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March 05, 2007


Brad C

"Taken individually, each of these points weakens the case for the identification of the Talpiyot tomb as the tomb of Jesus and his family. Collectively these points are devastating, since the statistical analyses presented in the film are based on certain assumptions made about these names."

This is an important point about probability and it applies to many cases of historical reasoning. The probability of two events both occurring is less than the probability of either one of them occurring. For instance, it is improbable that I will be struck by lightning and live. It is improbable that I will be in a plane crash and live. It is extraordianrily improbable that I will both be struck by lightning and live and be in a plane crash and live.

So their argument looks something like this: IF our interpretation of evidence A is correct AND our interpretation of evidence B is correct AND our interpretation of evidence C is correct, THEN we've found Jesus' tomb. Hooray! But if each fact given as evidence is improbable, and if their conclusion depends on the conjunction of all those improbable facts occurring, then their conclusion is FAR more improbable than any one of the improbable facts given to support it.

That's what AIA is pointing out here. This reasoning also applies to the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation with its long chains of reasoning, each link of which usually involves some interpretation or assumption that lowers the probability of that fact occurring.

Rich Leonardi

Just thank goodness that this time, the media seemed to take a more critical view from the beginning.

Which I think is a legacy of the initial uncritical reception of The Da Vinci Code that later proved to be embarrassing.

Fool me once ...


If it says "Gospel," "Acts" or has an apostle's name on it, it must be authoritative.

That's not it.

Without investing authority in a text, worthy information may be gleaned such as the film does, suggesting how Mary may have been called before her name became Latinized.

I'm simply curious why the Acts of Philip was preserved at all.


I saw only bits and pieces, as it bored me.

But at one point, the film maker (guy in the hat?) was trying to get the folks at the Israel Museum to agree with the leaps and false assumptions. The guy in the hat was saying, "If this....and then if this....and then if this...." And the authority (who I presume was Israeli and not a believing Christian, but perhaps committed to intellectual honesty) was reacting to this with a mixture of reluctance and annoyance. The authority would finally say, "Well, but we can't prove any of these points."

The only other part I saw was a total hoot. It is Jewish tradition to bury the sacred books if they are worn out. They are buried, like a person is buried. So, the film makers are back in the tomb and they find that before the Israelis sealed it up in the 1980s, they had buried a cache of books there. The film maker picks up one and gushes "This is the book of Jonah! Jesus spoke in code all the time and he called himself the sign of Jonah!" Now, this book was put in there, demonstrably, in the 1980s. Furthermore, when Jesus uses the phrase "sign of Jonah" doesn't he refer to his resurrection from the dead?

The whole thing might have been as funny if it wasn't so boring.

Tim Ferguson

I didn't watch the special itself (preferring instead to have my dander raised by the History Channel's riff on the Dark Ages - synopsis: Catholicism bad, but there were some bright spots that managed to shine on despite the popes and bishops), but I did catch the Ted Koppel-led discussion afterwards. I would have to say I was pleased by how Mr. Koppel handled the discussion - and the whole thing made Mr. Jacobovici appear as something of the charlatan he seems to be. One commentator, a collaborator with JD Crossan, so definitely not a fundamentalist, dismissed the whole show as "archeo-porn" which seems an apt description.

I was a little disappointed at first at Fr. O'Connell, the president of CUA, who appeared to say that the whole thing would have little effect on his faith because his faith was separate from his scientific mind. As the show went on and he had a chance to clarify, I came to understand that he was also dismissing the matter since it didn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. I do wish he would have answer the allegation that there is no evidence that St. Peter was buried in Rome, and therefore the Simon Peter they found in Jerusalem must be St. Peter.

Patrick Rothwell

In a weird way, James Cameron reminds me of those amateur pious archeologists who discovered the tomb of the supposed girl martyr St. Philomena who, oops!, didn't really exist, but that didn't stop them from concocting a fantastic legend of her martyrdom. I miss the days when religious skeptics were debunkers rather than traffickers in credulity.

In any event, I seem to remember that Piers Paul Read wrote a novel in which the skeletal remains of Jesus was discovered, but I've never read it.

Nate Metzger

A Priest friend of mine told me once, "The difference between a Protestant and a Catholic is that a Protestant believes in the Gospel story because it's written in the Gospels. A Catholic does too, but also believes in the Gospels because they record what really happened." That always seemed to me to capture something important. It's true that the logic of faith is on a different sphere than the logic of science, but that doesn't mean that the events of Jesus life, death, and resurrection didn't happen in real time. I'm reading all of these reports about evangelical groups who wanted to have the program banned. I understand their sentiment, but the proper response should be, "Ok, guys. What'cha got for us? Give us the evidence. Let's see." There's no reason to go running to the hills, stick our head in the sand, or try to get the program pulled. It's true that faith is not the same as science, but nevertheless, the real-time evidence should (and does) support the real-time events of Jesus' life. I admit that I would have a hard time conceding to whatever the evidence is, but this is entirely because I believe that, ultimately, whatever evidence they have will come up short, not because the events of Jesus' life are on some sort of other logical sphere...

