Film Feature: “The Jesus Discovery”

When Simcha Jacobovici began his career as an investigative journalist and documentarian, he had no idea he would end up entering the world of archaeology in such an impactful way. With his popular show, The Naked Archaeologist, he entertains audiences while bringing archaeology to the mainstream. In his previous documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, he began a controversy that has grown stronger with the premier of his new film, The Jesus Discovery, just days away.

The film shows the director and renowned biblical scholar James Tabor lead a team by inserting a special robotic camera they developed in Toronto into a previously excavated first century tomb.

In the tomb, they find five limestone ossuaries — bone boxes for the dead — that feature interesting inscriptions and drawings. One bears a Greek inscription that references a “Divine Jehovah” raising someone up, another features the drawing of a large fish with a stick in its mouth, which they believe represents the story of Jonah, the prophet who was swallowed by a whale and then released. This symbol is the earliest and most used symbol in the history of Christianity — and the finding is the earliest finding of the symbol, dating it back 250 years before the previous earliest finding of the image in the catacombs of Rome.

They believe these findings represent the first evidence of the Christian belief in Resurrection after death.

The documentary has its Canadian premiere on VisionTV Thursday April 12th at 10pm ET, with its world premiere following on Monday April 16th at 9pm ET. I asked the director about his interest in making this documentary, and the ensuing controversy surrounding its release.

What made you want to get involved with making The Jesus Discovery?

In 2007, I made a movie called The Lost Tomb of Jesus. In that movie, we pointed out that a tomb was discovered in Jerusalem in 1980 which had a cluster of names including two Mary’s, a Joseph, and a “Jesus, son of Joseph” that perfectly fit what the Church calls “the Holy Family.” We asked a statistician what the probability was that this was mere coincidence and the answer came back — it was highly unlikely that this was coincidence. So we brought this dramatic discovery to the world, only to be met by headlines and criticisms. During our research, we found out that there was another tomb nearby. Unlike tomb 1, tomb 2 had not been excavated. It was sealed under a building — the bones and coffins still there! So we thought it would be amazing to enter this second tomb and see if it shed any light on the so called “Jesus Family tomb.”


When did your interest in archaeology begin?

I’ve always been interested but it was more like a hobby. My professional life was dominated by what I would call “investigative documentary filmmaking”. My associates and I have made films on sex trafficking, Ebola outbreaks and the administration of justice in the Canadian arctic. Parallel with the archaeology, today we’re working on an organ trafficking film. So the archaeology — especially Biblical archaeology — was just a personal passion until I met Hershel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. That was in 2002 and he offered me an investigative “scoop” which was the subject of my James, Brother of Jesus film. It was the first inscription on an ossuary that seemed to be explicitly related to Jesus of Nazareth. But, as always with these matters, the naysayers attacked, alleging that the owner of the ossuary — antiquities collector Oded Golan — forged the latter part of the inscription i.e., “James, son of Joseph” was OK they said but “brother of Jesus” was forged. Just a couple of weeks ago, after a 5 year trial, he was totally exonerated in an Israeli court of law. In any event, the James Ossuary made world headlines and I had an exclusive to it. Making that film brought me into the world of Biblical archaeology and its many layers i.e., archaeology, controversy, theology, scholarship, and investigative journalism. In a sense, I never looked back. One story led to another and for the last decade I’ve made probably close to a hundred programs on the subject.

What was the most exciting part of making this documentary?

Everything was exciting and everything was potentially disastrous. Usually filmmakers follow scientists. In a sense, you’re assured success because you come after the fact. You then ask the experts to recreate their experiences. In this instance, the filmmaking led the science, not the other way around. Meaning, the only way we got everyone’s agreement to investigate a sealed Jesus-era tomb under an apartment building was to say that we will excavate without physically entering the tomb. Meaning, we built a robotic arm with cameras attached that was made to measure for this tomb. At every step something could have derailed us e.g., the police, the religious activists, the building committee, the Jerusalem municipality etc. Even when we got into the tomb, we could have come up with nothing. After four years and over a million dollars invested, we could have come up with absolutely nothing. Instead, we found the earliest Christian icon ever discovered — 250 years earlier than anything in the catacombs of Rome. We also found the earliest statement of faith in resurrection. Clearly, our hunch has paid off. Not only have we made headlines with our new discoveries but these findings have once again put our earlier claims on the front burners. No one can just dismiss the alleged “Jesus Family tomb” when right next to it there is evidence of Jesus’ earliest followers.

How does it differ from your show The Naked Archaeologist, and previous documentaries you’ve worked on?

The Naked Archaeologist has a light touch. It strikes a balance between humour, history and archaeology. In our present investigation i.e., “The Jesus Discovery” we’re focusing on technology and archaeology. The signature humour of The Naked Archaeologist is not part of this mix. Instead, the program relies on the technology and the high stakes drama of this discovery to entertain and educate its viewers. I don’t know any other program where you literally see a discovery taking place before the cameras.

Did your own theology contribute to your interest in the project?

No. I’m an Orthodox Jew and a journalist. When I approach a story like this, theology doesn’t really enter into it. I’m interested in the history and the archaeology. The story is dramatic enough without introducing theology into the equation. Of course, when you’re dealing with people’s beliefs you have to be sensitive. But it shouldn’t affect the science. It should not affect the reporting. Besides, I’m Israeli born and any archaeology in Jerusalem, I regard as part of my history. So I was driven by curiosity and the challenge to get to the bottom of one of the greatest stories ever told.

What do you say to those who doubt your theory is correct?

There are two forms of criticism: one is legitimate debate. It’s through debate that we get to the truth. The other form is mouthing off. I don’t particularly appreciate the latter. It’s hard to spend four years overcoming obstacle after obstacle so as to introduce a robotic arm into a Jesus-era tomb. It’s easy to stay at home, wait for the findings and then whatever is found, use a lot of fancy words to put the finding down. One popular blog attacked our findings before we even announced them. So, I try not to focus too much on negative naysayers. Rather, I try to focus on my own work and my own research. Once I feel on solid ground, I’m really not all that concerned with the comments of people who are latecomers to the issue.

Did you expect to find anything when you set out on this adventure?

Absolutely or I wouldn’t have set out. But I knew that, logically, it was a long shot. In retrospect, I don’t know what possessed me but I believed — and still believe — that if Tomb I is the “Jesus Family Tomb” then Tomb II is the burial cave of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus. So, I guess, in my dreams I was hoping to find an inscription or symbol that ties the cave to Joseph of Arimathea and through him to Jesus.

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