The findings of a controversial documentary claiming that a cave found 26 years ago in Jerusalem held the remains of Jesus Christ have been unveiled in New York.
The documentary, titled The Burial Cave of Jesus, follows years of research by world-renowned archaeologists and experts in ancient scripts, according to the film’s producers.
The 2000-year-old cave was first discovered in 1980 in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighbourhood.
It contained 10 coffins, six of which bore inscriptions which – translated into English – included the names “Jesus son of Joseph,” twice “Maria”, and “Judah son of Jesus.”
The second Maria is believed to be Maria Magdalene, while the tomb bearing the name Judah suggests Jesus had a son.
DNA has reportedly been extracted from remains found in two of the coffins.
“To a layman’s eye it seems pretty darn compelling,” executive producer James Cameron, the Canadian director of the movie Titanic, said at a press conference in New York.
“This is the biggest archaeological story of the century.”
Cameron and Israel’s Simcha Jacobovici, who directed the film, displayed two of the coffins – on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) – which they said may have contained the bones of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
But the documentary, to be aired Sunday on the Discovery Channel, Britain’s Channel 4, Canada’s VisionTV and Israel’s Channel 8, has sparked a swirl of debate in Israel and around the world.
A senior Israeli archaeologist who thoroughly researched the tomb after its discovery, and at the time deciphered the inscriptions, cast serious doubt on the documentary’s claim.
“It’s a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever,” Professor Amos Kloner, who had published the findings of his research in the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur on Friday.
“The names that are found on the tombs are names that are similar to the names of the family of Jesus,” he said.
“But those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE,” he added.
Kloner dismissed the combination of names found in the cave as a “coincidence.”
Professor Juergen Zangenberg, an expert on the New Testament at the Dutch University of Leiden, said the documentary’s claim was unrealistic, and more likely “about money and headlines”.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which is keeping the caskets in its archive in the town of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem, declined to comment on the documentary, saying it had not researched the caskets and that its duty was only to safeguard them.
Alberta Nokes, executive producer for Canada’s VisionTV, defended the documentary and praised Cameron and Jacobovici’s work.
“By investigating whether or not the Talpiot Tomb was in fact exactly what it seemed to be, rather than dismissing that possibility as others had, Simcha and James Cameron have made a compellingly strong case that it is the Jesus family tomb,” Nokes said.
“Now it’s up to scientists and archaeologists to examine their evidence further.”