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Jacobovici defends his reputation in court

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Documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici shows a life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in a first-century burial cave located beneath an apartment building in 2012 in Jerusalem. The artifacts, believed to date from the first century, are the subject of his documentary The Resurrection Tomb. [Lior Mizrahi/Flash 90 photo]

Canadian Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici is no stranger to controversy.

Best known as the host of the TV series The Naked Archaeologist, Jacobovici has directed more than a dozen provocative feature documentaries, including Deadly Currents, Hollywoodism and The Exodus Decoded. Almost all of them have broken new ground or challenged conventional wisdom.

The resulting backlash has inured the three-time Emmy Award-winner to criticism. But he wasn’t prepared for the campaign of vilification mounted by retired Israeli curator Joe Zias after the release of Jacobovici’s most recent docs  – The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007) and The Jesus Discovery/The Resurrection Tomb Mystery (2012).

A Michigan-born anthropologist who made aliyah in the 1960s, Zias, 72, says Jacobovici is exploiting archeology for financial gain or, in his words, “pimping the Bible.” Specifically, in a series of web postings and emails to Jacobovici’s employers, bloggers and journalists, he accused the filmmaker of “planting archeology,” forgery and inventing a Holocaust story. Although many scholars have derided the films as manipulative and sensationalized, only Zias has actually accused him of fraud.

“I don’t mind being criticized,” Jacobovici, 60, said in a recent interview. “People should be free to say what they want. But there’s a difference between free speech and libel. And when you make these kinds of allegations, you cross the line.”

Last year, the filmmaker formally filed a libel suit against Zias in an Israeli court, seeking $1 million in damages. However, given the glacial pace of Israel’s judicial system, it will likely be months before there is a verdict.

Jacobovici is not the first to feel Zias’s wrath. In the past decade or so, he has charged half a dozen senior archeologists, scientists and religious scholars with deceiving the public. For instance, he accused the late Bar-Ilan University historian Hanan Eshel of forging a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, and lobbied for his dismissal. Aren Maeir, former chair of the university’s department of archeology, confirms that Zias urged him to fire Eshel, the author of more than 200 published papers. 

Zias declined to be interviewed about Jacobovici’s libel case, but in various online postings, he has attempted to portray himself as the potential victim of censorship.

“In the search for fame and fortune,” he wrote in one posting, “powerful media and personal interests… have encroached upon what once was a honest profession… In an attempt to silence academic critics, a small but financially powerful group… has chosen to react via libel ligation [sic]…an attempt to silence public criticism and freedom of expression, in order to advance their own parochial interests.”

Zias has been most exercised by Jacobovici’s recent documentaries, which focus on two ancient tombs in Talpiot, just south of Jerusalem, both originally discovered in the early 1980s. These, the films boldly suggest, are the likely resting place of Jesus, his extended family and his earliest followers. The first tomb contained ossuaries (bone boxes) inscribed with a constellation of suggestive names. These included Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus, son of Joseph); Maria (Latin form of the Hebrew name Miriam); Yose (a diminutive of Joseph, the name of one of Jesus’ brothers found in Mark 6:3); Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus); and Mariamene e Mara (possibly Mary of Magdelene).

For orthodox Christians, the very idea of a Jesus family tomb is anathema. Jesus could not have had his bones bundled into a box because, according to church doctrine, he was resurrected and ascended to Heaven. Nor do most mainstream Christians accept what the films imply – that Jesus was ever married, to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, or that he fathered children.

Jacobovici believes the second tomb, so far examined only by a camera attached to a tubular probe – Orthodox activists refused the filmmakers permission to enter the cave physically  – contains the first hard evidence of contemporaneous belief in Jesus by his original Jewish followers. The cave, he posits, may have been on the estate of Joseph of Arimathea who, according to the Gospels, was the affluent member of the Sanhedrin who claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

By pure coincidence, the same family name – Aramati –  appears on a mailbox in the building constructed over the ancient tomb in the early 1980s. Before the trial started, Zias claimed – in letters sent to Jacobovici’s broadcaster National Geographic, his publisher Simon & Schuster, and others – that the filmmaker had pasted the Aramati name on the mailbox to draw the parallel with the biblical disciple of Jesus.

This act, apparently, is what he meant by “planting archeology.” Jacobovici denied the allegation, noting that the Jerusalem phone book showed a family named Arimathea (in Hebrew Aramati) living at the address long before the documentary was shot. Since then, in court depositions, Zias has admitted that there is such a family living in the building.

In court on Feb. 9, Zias brought what he had billed as a star witness to testify – an American matron named Joanna Garrett. A friend of Jacobovici’s longtime collaborator, Prof. James Tabor, tenured chair of the department of religion at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Garrett spent one day with the crew during the shoot.

Later, she swore an affidavit claiming that the filmmaker had doctored the mailbox nameplate so that the Hebrew name “Aramati” would read “Arimathea” in English. This claim became the remaining basis for Zias’s allegation that Jacobovici had “planted archeology.”

On the witness stand, however, Garrett quickly disavowed her affidavit. Admitting that she never saw a doctored nameplate, she claimed that Jacobovici had said he “intended” to doctor the nameplate. She then conceded she had no knowledge of filmmaking.

