In a scene worthy of a Dan Brown novel, archaeologists a quarter of a century ago unearthed a burial chamber near Jerusalem.
Inside they found ossuaries, or boxes of bones, marked with the names of Jesus, Joseph and Mary.
Then one of the ossuaries went missing. The human remains inside were destroyed before any DNA testing could be carried out.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
While Middle East academics doubt that the relics belong to the Holy Family, the issue is about to be exposed to a blaze of publicity with the publication next week of a book.
Entitled The Jesus Tomb and co-written by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, the book promises the inside story of “what may very well be the greatest archaeological find of all time”.
Some of the ossuaries will be at the book launch in New York, released by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The story began in March 1980 when Yosef Gat, an archaeologist employed by the IAA, surveyed a burial chamber on the south-eastern approaches of Jerusalem.
The area was being developed into the latest suburb of the city, East Talpiot, and bulldozers had uncovered an archaeological site.
Mr Gat found a standard-looking Jewish tomb dating from the era of King Herod, the Jewish king known for his ambitious building works and for his murder of infants at the time of the birth of Jesus.
After crawling into the necropolis Mr Gat found the main chamber had been silted up with soil and debris, with six “kokhim”, coffin shaped spaces leading off the main chamber where human remains were housed.
According to Jewish rites, bodies would be left for a year or so to decompose in the “kokhim” before relatives came back to gather the bones and store them in ossuaries.
Mr Gat found 10 ossuaries bearing inscriptions. Some were in ancient Greek and some were in Hebrew.
One inscription said “Jesus, son of Joseph”, another said “Mara”, a common form of Mary, and another said “Yose”, a common form of Joseph.
The authors were unavailable for comment yesterday but it is understood they base their claim that the burial chamber contained the remains of the Holy Family on their own study carried out inside the structure.
The chamber has been closed for years because a building was constructed on top of it but the authors got permission to break through an apartment block floor.
They claim to have found human material on which they performed DNA testing in a New York laboratory.
“Tests prove the names are genetically of the same family and statistically, there is a one in 10 million chance this is a family other than the Holy Family,” the pre-publication publicity for the book said.
However, according to strict Christian teaching, Jesus ascended to heaven, so there would be no bones left behind.
Mr Gat died several years ago. His boss, Prof Amos Kloner said that while the names together had “a certain power” they are standard.
“At least three other ossuaries have been found inscribed with the name Jesus and countless others with Joseph and Mary,” he said.
The 10 ossuaries were taken initially to the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Nine were catalogued and stored but the tenth was left outside in a courtyard.
That ossuary has subsequently gone missing.
The story went cold until two accounts of the discovery were published by Israeli academics in the mid 1990s. Prof Kloner wrote the second one in the IAA’s in-house magazine Atiquot in 1996.
It sparked publicity, most notably a BBC programme shown that Easter produced by Ray Bruce called The Body In Question. However, Prof Kloner said there was no way the tomb housed the Holy Family.
“It is just not possible that a family who came from Galilee, as the New Testament tells us of Joseph and Mary, would be buried over several generations in Jerusalem.”
However, in this Dan Brown era, we can’t help wondering.