Israeli Antiquities Authorities excavated the tomb and catalogued the names inscribed on the collection of ossuaries -- boxes used to encase the bones of the deceased after their bodies had decayed. Although the tomb seemed insignificant at the time, years later experts noticed that the names on this particular set of ossuaries were all associated with Jesus of Nazareth and his family. For example, one box reads, "Yeshua bar Yosef," which roughly translates, "Jesus, son of Joseph."
Cameron, who served as executive producer on the film, collaborated with director Simcha Jacobovici to build a hypothetical storyline by piecing together a web of plausible histories to postulate that Jesus remains were once lain in that tomb. The theory also connects Mary Magdalene to Jesus as his wife, and suggests that they bore a son.
Given the guesswork, historical gaps and the many "if this, then that" elements weaving the theory together, there are concrete grounds for skepticism. Professor of Religion Jim Hanson weighed in recently on whether Camerons recent documentarys evidence sinks or swims.
"I found the idea more intriguing than the actual presentation of the evidence," Hanson said. "It didn't feel like pure documentary. It felt like info-tainment."
Hanson, who was solicited for his expertise for a Star Tribune article earlier this month, prior to the premiere of the documentary, said that he would reserve judgment on the validity of the films claims until after viewing it. He hoped the documentary filmmakers would subject their findings to thorough scientific peer review. However, he discovered that the film lacked balance and reliability by not cross-checking its theories with several paleontology experts.
"For me, it never got beyond that this is an interpretation," he said. "It wasn't a neutral presentation."
Hanson said the film proposes a statistical argument: If the inscriptions are original, and if they say what experts think they say, the probability of those ossuaries belonging to the family of Jesus is greatly increased, but still not conclusive.
"Every step demands a particular reading of the [archaeological] evidence, so it gets a little shaky," Hanson said. "I'm not a convert [to their theory]. Ive not yet become an advocate for the 'Jesus Tomb.'"
However inconclusive these claims may seem to Hanson, he still suggests the film for study. He said it is "worth discussing the nature of the Christian faith and its relation to history."
Before dissecting it in a religion course, though, Hanson said he'd rather see its approach and presentation discussed from a media studies perspective, to investigate possible motives for creating a documentary in 2007 about a discovery that sat untouched for over two decades.
For Christians, this film makes claims that could contradict Biblical teachings and the basis of Christianity. "I would not want this film to distract from the call to live according to Jesus values," Hanson said. "Do we have to know exactly what happened to Jesus in order to embrace the very powerful ideas of Jesus? The particulars of the Christian faith might be malarkey, but the central message holds water and is true."
Hanson said that for a wider audience, the film serves as an invitation to think about on what faith rests. "If these are the [ossuaries] of Jesus, the empty tomb story would have to be viewed as mythology," Hanson said. "I don't think [the film] proves the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but your faith cant rest on the latest historical discovery."
According to Hanson, most historical discoveries raise more questions than they answer. He said he doubts any expert will ever unearth the "historical Jesus" and recommends that Christians dont tie their faith solely to recent "evidence" or to the role of "witnesses" in ancient historical and Biblical accounts.
"There's no definitive evidence that can prove the Resurrection," Hanson said. "Faith is not the antithesis of history. Faith is a view of history based on one's view of God. You can't get directly from history to faith."