He is risen. :)

Deacon John M. Bresnahan

The media did a better job for those who are willing to stick around "for the rest of the story." But our local newspaper cut short the AP story giving mostly the "archaeo-porn" about the tomb as Gospel, then not bothering with the real science from the end of the story that I saw at other media(usually internet) locations. And then there was all the breathless news "come-ons" a few evenings to get us to watch the 11 p.m. news-yet how many went to bed before 11 with a virtual denial of the Resurrection ringing in their ears and never saw or heard the later truth.
This kind of sensationalist garbage has gone on for more than a decade now every Christmas and Easter. In time the media will make America into the empty, religious wasteland parts of Europe have become. These constant sensational frauds can easily become the drops of water that eventually will weaken or even wear away the faith of many Americans who rarely read or hear "follow-ups," in-depth stories, or the "rest of the story."


Yes, the individual tenuous premises that Cameron and others are upholding are really damning for their argument.
It's as if someone, 2,000 years from now, were to come across an empty coffin in Detroit. This coffin would have scratched upon it "Jimmy," and "Father of James." THere would be no bones, no other markings.
And then, the amateur archaeologist, with the assistance of other so-called professionals, would call a press conference and announce: "I've found the tomb of Jimmy Hoffa!"
(Well, the analogy really only works on a natural level of course)


The Phillip reference was one of multiple groaners. Among others:

A version of "Mattias" on the ossuaries makes sense because it was family name in the Blessed Mother's geneology, most recently two generations ago (?)

One of Christ's reported "brothers" is there, but no others.

Christ's earthly father was important to reference on the ossuanry "Jesus Son of Joseph", but not so important as to inter the patriarch's bones there. Even if he died earlier and elsewhere (which is likely), it would be a simple matter to transport the family patriarch's remains in a small ossuary to the family tomb for burial

Apostles would be referred to with the honorific "master", which was the opposite of how the early Church was set up

and the biggest:

The fact that archaeologists believe they have found Caiphas' ossuary and family tomb means we are willing to recognize some from that era, suggesting (and stating) that we only refuse to recognize "Jesus's" remains because of the implications.

Actually, that datapoint undermines their argument. Families like that of Caiphas had significant tombs with multiple ossuaries - they were rich and prominent (he was the High Priest) and such tombs could not be afforded by many.

No matter what one believes about the itinerant preacher from Nazareth, no one has ever maintained that His earthly family was wealthy and politically prominent in First century Jerusalem. Just the opposite - the "Jesus Movement" was poor and persecuted, and they would never get a tomb comparable to the High Priest's


The Piers Paul Read novel is called THE THIRD DAY. I have a certain icky feeling about it because the plot involves collaboration between a Jewish KGB officer who produces a forged josephus MS giving the location of the reburial and an Israeli archaeologist who "finds" the tomb. Ok, there are other sympathetic Jewish characters but this sort of plot still seems too close to the edge for me. OTOH it does make it quite clear that the discovery of a real "Jesus" tomb would mean Christianity was false - pure and simple.
There was an early twentieth-century novel called WHEN IT WAS DARK by Guy Thorne which presents the world as reverting to barbarism and oppression as the result of a fake Jesus tomb devised by a Jewish millionaire with the help of a corrupt archaeologist. That one is quite explicitly anti-semitic. (BTW it is written from a Protestant viewpoint - the hoax is represented as having no effect on Catholics because the Pope simply forbids them to pay any attention to it and they all obey like good little sheep; it is left to the Evangelical hero to seek out and expose the plot.)


I don't have a great desire to be contentious in the blogosphere, and certainly not here, but I can't say I agree with this priest's statement at all...

A Priest friend of mine told me once, "The difference between a Protestant and a Catholic is that a Protestant believes in the Gospel story because it's written in the Gospels. A Catholic does too, but also believes in the Gospels because they record what really happened."

Not a major point on my part, but the statement's not very fair. Protestants who believe the Bible is authoritative and true believe the events in the Gospel are literally true as well as accurately represented.

I've personally heard more Catholics question the factuality of the scriptures than Protestants, over my lifetime. Sorry if this goes off-point, but the statement as presented seemed unnecessary and unfair to our Christian brethren.

