Controversy Over Jesus' Tomb Reaches Petah Tikva Court

Journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici is suing anthropologist Joe Zias, who in recent years has been doing his utmost to disprove his provocative theories on early Christianity.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

What is the scientific likelihood that the tomb of Jesus and his family is in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot? Is it possible that the original nails used in the crucifixion have been discovered in another cave, in the capital's Abu Tor neighborhood?

These questions have recently crossed the desk of Petah Tikva District Court Judge Jacob Shienman in the libel suit brought by journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. The latter has frequently shaken up the archaeological world with provocative theories about early Christianity. He is suing anthropologist Joe Zias, formerly of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who in recent years has been doing his utmost to disprove Jacobovici's theories.

Zias has managed to persuade two senior Israeli archaeologists, who gave expert opinions defending Zias against the filmmaker. Jacobovici, for his part, says he has no problem with criticism of his work, but that Zias' critiques have deteriorated into personal defamation and caused him massive financial damage.

Jacobovici, known for his TV series "The Naked Archaeologist," became famous in recent years for three films he made about the earliest days of Christianity, one of which was done with producer James Cameron ("Titanic" and "Avatar" ). The films combine elements of archaeological research with Hollywood-style historical reconstructions and provocative scientific interpretations.

In his first film, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" (2007), Jacobovici claimed that an ancient burial cave found during construction in Talpiot is the original tomb of Jesus and his family. The thesis was based on names inscribed on the small burial containers for bones, called ossuaries, found in the cave, and on statistical calculations that there could not have been another family in Jerusalem with names identical to those found on the containers.

In the second film, which dealt with the nails of the crucifixion, Jacobovici claimed that a pair of nails found in a burial cave in Abu Tor - which became famous because it was found to contain an ossuary bearing the name "Caiphas" (the name of the high priest the New Testament says condemned Jesus ) - are the very nails with which Jesus was crucified, and that Caiphas held on to them thereafter and was buried with them as a kind of talisman.

In the third film, which Jacobovici completed a year ago, he revealed that ossuaries found in a cave near the first one in Talpiot bore unusual engravings, which according to him are the first symbols of Christianity.

In all, he believes that those buried in the tomb were Jesus' first followers, which strengthens his theory that the burial cave of Jesus was nearby.

Zias has vehemently attacked these theories via his website, letters and phone calls. He also accused Jacobovici of inventing Holocaust stories. The latter accusation came about after Zias claimed Jacobovici was involved in the posthumous award to Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Joseph Gat for his life's work. In a speech during the award ceremony, Gat's widow said her late husband, who excavated the cave where Jacobovici says Jesus was buried, also believed that the tomb was Jesus' burial place but because her late husband was a Holocaust survivor, he was afraid to say so because he feared a resulting wave of anti-Semitism.

Zias also accused Jacobovici's professional partner, Prof. James Tabor, of academic fraud bordering on the criminal.

Jacobovici's suit states that following Zias' accusations, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic canceled the broadcast of his films, which cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also says Zias is not an expert in archaeology as he presents himself, and never formally studied the subject.

"Let him say what he wants, I'm not arguing with him. Let him find 100 professors who say I'm talking foolishness. He said I am a forger, that I planted discoveries, that I invent Holocaust stories. I am a son of Holocaust survivors! So I'm invoking my right to defend myself. Let him prove that I am a forger or let him pay," Jacobovici told Haaretz.

Zias and his attorney, Yehonatan Zvi, want the dispute moved to the academic arena. In the defense brief submitted to the court, Zvi compares the current suit to the 1925 "monkey trial" in which a teacher, John Scopes, was tried in Tennessee for teaching evolution. According to Zvi, his client, like Scopes, is fighting to protect scientific research.

"Those who brought the suit against [Zias] intend to silence him so as to strike fear in others," states the brief. Zias claims there was public and scientific importance in exposing what he considers to be Jacobovici's faulty work methods, and that he is one of many scientists who feel the same way.

Zias also claims that Jacobovici's good name could not have been harmed, because he does not have a good name, at least not in the scientific community. Zias says the broadcasters who canceled Jacobovici's shows did not need Zias' criticism to understand that there were scientific and factual problems in the films.

Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, one of the two senior archaeologists who submitted their opinions, compared Jacobovici's films to the "Indiana Jones" movies - "although this image does great injustice to the latter," Goren noted. "Steven Spielberg never tried to claim that the discoveries of Dr. 'Indy' Jones were scientific truth or had any factual basis" Goren wrote. He added that he felt the suit was intended to "silence legitimate scientific criticism."

Prof. Amos Kloner, a former Jerusalem district archaeologist for the antiquities authority who took part in some of the excavations that appear in Jacobovici's films, attacked the latter's methods in the opinion he submitted to the court. "These films do not present all the findings or the whole story with the accepted detail required and essential in critical research."

Simcha Jacobovici.Credit: Maya Levin / Jini

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