Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Feud Between Biblical Archaeologists Goes to Court

Time Magazine   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.

Canadian documentary maker and biblical archaeologist Simcha Jacobovici 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 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 The Jesus Discovery 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. [...]


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