The widow of the archaeologist who discovered the tomb in Talpiot that some believe to be that of Jesus of Nazareth, explained yesterday in Jerusalem to a gathering of senior archaeologists and other scholars why her husband kept his discovery a secret. In an emotional voice, Ruth Gat said that Yosef Gat, a Holocaust survivor, was afraid a wave of anti-Semitism would ensue if he did so. Speaking at the three-day Third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins at Mishkenot She'ananim in the capital, Gat also said, "I thank God his fears did not come true in light of the discovery of the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth."
"As a boy, he wandered around the lion's den of occupied Poland," she also said. "The memory of those days never left him. It was one of the things that held him back as an archaeologist and that was also the reason for his great caution."
Yosef Gat worked as an inspector for the Israel Antiquities Authority for 27 years. He uncovered some 400 sites in the Negev and many other sites in Jerusalem.
The cave was uncovered in 1980, but was not made public until the mid-1990s. Last year, the story became widely known with the release of the documentary film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" by Simcha Jacobovici and Oscar-winning producer James Cameron. The documentary claimed outright that a cave containing the tomb of Jesus, his wife and a son had been found in south Jerusalem.
The film presents a cave uncovered in 1980 during construction work on an apartment building in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. The tomb contained 10 ossuaries. Hebrew letters were inscribed on some, including those Jacobovici says should be read: Yehuda bar Yehoshua, Matya, Yose, Maria, and Yeshua bar Yehosef. The bones of 35 individuals were also uncovered, interred over three to four generations.
"I fell off the chair," Jacobovici said yesterday following Gat's presentation. "She said the leading archaeologist, who I thought had claimed it was nothing, actually thought he had discovered the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a Holocaust survivor was afraid it might lead to anti-Semitism."
Although most of those who spoke at yesterday's seminar said it was possible the tomb was that of Jesus, Jacobovici's film was taken with a grain of salt.
"What Simcha did was good work, as long as it stays in the right perspective," said archaeologist Professor Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina. "We, the archaeologists and the historians, spend our lives trying to evaluate the information collected over time. The journalist, however, makes one film and moves on."
Professor Israel Knohl of Hebrew University said yesterday that he saw no reason not to evaluate the tomb as Jesus' family tomb, although there was no unambiguous proof. He said surrounding caves should be excavated in order to obtain more proof, and explanations for various contradictions in existing evidence should be sought.
For example, Knohl said the tomb might not be impressive despite the fame of those purported to be buried there, because tombs were considered a source of great impurity. Other significant contemporaneous figures were also buried in unadorned tombs, with no evidence that they had become destinations of pilgrimage.
He said it was not surprising that the tomb, despite its presumed famed occupants, was forgotten. "Jerusalem was destroyed almost entirely at that time, and only a few people were left in the city."
The cave currently serves the residents of a nearby building as a storage place for worn Torah scrolls. A short time after its discovery in 1980, the bones and the ossuaries were reintered at a Jewish cemetery. Under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, they were never studied and their age was never determined.
Following the pressure, it was also decided to seal another tomb found nearby in which a number of complete ossuaries were found, and apartments were built above it.
In response to arguments by scholars against his film, Jacobovici said yesterday that it was a great honor that such an august group had gathered to discuss the matter. He said that when they made the film, the feeling of the public and the scientific community was that there was no chance it was the tomb of Jesus. Now, Jacobovici said, the consensus is that it might be true.
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