In his own depositions, Jacobovici said he used CGI without altering the original nameplate to help viewers understand that the modern Hebrew name Aramati is essentially the same as the ancient Biblical name Arimathea. The two men are next due in the Lod courtroom in early April, under the jurisdiction of Judge Jacob Sheinman.

Zias’s depositions have also backed away from his forgery allegation. By forgery, it turns out, he means that the documentaries used CGI to enhance images carved on the ossuaries. If that constitutes forgery, then half the documentary world will have to plead guilty.

Not long after the first Jesus documentary aired, a leading group of 70 scholars assembled in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. As part of the proceedings, they gave a lifetime achievement award to honour the late archeologist Joseph Gat, who was a member of the team that excavated the first tomb in 1981. Accepting on his behalf, his widow disclosed that, while her husband had never publicly discussed the find, he was convinced they had found Jesus of Nazareth’s family tomb. He never talked about it, she claimed, because he thought the news would unleash a wave of anti-Semitism. Gat was a child survivor of the Holocaust and feared a recurrence.

Zias, who worked for the Israel Antiqui­ties Authority for 25 years, until retiring in 1999, had previously claimed that no serious archeologist supported Jacobovici’s thesis. When the widow’s remarks suggested otherwise, Zias contended that Jacobovici had orchestrated the entire scene to promote his cause – arranged for the award to be given and for her to appear, and had written the script she delivered, including the Holocaust reference.

Jacobovici categorically denies the charge. He is himself the son of Holocaust survivors. Born in Israel, he was raised there and in Montreal, and made his home in Toronto from 1980 to 2006, before making aliyah. He now lives with his wife and five children in Ra’anana.

“It’s one thing to claim this and that. It’s another to accuse a child of Holocaust survivors of inventing Holocaust stories and then argue that a sentence from a woman I met once in my life justifies this language,” Jacobovici said.

As it turns out, support for Jacobovici’s tomb thesis did not come only from Gat’s posthumous musings. Although initial academic and religious response was overwhelmingly dismissive, the ground of opinion may be starting to shift.

Late last year, the official proceedings of the Jerusalem conference were published, edited by Princeton’s James Charlesworth, one of the world’s top New Testament thinkers. The results are surprising because, while the naysayers have dominated headlines and blog postings, 12 of the 28 contributors now concede at least the possibility that the tomb is indeed that of Jesus’ family.

In addition to his charges against Jacobovici and Eshel, Zias has also accused Prof. Richard ­Freund, head of Judaic studies at the University of Hartford, and Canadian geologist Paul Bauman of planting archeology – specifically, of burying a metal casket in a graveyard at Qumran, the ancient Essene encampment on the West Bank. 

“We had a film crew there, which tracked [the dig] from the moment we started our work,” Freund said. “I cannot understand why these allegations were ever levelled.” Freund has authored six books on archeology, two on Jewish ethics, more than 100 scholarly articles and appeared in 15 television documentaries.

Bauman, technical director of geophysics in the Calgary office of WorleyParsons, a multinational project management and consulting firm for the resource and energy sectors, said his company works on “gargantuan industrial projects… and top-secret defence sites of multiple nations. Why would I risk all my professional credibility by putting a metal box in a remote cemetery in the desert? I have never received financial compensation for any of the archeology work I’ve participated in outside of North America – [it is] done entirely out of philanthropic intent. I’ve worked with Dr. Freund on at least 15 projects over the last 15 years. The very idea of ‘planting’ a find is inconceivable.”

Then there is Prof. James Tabor, one of the world’s foremost scholars of early Christianity. Zias’s campaign, Tabor says, included “scurrilous letters to my editors at Simon & Schuster, to my agent, to my provost, chancellor and dean, as well as the chair of anthropology, in which he charged that I was guilty of ‘conduct bordering on the criminal’… and that I was interested in only in fame and fortune and was a shame to the profession…Nothing of substance in Joe’s charges was upheld, and he was told so by the [university’s] attorney. He became very strident and threatened to expose our university as not taking responsibility for corruption. He subsequently wrote to UNC officials over the entire state system, making the same charges. ”

Others who have stood in Zias’s line of fire include Rami Arav, professor of archeology at the University of Nebraska, and Magen Broshi, former curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Asked for comment, Zias – in an email exchange – said only that “none of the above have [sic] any respect among colleagues. They are mocked by all.” Later, he added, “Change no respect to little respect.”

Zias also played a central role in spurring the Israel Antiquity Authority to charge collector Oded Golan with forgery in connection with the so-called James ossuary. The IAA spent almost a decade trying to prove that Golan forged the latter part of the box’s inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Among the key witnesses for the prosecution, Zias claimed to have remembered seeing only the first part of the inscription in an Arab-owned Jerusalem antiquities shop.

But as Time magazine later reported, Zias’s testimony fell apart on the witness stand when he confessed that “he could not actually read the Aramaic inscription and that his Hebrew wasn’t good enough to read his own name ‘Joseph’ on the box.” Golan was declared innocent last year, although the IAA continues to insist the inscription has been forged.

North Carolina’s Tabor says he, too, considered suing Zias for libel. “There’s a trail of evidence that is irrefutable, but I’ve chosen to try to counter him in other ways. But Joe has vowed to try to destroy Simcha and boasted that he has done him great damage. I am a tenured professor, whereas Simcha has his own company and its reputation, plus the livelihood of his associates, to consider.”

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