February 28, 2007

How Discovery Channel Lost Its Groove

The news that the Discovery Channel, a leading organization in the attempt to make science and education more attractive and entertaining, would broadcast a documentary by James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici claiming to have found the bones of Jesus and evidence of his marriage has begun to backfire. Archeologists have condemned the conclusions drawn from the evidence by Cameron and Jacobovici, including one who ran the site from which the ossuaries come:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.

Scorn for the Discovery Channel's claim to have found the burial place of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and -- most explosively -- their possible son came not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.

"I'm not a Christian. I'm not a believer. I don't have a dog in this fight," said William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars. "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated." ...

Similar assessments came yesterday from two Israeli scholars, Amos Kloner, who originally excavated the tomb, and Joe Zias, former curator of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that the documentary is "nonsense." Zias described it in an e-mail to The Washington Post as a "hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest."

Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressed irritation that the claims were made at a news conference rather than in a peer-reviewed scientific article. By going directly to the media, she said, the filmmakers "have set it up as if it's a legitimate academic debate, when the vast majority of scholars who specialize in archaeology of this period have flatly rejected this," she said.

The Cameron/Jacobovici hypothesis fails on a number of points. First, Jacobovici claims that having the names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Judah (noted as Jesus' son) defies odds in a range between 600:1 and 2 million:1. That's a very wide range, and completely inaccurate. Other archeologists note that the names listed by the documentarians were the most common names in use at the time for Jerusalem. They also dispute that the name 'Jesus' on the ossuary is confirmed; some believe it is an early version of the name Hanoun.

Magness has more objections about this than the media hype. She also finds the names interesting, but for a different reason. Recall that the Bible refers to Jesus as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus ben-Joseph. The patronymics on the ossuary would have been appropriate for Judeans, not Nazareans, which indicates that the family uncovered in the Talpiot tomb were native to Jerusalem or its environs. The use of stone ossuaries rather than graves also indicates a middle-class status or above for the family, rather than the poor and/or ascetic life of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

All of these are facts that archeologists like to take into consideration before leaping to conclusions. They especially tread with caution when trying to determine whether the evidence they have contradicts written history from the period in question. Archeology involves a level of speculation, but the true scientists make sure to minimize it as much as possible -- and this documentary amounts to nothing but speculation.

Who will bear the brunt of this fiasco? James Cameron will go on to make more big-budget Hollywood movies, unless he's dumb enough to make another Terminator sequel. Simcha Jacobovici will continue with his "Naked Archeology" series on History International, an entertaining but usually unconvincing half-hour of pop archeology that presaged this disaster. Discovery Channel, however, will take a hit to its reputation for serious science.


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