A Feud Between Biblical Archaeologists Goes to Court

After being stung by criticism (and the cancellation of a lucrative TV deal), one expert sues another for libel. What would Jesus say?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mike Segar / Reuters

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici attends a news conference in New York on Feb. 26, 2007

In the Old City of Jerusalem, no one ever went broke underestimating the proof required to help the faithful suspend disbelief — or in a modern twist, allow the skeptical to bolster their heterodoxy. A million-dollar lawsuit in Israel has become the latest vehicle in the unending quest to redefine faith as the substance of things seen.

Simcha Jacobovici, a Canadian documentary maker specializing in biblical archaeology, is suing a retired scientist and former archaeological museum curator named Joe Zias, who has accused him of publicizing scientifically dubious theories. Many of Jacobovici’s documentaries have focused on artifacts that purport to reveal new interpretations of early Christianity, including the notion that the remains of Jesus and his family were buried in a tomb underneath modern-day Jerusalem. Jacobovici claims that Zias’ criticisms are libelous and have cost him television contracts and money.

The dusty world of biblical archaeology directly affects — not to say inspires — the hopes and dreams of millions of faithful people who might buy purported relics or tune in to television shows about them. And, so, there has arisen around it a thriving industry in Jesus-era coins and lamps, and pre-Christian Judaica such as seals and seal impressions from the era of the biblical kings — and in books and movies about them.

(MORE: Were Nails from Caiaphas’ Tomb Used to Crucify Jesus?)

The son of Romanian holocaust survivors, Jacobovici is an Emmy-winning journalist who has produced several films in the past decade about new finds that supposedly illuminate the true history of early Christianity. Jacobovici’s first foray into the biblical-documentary genre was a 2002 film James, Brother of Jesus that introduced the world to the James ossuary, a bone box with an ancient Aramaic inscription translated as James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. Even as Jacobovici’s film characterized the ossuary as an authentic archaeological discovery, scholars and the Israeli authorities claimed the inscription as a fake. Discovery Channel aired the film but, in 2008, it put the James ossuary on its list of the top 10 scientific hoaxes of all time. Last year, after an eight-year trial about biblical-relic forgery for profit, a judge acquitted two defendants of fraud (one of them had been accused of faking the inscription) but declined to rule on the alleged forgery itself.

Jacobovici then made a film about the so-called Talpiot Tomb — named after the Jerusalem neighborhood where it was excavated — contending that 10 ossuaries found inside it had held the bones of Christ and his immediate family, including Mary Magdalene. That project had backing from Hollywood’s James Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar. Jacobovici then produced Nails of the Cross, a show that claimed that iron spikes excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) from a tomb in Jerusalem in 1990 were the very nails used to pin the Saviour to the cross. Nails of the Cross aired on Israeli TV and the History Channel.

In all this Zias, 71, has emerged as Jacobovici’s nemesis. Retired from his job as a professional anthropologist, he now makes a living guiding bike tours around the Israeli countryside. He knows the murky world of biblical-relic trading as well as anyone, having spent 25 years working for the IAA, the tiny Israeli agency charged with overseeing excavations in 30,000 archaeological sites. He lives in a three-room house in central Jerusalem with his wife and daughter. He says he can’t afford to pay the lawyer he’s hired to defend him and claims he is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the suit.

(MORE: Are Bible Stories True? Archaeology’s Evidence)

Zias is well known among Near East archaeologists for blasting cranky e-mails from his blog, Science and Archaeology Group, accusing filmmakers and writers of “pimping off the Bible.” He routinely writes Jacobovici’s first name with a dollar sign in place of the S. Born in Michigan, he moved to Israel in the 1960s. He told me he was first motivated to expose fakery in the biblical-relic world when he was curating archaeology for the IAA and was approached by a pair of American pastors from the Midwest who complained that their flocks were being routinely fleeced by charlatans collecting money to search underneath the stones of Jerusalem for tangible proof of Bible accounts — like Christ’s DNA.

