinctive styles on the stone ossuary by clearly different hands. Scholars have long known that such burial receptacles often housed the bones of more than one person, mainly for economic reasons.
Professor Pfann, who I’ve known for many years, along with his scholarly wife, Claire, noted that neither Cameron nor Jacobovici are even remotely qualified to put forth such gargantuan contentions, especially given the far-reaching implications for the historic Christian faith. The Israeli filmmaker, who starred in the ratings-rich TV program, shot back that scholars and archeologists are simply upset that he and other modern journalists and documentary makers are “breaking their monopoly” on deciphering ancient artifacts.
Although a professional journalist myself, I am quite happy to have trained electricians fix my broken power lines in my stead, experienced plumbers determine what is wrong with my kitchen pipes, skilled physicians operate on my body, certified dentists fill cavities in my teeth, knowledgeable mechanics work on my car, etc.
As for my personal spiritual beliefs, I don’t expect them to be determined by colorful filmmakers working out of Hollywood or Toronto, no matter how much mammon they procure from their sensational claims.
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