Ed Pilkington and Rory McCarthy

A new theory about the final resting place appears set to raise weighty questions

New York/Jerusalem: If it really were the most important archaeological discovery in history, the point of truth came with very little song or dance. There was no drum roll or fanfare, just the sweeping aside of black felt drapes to reveal two simple stone boxes sitting side by side.

But for the panel of filmmakers, theologians and statisticians at the New York Public Library on Monday, this really was the moment. As James Cameron, the director of the film Titanic who has lent his name to the project, said: "It doesn't get bigger than this."

The claim that was being presented to the world's media and which will be aired on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. on Sunday was that the two boxes once contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth and his wife Mary Magdalene. Another box, not present at Monday's event but coincidentally on display in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contained, so the theory goes, the bones of their son, Judah.

Inscriptions

The boxes, which housed human bones and are known as ossuaries, are made out of Jerusalem limestone with its distinctive colour of clotted cream. The smaller of the two bears the inscription Jesus, son of Joseph, while the larger and more lavishly decorated is marked in the name of Mariamene e Mara. According to Canadian documentary-maker Simcha Jacobovici, the inscription translates as Mary Magdalene the Master. It is his contention that he and his team have conclusively found the tomb of Jesus and his family.

The claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that they had a child together in the style of The Da Vinci Code, and that after his death he left behind his bones rather than being resurrected in the flesh elicited an outcry that was as instant as it was predictable. The Catholic League dubbed the theory a "Titanic fraud," saying not a Lenten season passes without some author or TV programme seeking to cast doubt on the divinity.

Undisputed fact

At the centre of the controversy is an undisputed fact: 10 ossuaries dating from the first century were found in the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 by building workers. A common funeral practice at that time was to leave bodies to decay for a year until only the bones were left, then pack them in the stone boxes and entomb them.

Of the 10 ossuaries found, six had inscriptions bearing the names of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, another Mary who the filmmakers deem to be Jesus's mother, Matthew and Yose who they say were two of his four brothers, and son Judah.

Matters of consensus

The existence of the boxes and the precise inscriptions they bore are matters of consensus, though how to interpret them is not.

Mr. Jacobovici says the discovery failed to excite much interest in 1980 because archaeologists were not armed at that time with the knowledge and scientific tools that now exist. His theory relies on the retranslation by experts of the Mariamene as Mary Magdalene.

DNA sampling

The team carried out DNA sampling on matter remaining in the two boxes and claim it supports the contention that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were man and wife. And they turned to statistical advice from a Professor in Toronto who concluded on the basis of the six names etched into the ossuaries that the possibility of this being the Jesus family tomb should be "taken very seriously indeed," putting the probability that the tomb housed an entirely different family at 600-1.

But holes in the theory were becoming glaringly evident. The DNA available is limited as the bones themselves have long since been reburied. The test was mitochondrial that is, it only contained information on maternal inheritance, thus allowing the possibility that Jesus and Mariamene were brother and sister through the paternal line.

Israeli archaeologists pointed out that despite the statistical work commissioned by Mr. Jacobovici, the names scratched into the boxes were all popular and common in the first century.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007

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