The contentiousness between Zias and Jacobovici came to a head in 2011. That year, National Geographic pulled out of a Jacobovici project on another early Christian relic that Zias and others were criticizing — comments that the filmmaker cites as part of the reason for his lawsuit. Reached by e-mail, Jacobovici said he is suing Zias — and not his academically affiliated critics — because Zias “crossed the line from fair comment to outright libel. Specifically, he has accused me repeatedly — verbally and in writing — of ‘forging archaeology’ … a criminal activity, and no free society allows you to accuse people of such activities, unless you can prove that what you are saying is correct. Furthermore, he has accused me of ‘planting archaeology.’ Again, free discourse does not include libelous statements such as this one.”

The other critics, however, have not exactly been soft in their commentary about Jacobovici’s work. A panel of academic experts had also assailed the basis for the film about the so-called Jonah ossuary. The film, The Jesus Discovery, which eventually aired on the Discovery Channel in 2012 and also was published as a book, contends that the ossuary, found in a tomb underneath a Jerusalem apartment building, is the earliest known example of an object bearing a Christian symbol referring to the resurrection. The chairman of Duke University’s Religion Center for Jewish Studies, Eric M. Meyers, said of Jacobovici’s claims about the National Geographic pullback: “I was on the advisory panel of experts assessing the integrity of the claims, the appropriateness of the report and the controversial claims about the tomb in which the Jonah ossuary was found, and the panel unanimously agreed not to recommend that the project and film go forward.”

(VIDEO: Archaeology Digs Up Controversy in Jerusalem)

Meyers, who is Jewish, told me he was troubled by the implication in much of Jacobovici’s work that there was no resurrection. According to Meyers, Jacobovici has claimed to have some of the bones of Jesus and his family, their DNA from ossuaries. “If the remains were reburied, then there could not have been any true resurrection,” Meyer adds. “You do not make scientific announcements of this potential significance in sensational films or in a trade book that has unsubstantiated and controversial claims in it.”

Zias’ Israeli lawyer Jonathan Tsevi told TIME that Zias never accused Jacobovici of criminal acts. “Joe never used the terms forging archaeology or planting archaeology, although in essence this is the method Simcha is repeatedly using,” Tsevi said in an e-mail. Zias has also taken Jacobovici to task for using CGI to enhance images of an amphora in the Jerusalem tomb he believes is engraved with the first image of the Christian fish symbol. Jacobovici makes no apology for that. “I don’t think any judge is going to accept that using CGI to enhance a photograph is tantamount to ‘forging archaeology,’” he wrote.

The bitter legal battle has also come up with a holocaust angle — albeit a rather convoluted one. “Most painful is [Zias’] accusation that I have ‘invented Holocaust stories’” Jacobovici tells TIME. “I am the child of Holocaust survivors.” Jacobovici is apparently referring to an event at a 2007 academic conference in Jerusalem, at which an award was presented to the widow of an IAA employee and Holocaust survivor named Joseph Gat. The woman said Gat knew he had found the Jesus family tomb under a Jerusalem apartment building but never told anyone about it during his lifetime for fear of Christian retribution over evidence that defies Christian beliefs about Christ’s immortality.

(MORE: The Top 10 Jesus Films)

Zias, who worked with Gat, said Gat never mentioned the Jesus tomb to anyone at the IAA and wasn’t trained to make such an identification in the first place. “He never published one article in his long years with the IAA,” Zias says. “He was a simple but honest guy … who could not read inscriptions, but now that he’s deceased, was the one person chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for the ‘secret he took to his grave.'” Zias has charged that the award and Mrs. Gat’s comments were orchestrated by Jacobovici as part of an ongoing media spectacle. Jacobovici denies that: “I have to tell you, in Israel, accusing people of “inventing Holocaust stories” touches a very, very raw nerve … I think the judge will throw the book at him.”

What kind of evidence will be presented in court? Jesus and his disciples are unlikely to be coming forward to explain whether they had anything at all to do with all those nails, tombs, ossuaries and other bits of ancient history underneath Jerusalem. American biblical scholar James West, who also blogs on biblical archaeology, said of the lawsuit: “Disagreements are fine, but vendettas (which is what this seems to one outside the proceedings) are improper. Perhaps Zias and Jacobovici should settle their differences the old-fashioned way — in a public debate. Scholars disagree all the time, and they can get quite nasty at it. But I have never once heard of a scholar suing another scholar because their work was eviscerated.”

Burleigh researched the modern-day biblical-relic industry for her book, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. For more: www.ninaburleigh.com.