Jesus Tomb documentary: Unearthing faith

Discovery’s “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” is only the latest pop-culture phenomenon to challenge orthodox Christianity

Pop culture’s fascination with secret codes, conspiracy theories and the mysteries of early Christian history is driving the big buzz around the upcoming documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

The craze fed the success of “The Da Vinci Code” four years ago and “The Gospel of Judas” last year.

“There are all kinds of people totally interested in history who say, ‘I never knew that; they didn’t teach me that in Sunday school. It’s a conspiracy theory by the official church to keep me in the dark on purpose,”‘ says Mark Tauber, vice president and associate publisher of Harper San Francisco, the company that published the companion book to “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”

The documentary, produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron, airs at 7 tonight on the Discovery Channel. Directed by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, it uses DNA evidence to argue that some of 10 ossuaries – limestone bone boxes – discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb may have contained the bones of the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

A challenge in uncertain time

The film has spurred swift condemnation from both Christians and scholars. And yet the public seems unable to stop discussing it. Alternative theories of early Christian history – at the crossroads of such disciplines as forensic archaeology, DNA analysis and statistics – are a challenge to traditional Christianity at a time of religious uncertainty.

“There’s a sizable section of the American population that has some background in the Christian church and has already made the choice to turn their back on it, for whatever reason,” says Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament studies at Denver Seminary. “But at the same time, there is still some unease about that choice. Therefore, if something can confirm the choice they made, they may latch onto it fairly uncritically.”

Attempts to debunk orthodox Christianity have become traditional Easter-season fare in recent years.

Last year, “The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-up in History,” by Michael Baigent, was released by Harper San Francisco just before Easter. The book is yet another alternative history of Christianity that, like “The Da Vinci Code,” explored the historic life of Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.

A few years earlier, on Easter Sunday 2003, Discovery Channel aired a documentary about the James ossuary, a first-century coffin said to have held the bones of the biblical James, brother of Jesus.

Naturally, many Americans – including both orthodox and unorthodox Christians – have developed a healthy skepticism toward such news.

“It’s not a documentary; it’s a calculated effort, and they come out with boring regularity at Easter time,” says Richard Foster, a theologian based in Englewood and author of the Christian classic “Celebration of Discipline.” “I just go, ‘ho hum.”‘

Gnostics skeptical, but keen

Even leaders in the modern Gnostic church, who believe that Mary Magdalene was the first and most beloved apostle of Jesus and who could benefit from DNA proof of her existence, remain cautious.

“Unless you have the DNA of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to compare it to, what does this DNA prove?” says Rosamonde Miller, presiding bishop at the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum sanctuary in Palo Alto, Calif. “Scholars are human beings, and very often they interpret evidence according to their own bias, even those who don’t mean to.”

Still, she says she won’t miss “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” tonight. “I’ve already programmed it into my cable. I did it as soon as I heard the Discovery Channel made a documentary.”

America’s continuing fascination with alternative theories of Christianity is driven by the convergence of antiquity and technology.

“What we are seeing is a desire to apply 21st century science and technology and media and filmmaking to 2,000-year-old incidents,” says Dan Burstein, editor of the best-selling “Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind ‘The Da Vinci Code.”‘

Some scholars scoff at “Tomb”

Still, he says, the mystery is eternally unsolvable. “We will never, even with all the DNA tools and all the underground radar and radiology and scanning tools, prove the link that these are the people they say they are.”

Such theories are now as mainstream as McDonald’s. They’re so prevalent that they contradict not just orthodox Christianity, but each other.

Currently, the buzz in underground circles of esoteric Christianity is over another upcoming documentary that postulates Jesus and Mary Magdalene were buried in southern France, the center of the Mary Magdalene cult that thrived during the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, reports that many Christians would be up in arms over the so-called Jesus bones are proving false.

“The Da Vinci Code,” Blomberg says, posed a much bigger theological threat. “That had enough ins and outs and creative twists to it, where there were some churchgoers and Christians who were saying, ‘Hmm, have we missed something? Should we be thinking differently?’ Some seemed as if their faith was threatened by it.”

People like Foster, however, simply scoff at the interpretation of early Christian history in “Lost Tomb.”

“Why would Mary, the mother of Jesus, be buried in Jerusalem (instead of Nazareth)?” he says. “That’s like me saying I’ve discovered the gravestones of Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith in Anchorage, Alaska.

• Original title: TV show: Unearthing faith

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday March 4, 2007.
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