Musings / That Titanic Tomb

If those builders in Talpiot had dug up a candelabrum rather than a few boxes of bones, there would have been less scholarly skepticism.

In terms of the public perception of their value to society, building contractors would languish toward the bottom of any poll, roughly on a par with drug dealers and only a place or two above lawyers. Yet you should spare a thought for the poor builder because in Israel, at any rate, his lot is rarely a happy one. He shares with contractors throughout the world the standard hazards of fire, flood, storm, earthquake and volcanic eruption. He should also beware of acts of God, but although God is, as it were, playing at home that particular peril is no more dangerous here than elsewhere.

But there is one additional risk that is peculiar to the Israeli contractor: He could hit a grave. Indeed, it's what we specialize in. Saudi Arabia has oil; the Holy Land has tombs. People have been dying around here for millennia and you can hardly plant this year's petunias without stumbling upon the grave of one or other of the hundreds of princelings whose names make the two biblical books of Chronicles about as intriguing as the Manhattan telephone directory.

So when, in 1980, in the course of digging the foundations of a new apartment block in the East Talpiot quarter of Jerusalem, laborers blasted open a cave that looked like the antechamber to a tomb, it excited no particular interest. The contractor, apparently unable to cover it up in time, reluctantly called in the Israel Department of Antiquities. A team of archaeologists led by Prof. Amos Kloner quickly excavated the site. The tomb held 10 limestone boxes, known as ossuaries, containing bones. When he wrote up the find, Prof. Kloner reported that the tomb came from the Second Temple period. He can hardly have been accused of sticking his neck out; this period covers a full six centuries - from 538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.

Six of the ossuaries bore inscriptions. What exactly the inscriptions say is still being debated by epigraphers but some have put forward the opinion that the six names were respectively Yeshua bar Yehosef; Maria; Yose; Yehuda bar Yeshua; Matya; and Mariamne e Mara. This last inscription was written in Greek, the others being in Aramaic. If these were indeed the names on the inscriptions, scholars in the field saw nothing unusual in them. The fact that forms of these names crop up in the New Testament meant little. There are at least 21 separate Yeshuas mentioned in the histories of Josephus, and the name had been found in 71 burial caves of the period. Mary, either in its Aramaic form or in its Greek form of Mariamne, was the single most common woman's name of the time. In 1982, the archaeologists, having documented the tomb, duly sealed it.

But the archaeologists had not reckoned with Hollywood. A Canadian documentary film director, fired perhaps by the contemporary success of books and movies dealing with early Christianity, scented a scoop. He called in James Cameron, the director of "Titanic," the highest grossing movie of all time, and they produced together a documentary film on the find. While the archaeologists had concluded that, for all they knew, these were the graves of Josh Greenblatt and Miriam Buzaglo, Cameron, who may hold the world record in jumping to conclusions, eagerly adopted the nutty theory that one of the ossuaries contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth and another of the Holy Mother, Mary. Furthermore the theory postulated that the Mariamne of the tomb was Mary Magdalene, who, if these were her bones, had to be Jesus' wife. Finally, to add insult to the injury they were already causing devout Christians, they theorized that Yehuda bar Yeshua was the son of the marriage.

It might surprise those whose knowledge of the Christian Bible is derived from reading the works of Dan Brown, but there is nothing in the whole New Testament even to hint that Jesus was married, let alone to Mary Magdalene. Cameron, while he and Mel Gibson were studying Aramaic, clearly could not find the time to take classes in elementary logic because his argument goes something like this: a) it has to be the grave of Jesus because he is buried with Mary Magdalene; b) it has to be the grave of Mary Magdalene because she is buried with Jesus; c) they had to be married to each other because they are buried together.

Loony statistics

To be fair, the Cameron team did not rely on screwy deductive reasoning alone. They added loony statistics. They invited a professor of mathematics from the University of Toronto to assess the statistical probabilities of the cluster of six names coming together. He determined that, common though the names were, the chances were 600,000 to 1 against that particular combination appearing together. Nothing surprising in that; what they ignored was that most of the names in the tomb could not be comfortably shoehorned into their theory. But the professor permitted the Cameron gang to announce that there was only one chance in 600,000 that the tomb was not that of Jesus. Those are handsome odds. Betting men can tell you that if you wanted to back a blind, three-legged horse running in the Derby, you would not be likely to get better odds than 100 to 1.

I am willing to give equally generous odds that the learned professor is talking through his hat. Ever since two distinguished mathematicians came out with the theory that Moses, when writing his five books, slipped in a code which was designed to save Yitzhak Rabin from assassination, I have become increasingly convinced that they slip something into the cappuccinos at faculty meetings of departments of mathematics.

Believing you have traced the tomb of Jesus while titanically proclaiming, as did Cameron, that "It doesn't get bigger than this," is evidently some kind of psychosis. I allow that Cameron has not "got the IRMs" - to use an epithet, Intense Religious Mania, that a now-deceased aunt of my wife's attached to any of her family or friends who showed signs of excessive spirituality. That is not Cameron's problem, nor does he seem to be suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Psychiatrists have given that name to a state of sudden and intense religious delusions brought on while visiting or living in the city of Jerusalem.

I do wonder about this diagnosis. As a good part of the population of Jerusalem always seems to me to be gripped by intense religious delusions, I wonder how the city's mental health practitioners succeed in distinguishing between sufferers from Jerusalem Syndrome and your ordinary Jerusalemite in the street.

But Cameron's delusions can hardly be described as religious. On the contrary, he seems to believe that he has sunk Christianity with the same ease that he scuttled an ocean liner with a studio-produced iceberg. So, if he is suffering from neither the IRMs nor the Jerusalem Syndrome - what on earth is his excuse for trumpeting this farrago of nonsense?