The biggest difference between orthodox Catholics and orthodox Protestants regarding the truth of the scriptures is in the interpretation and theology, not the belief in events described, I find.

Now, if we're talking about lukewarm believers who are wishy-washy about whether the scriptures are even remotely true, Catholic or Protestant, they're equally off-base, eh?

(Maybe I'm stinging that I recently was trying to argue the truthfulness of the scriptures to a Catholic relative who wanted to see them as just "stories" with a message of "be nice to each other," not as actual facts, so hearing that Protestants don't believe the events happened as described catches me way off-guard here.)

Now, maybe more on-point: I think the media -- except the Today Show, perhaps -- were better about being reserved on the whole tomb issue. Partly because the Christians in newsrooms had to sense this went beyond the claims of "Da Vinci" (ostensibly presented as fiction) and partly because Cameron's fingerprints said "publicity stunt" loudly and clearly.



Ellie in T.O.

Cameron, Jacobovici and Pellegrino have none of the requisite credentials to make any kind of conclusions about this particular archaeological site. They have, however, learned one important thing: you can make mountains of money insulting Christians (ie Da Vinci Code).

Just don't try it on Muslims, that's all.


I saw the program, and I thought it was interesting from the standpoint of learning more about archaeology and the integrity of the real archaeologists (who each insisted the filmmaker's assumptions were wrong). Even those who were not Christian were quite adamant that the program's assumptions were questionable at best.

A couple of other things that occurred to me as I watched it:

-- The DNA analysis of the Yeshua and Mariamne fragments only proved they did not have the same mother -- they could have the same father or be cousins, for example.

-- The entire hypothesis is based on a 20th Century Western concept of family that includes only father, mother and siblings. Families in Jesus' time were extended families, much as they still are in that part of the world. To assume that a "family tomb" would only contain remains of immediate family members is anachronistic.

-- The statistical analysis was so flawed that it is virtually meaningless. For example, one of the assumptions for the statistical analysis was that the Maria in the tomb was the mother of the Yeshua. Says who?

-- The mixing of languages was suspicious. Why would a First-century Jew transliterate Latin with Hebrew characters? They said "Maria is how she was referred to in the Gospels." Huh? Yes, because they were written in Greek! If they transliterated Miriam's name into Latin/Greek, why not Yeshua's name as well?

-- Their assumption that Yehuda had to be the son of Yeshua and Mariamne because no Yehuda was mentioned as a family member in the Gospels was hilarious. They want to have their cake and eat it to, appealing to the authority of the Gospels on such a trivial matter while ignoring its larger message.

-- I was puzzled by the assumption made by nearly everybody that if this hypothesis were true, it would contradict the Resurrection. Not necessarily so. If it were true -- which is highly unlikely -- it need only call into question the Ascension.

Anyway, I went away impressed by the unanimity of the scholars and experts that the premise was pure fantasy. The filmmaker said he wanted to provoke discussion, and so far it seems the discussion has not gone his way. I think it's important that we not be upset by this guy, but let the scientists work it out. Much better to have him debunked by experts than by us who will appear to be attempting a "cover-up."


Several have spoken of the right way to "handle" this kind of material: engage it and meet the scientific challenge.

Ok, but what about how we should view the discovery channel which chose to air this crap? Should they pay no economic price? My children watch the shows on Discovery as much as any other network, because they are usually safe from neo-porn and cetera. We don't wathc a huge amount of TV anyway.

Does it make sense to complain to Discovery for airing crap, while still encouraging the exchange of ideas in a scientific/historical sense?


was puzzled by the assumption made by nearly everybody that if this hypothesis were true, it would contradict the Resurrection. Not necessarily so. If it were true -- which is highly unlikely -- it need only call into question the Ascension.

What you say isn't true. If one were to accept the Ressurection, properly understood, but deny the Ascension, he would have to show that Jesus still walks the earth. A "resurrection" where Jesus just dies again in a few years isn't the Resurrection at all--not the one that demonstrates the efficacy of Christ's destruction of death.



I agree with you as a faithful Christian. My point was meant from an archaeological standpoint. Of course I don't believe such a theological dilemma will ever arise.


I wonder how many spectators at the end of the show changed their minds and now disagree about what Christians in general say who Jesus is...

We've seen such blatantly unscientific and emotionally manipulatory pretentious debunking before achieving what they intended (e.g. "Da Vinci Code").

Jordan Potter

"amateur pious archeologists who discovered the tomb of the supposed girl martyr St. Philomena who, oops!, didn't really exist, but that didn't stop them from concocting a fantastic legend of her martyrdom."

