Scene 1: Discredit religion; Scene 2: See Scene 1

Just as freshly sprouted daffodils indicate the imminent arrival of spring, so the pop culture’s yearly discovery (and exploitation) of Jesus Christ heralds the upcoming celebration of the Easter holiday.

The entertainment industry in particular has developed a curious strategy of attempting to connect with America’s massive, ardent Christian audience with pulpy projects that openly undercut key tenets of Christianity. These efforts range from blockbuster hits such as last year’s The Da Vinci Code to scandalous and largely forgotten feature films such as The Passover Plot (1976) – which showed Jesus planning to fake his own death on the cross. The most recent effort at simultaneously insulting and intriguing the faith-based audience involved the shamelessly oversold documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which received its world premiere on the Discovery Channel last week.

The participation of Titanic director James Cameron as executive producer helped to ensure worldwide frenzy concerning the purported “scientific” significance of discoveries challenging New Testament teaching about the Resurrection.

Actually, all of the information in the painfully padded Lost Tomb broadcast derives from relics removed in 1980 from a construction site in a Jerusalem suburb. Workers inadvertently stumbled across an ancient burial chamber, and archaeologists hurriedly removed 10 ossuaries, or “bone boxes,” in which first century Jews interred the remains of their relatives after allowing the bodies to decompose.

Cameron’s collaborator, an Israeli-born Canadian named Simcha Jacobovici, directed the show and dominates the proceedings on screen, presenting himself as an intrepid combination of Indiana Jones and Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code.

For a relentlessly repetitive two hours, Jacobovici focuses on the indistinct inscriptions on his bone boxes, one of which may (or according to some experts, may not) read: “Jesus, Son of Joseph.” Other names on the six labeled ossuaries include Maria (the Latinized form of Mary), Mariamne (whom Jacobovici uses somewhat tortured logic to associate with Mary Magdalene) and Judah, son of Jesus. Though such names were common in ancient Judea, the movie insists that their presence in the same burial cave creates the overwhelming likelihood that this site, indeed, constitutes the Lost Tomb of Jesus. Unfortunately, nearly all prominent Israeli archaeologists reject such reasoning. Amos Kloner, who conducted the original excavation, has denounced the project as sloppy, exploitative and irresponsible. Joe Zias, who was the curator at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum for 25 years and personally numbered the now controversial bone boxes, has said this of Jacobovici: “He’s pimping off the Bible. … Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

Holes in the story

Such critical voices receive scant attention in the documentary, where their absence contributes greatly to the listless energy level of the proceedings. The show also displays no awareness of the religious implications of its controversial conclusions. If his followers really interred Christ under the label “Jesus, son of Joseph,” wouldn’t that indicate that they didn’t consider him the son of God? And if they allowed his remains to decompose for a year before they sealed his bones in a limestone box, doesn’t that contradict the New Testament account of a miraculously empty tomb and a Resurrection after three days?

According to a Newsweek poll for its “From Jesus to Christ” issue of March 2005 (yes, it was Easter season again!), 78% of Americans say they believe “Jesus rose from the dead.” The Lost Tomb of Jesus largely ignores this prevailing faith, while the documentary’s cheesy Monty Python-style re-enactments of Christ and disciples remain too lame to convince or offend anyone. Suggesting that he views the conclusion jump as an Olympic event, Jacobovici even cites flimsy or non-existent evidence to echo the Da Vinci-coded conclusion that Jesus bore a child with Mary Magdalene.

Such provocations helped draw a respectable audience for The Lost Tomb of Jesus, allowing it to tie for sixth place among the most-viewed cable programs of the week (but still significantly below such worthy offerings as World Wrestling Entertainment Raw). Newsweek.comcalculated that its report on the show represented the week’s most-viewed article, but that reactions “ranged from outrage to outright indifference.” Jacobovici still hopes to gain additional traction for his theories and allegedly history-changing discoveries with a new book, The Jesus Family Tomb (co-authored with Charles Pellegrino, one of the “experts” who appeared in his film), released to coincide with the broadcast of the documentary.

Meanwhile, some offended Christian callers to my radio show expressed the conviction that this project represented one more component in the aggressive secularist counterattack on traditional religious beliefs, along with best-selling books such as The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation, and tireless efforts to remove crosses and Ten Commandments monuments from public places.

At the moment, major media outlets certainly seem to grant more publicity to academic efforts to challenge religious orthodoxy than they do to countervailing evidence to confirm it.

Biblical support

For instance, Simcha Jacobovici himself created a 2006 documentary, The Exodus Decoded, on the History Channel that argued for the factual basis of the Moses story, but it drew vastly less attention than Lost Tomb. Dore Gold’s excellent new book, The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City, is also full of dramatic proof that blows away prevailing scholarly skepticism about the historicity of King David’s reign. But these richly documented discoveries never received the intensive coverage offered to feebly supported speculations that “disprove” the Bible.

Another fascinating book, The Exodus Case: New Discoveries Confirm the Historical Exodus by Swedish scientist Lennart Moller, provides gripping evidence about deliverance from Egypt and the real location of Mount Sinai. It also has inspired an ambitious feature film now in production. Considering general media instincts to slam rather than support biblical narratives, it will probably struggle to impact pop culture.

If The Lost Tomb of Jesus provides little basis for a re-examination of Jesus, it does offer a sad perspective on Cameron’s once-flourishing career. With Titanic, he emerged as one of the most successful filmmakers in entertainment history, so it’s surprising to see his current association with a sketchy project seeking attention through frontal assault on cherished beliefs.

Sadly, J.C. of Hollywood may no longer say, “I’m King of the World,” but he has done nothing to alter the fact that J.C. of Nazareth still inspires billions as King of Kings.

Michael Medved, a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors, hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio talk show. He also leads regular listener tours to Israel featuring key archaeological sites.

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