ROME — It could be the anti-Christian hoax to end all anti-Christian hoaxes.

The Discovery Channel on March 4 broadcast “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” a program that claimed that an excavated Jerusalem tomb contained the remains of Jesus and his “wife” and “son.” The film was produced by James Cameron, famous for directing The Titanic. But the documentary was so thoroughly debunked by Catholic and non-Catholic archaeologists alike that the film may have helped the faith more than it hurt.

“They gambled too much,” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told the Register March 1. “The findings haven’t been based on reason but a mountain of speculation.”

The program, announced with a flurry of publicity ahead of its airing, revisited a 1980 find in Jerusalem known as the Talpiot tomb, whose contents had already been the subject of a 1996 BBC documentary.

The producers of the Discovery Channel program, Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Academy Award-winning director Cameron, argued that the tomb — which contained 10 funeral chests known as ossuaries — included the bones of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and other members of their “family.”

The producers’ reasoning: Because DNA tests showed the remains in the boxes inscribed with the names of Jesus and Miriam (the contemporary rendering of Mary in first-century Judea) were not blood relatives, they deduced that she and Jesus were married. And because another of the boxes bore the inscription “Judah son of Jesus,” they further assumed Jesus had a son.

But archaeologists, incensed at the international publicity given these shaky claims by dilettante researchers, quickly debunked those claims. Firstly, they said the DNA tests only prove that Jesus and Miriam were not related, not that the two were married. Nor do the DNA tests give any indication that the bones belonged to either Jesus of Nazareth or Mary Magdelene.

Moreover, the archaeologists noted that the names Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Judah (Judas) — all inscriptions on the ossuaries — were commonly used in first-century Judea and Galilee.

“The names Mary, Joseph or Joseh, Judas and even Jesus, found in the Talpiot tomb, should well be expected there, or in almost any other tomb in the area for that matter,” said Stephen Pfann, professor of archaeology at the University of the Holy Land. “These are simply the most common names of the day.”

Pfann added that had other ossuaries of that time been preserved through the centuries, it’s possible there could have been many other tombs that could qualify as a “Jesus” family tomb, on the basis of the names inscribed on the ossuaries in the tombs. “However, in all cases, as in this one, there would be no compelling reason to connect them with Jesus of Nazareth,” said Pfann.

The archaeologists stressed there is no historical evidence that Jesus was ever married or had a child. And, they noted, the presence of the remains of someone called “Joseph” in the Talpiot tomb suggest that the remains are not those of a hypothetical unresurrected Jesus of Nazareth. That’s because it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, who died earlier in Galilee, would have been buried in Jerusalem, since the historical record connects him only to Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Furthermore, burial sites like the Talpiot tomb and ossuaries usually belonged to rich families, which do not match the historical record for Jesus.

Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner, who oversaw the original excavation of the Talpiot tomb when it was discovered in 1980, was scathing in his assessment of the authenticity of Jacobovici’s and Cameron’s documentary.

“It makes a great story for a TV film,” Kloner said in a Feb. 27 interview with the Jerusalem Post. “But it’s completely impossible. It’s nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the first century.”

Jacobovici’s previous research has already been discredited: In 2002 he made a program about an ossuary bearing the inscription “James, Brother of Jesus.” The Israel Antiquities Authority later declared the inscription a fake.

Jacobovici, Cameron and executives at the Discovery Channel all declined the Register’s request for comment about the Jesus tomb program.

So why did Cameron, director of the movies Titanic and Terminator, team with Jacobovici to produce what Donohue has called a “titanic fraud”?

“It has more to do with public relations than archaeology,” said Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of Christian archaeology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. “It’s not a scientific discovery.”

Donohue believes the producers’ motivation is primarily ideological, as well as financial. The cultural elite in the media and entertainment industries are mostly secularists, he said, with an “outright hostility to Christianity.”

Donohue added that for such a program to be aired during Lent was “predictable,” as pernicious attacks against the faith traditionally appear at this time. “I would predict something else, a movie or publication, coming out between now and Easter,” he said.

Speaking to the Register Feb. 28, Father Alliata bemoaned that so much time must be dedicated to debunking such far-fetched stories. However, he predicted the media attention to the “Jesus Tomb” program will be short-lived.

Said Father Alliata, “It will die out sooner than the controversy over The Da Vinci Code, which has already died out.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.