St. Philomena didn't really exist? Then why are there still churches dedicated to her, and why has her cult not been order suppressed? Where are you getting your information about the supposed nonexistence of St. Philomena? You're not the first person I've encountered who thinks it has been proven that she doesn't exist, even though there is an ancient tomb that was discovered with her name on it (Filumena).

Lawrence King

The choice of Gospel of Philip as a first-century source is especially bizarre.

The GoP quotes from the canonical Gospels and the canonical Pauline letters several times -- in 55:33-4, 56:32-34, 68:9-12, 68:26-28, 83:11-13, and 84:7-9. The last two of these passages actually state that their quotations, from Matthew and John
respectively, are “from scripture.

So it's clear, from the text alone, that the GoP was written well after the canonical New Testament writings.

(If your edition uses a different numbering system, note that 83:11-13 = NHL 158 = GS 351, and 84:7-9 = NHL 159 = GS 352.)

Fr. Augustine Thompson O.P.

At the risk of encurring some wrath from her followers--as happened to me in the past when I wrote on this in the old Catholic Heritage magazine--her goes on Philomena.

If there are Catholic churches still dedicated to Philomena, it is because the local bishop failed to enforce the February 14, 1961, decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites that required the change of such church dedications and the removal of Philomena from all liturgical calendars and titles of religious orders. Philomena had never been canonized, although her local cult at the church of the body's deposition in Mugnano was merely permitted by Pope Gregory in 1827, so this does not involve reversal of a canonization. Her cult was outside of Mugnano "popular" and not formally approved.

The reason for the decree was lack of evidence for her existence--although the decree did not declare that no such individual existed since decisions on historical "facts" like that are not within the responsibilities of the Congregation.

The problem with Philomena was that although the remains of a young girl were found when when a tomb was opened in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in 1802, the evidence for her martyrdom (a glass dish with red powder) and her name (a jumbled and meaningless series of inscribed marble plates closing the tomb that read: "lumena paxte cumfi") prove neither.

We know now that the red material was not martyr's blood but standard ancient funerary spices and that the jumbled plates had been reused from another tomb; there is no justification for reordering them to read "pax tecum Filumena" as had been suggested in 1802. That a great saint like St. John Vianney (and others) venerated her is not *historical* evidence for her existence, life, or martyrdom.

Does this prove that the body found was not that of a martyr? No. Does it prove that the girl's name wasn't Philomena? No. Does not prove that there is no St. Philomena in heaven? No. There is no way to prove a negative, and these are all negations. But the cult of the supposed martyr was surpressed, with the approval of Bl. Pope John XXIII, in 1961.

In know of no other example of the surpression of a saint's cult in modern times except that of the supposed "Blood Libel" martyr St. Simonino of Trento, who has been in the press a bit lately. That cult was surpressed, I believe, during the post-Vatican II calendar reform.


Thank you Fr. - that was very interesting. An issue I am ignorant of, but enjoyed reading more

Jordan Potter

Father, I knew St. Philomena's name was removed from the calendar in 1961, but hadn't heard that the Church had suppressed her cult and ordered all parishes dedicated to her patronage to change their names (I was aware of the entirely reasonable and necessary suppression of the Blood Libel saint Simon of Trent, who may well be in heaven, please God, but was not a martyr -- a murder victim apparently, the murderer's identity known only to God). Indeed, with all the St. Philomena Churches still in existence, it doesn't seem that the news of the suppression of her cult has gotten around very well. Could you locate and translate the Feb. 14, 1861 decree that suppresses her cult?

Of course I was aware that the evidence regarding St. Philomena was pretty paltry. On the other hand, if the two tiles on the tomb of that girl weren't supposed to be rearranged, then what we have is an anonymous tomb of an early Christian girl who may or may not be a martyr. Then we also have a long string of miracles attributed to the intercession of a saint who supposedly never existed. Or were the miracles performed through the intercession of the anonymous girl found in the tomb?

I'm also not sure St. Philomena's cult being so long recognised, and her feast day being placed on the Church's calendar, doesn't constitute a canonisation in fact if not by a formal decree. Anyway I would really like to see the 1961 decree.

Jordan Potter

A follow-up comment on St. Philomena: I note that The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) mentions a decree of April 18, 1961 (not Feb. 14), removing St. Philomena from the church's calendar. In its brief entry, it explains the well-known problems with St. Philomena's identity, but it doesn't say anything about her cult being completely suppressed. Indeed, if the Church had suppressed her cult altogether, it would raise difficulties, since I believe Pope St. Pius X previously had declared her cult unsuppressible. It seems to me, from what I have read, that at least privately and locally the Church does not forbid continued devotion to St. Philomena. Otherwise you'd think by now something would have been done to rededicate all those churches, including the one named after her in Italy where the 1802 relics reportedly are still kept.

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