To resolve the question of whether the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have rested in two limestone boxes discovered in a Jerusalem suburb, the filmmakers of a new documentary took novel approaches - including turning to statisticians.
Some religious scholars and archaeologists, however, have apparently not been convinced by the numbers.
Filmmakers showed the two boxes on Monday while promoting their documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and airing on the Discovery Channel on March 4.
It argues that 10 first-century bone boxes, called ossuaries, discovered in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family.
One of the boxes even bears the title, "Judah son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus had a son. The claim that Jesus even had an ossuary contradicts the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
A panel of scholars that joined the filmmakers Monday at the New York Public Library addressed that criticism and others.
James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that while literal interpreters of the Bible say Jesus' physical body rose from the dead, "one might affirm resurrection in a more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind."
But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Christianity "has always understood the physical resurrection of Christ to be at the very center of the faith."
Cameron, who won an Academy Award for directing "Titanic," said he was excited to be associated with the Jesus film, which was directed by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.
"We don't have any physical record of Jesus' existence," he said. "So what this film ... shows is for the first time tangible, physical, archaeological and in some cases forensic evidence."
He said that to a layman's eye "it seemed pretty darn compelling."
Jacobovici and archaeologist Charles Pellegrino also are the authors of "The Jesus Family Tomb," newly published by HarperSan Francisco. Jacobovici said that a name on one of the ossuaries, Mariamene, is a major support to the argument that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family. In early Christian texts, Mariamene is a name of Mary Magdalene, he said.
Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in the documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.
In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the subject, archaeologists challenged the link to Jesus and his family. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.
"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said.
But Shimon Gibson, along with Kloner among the three archaeologists who discovered the tomb in 1980, attended Monday's news conference and said of the film's claims: "I'm skeptical, but that's the way I am. I'm willing to accept the possibility."
The film's claims have raised the ire of Christian leaders in the Holy Land.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.
"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this," Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."
The first of the ossuaries' inscriptions, written in Aramaic, reads, "Yeshua bar Yosef," or "Jesus son of Joseph." The second, in Hebrew, reads, "Maria." The third, in Hebrew, reads, "Matia," or "Matthew." The fourth inscription, in Hebrew, reads, "Yose," a nickname for "Yosef," or "Joseph." The fifth, in Greek, reads, "Mariamene e Mara," which the filmmakers said means "Mary the master" or "Mary the teacher." The sixth, in Aramaic, reads, "Yehuda bar Yeshua," or Judah son of Jesus."
Jacobovici said the ossuaries did not initially seem extraordinary because the names were all common, the AP reports.
But the filmmakers had statisticians calculate the likelihood that any other family in first-century Jerusalem would have had that cluster of names.
"The numbers range from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 that there is some other family," said Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto.
Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government agency responsible for archaeology, said the Antiquities Authority agreed to send two ossuaries to New York, where they were displayed at Monday's news conference "but it doesn't mean that we agree with" the filmmakers.
The ossuaries do not contain any bones. The bones were reburied after their discovery, as is standard practice with archaeological finds in Israel.
But Jacobovici said DNA evidence can nonetheless be collected from the boxes. He said DNA analysis has so far proved that Jesus and Mariamene, the putative Mary Magdalene, were not siblings and therefore could have been husband and wife.