JERUSALEM The Academy Award-winning director behind "Titanic" and "The Terminator" is attempting to challenge fundamental tenets of Christianity by suggesting that Jesus may have been a father whose body was buried far from the Jerusalem tomb where believers say he rose from the dead.
In a documentary set to air Sunday, Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron and his team contend that they've produced new evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a son named Judah.
Biblical experts and archaeologists who are familiar with the central evidence instantly discounted the claim, which Discovery Channel has touted as possibly "the greatest archaeological find in history," as an ill-informed, recycled publicity grab.
The chances that the findings in "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" are real "are more than remote," Israel Museum curator David Mevorah said. "They are closer to fantasy."
If proved true, the findings would undercut Christian beliefs that Jesus never had children and he rose from the dead. The documentary also contradicts long-held beliefs by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians that Jesus had lain in a tomb around which Christians built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem.
"It doesn't get bigger than this," Cameron said before the basic findings were presented Monday at a New York news conference. "We've done our homework; we've made the case, and now it's time for the debate to begin."
The Discovery Channel documentary and an accompanying book center on a 2,000-year-old limestone tomb that was discovered more than a quarter-century ago during a construction project in a residential Jerusalem neighborhood between the Old City and Bethlehem.
When the tomb was uncovered in 1980, specialists were called. The man who led the effort was Amos Kloner, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University, who meticulously documented the findings.
The tomb contained 10 limestone burial boxes and scattered bones. Among the inscriptions found on the ancient caskets: Jesus, son of Joseph; Mary; and Judah, son of Jesus.
Five of the burial boxes, known as ossuaries, had names that could be linked to the Bible, including versions of Joseph and Matthew.
Then and now, Kloner took no note of the names, saying they were common among residents of the area at the time.
But Discovery hired a statistician who concluded that the chances that this was the tomb of Jesus and his family were 600 to 1.
Mevorah called the statistical analysis "a good trick." While the collection of names might seem compelling, Mevorah said the names were popular at the time and that another ossuary with the inscription "Jesus, son of Joseph" is on display in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as part of a traveling exhibition of early Christian artifacts.
"Statistics can bring empires down or build them up," he said. "But I wouldn't build a theory of the most important person of the first century on statistics."
The documentary used DNA testing on samples taken from the ossuary for Jesus and a second for Mary to show that the two sets of bones weren't related, evidence the television researchers said indicated that the two probably were married.
The documentary suggests that the ossuary labeled Judah, son of Jesus, may have carried the bones of their son, though the researchers make no mention of doing DNA testing on that box.
After watching a review copy of the documentary, Kloner criticized it as little more than a publicity stunt.
"The claim that the burial site has been found is not based on any new idea. It is only an attempt to sell," Kloner said. "It's a waste of money."
No matter what the truth may be, the documentary is certain to fuel a surge in populist religious skepticism best exemplified by the wildly successful novel and film "The Da Vinci Code." The Dan Brown mystery centered on theories that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that she was pregnant when he was crucified.
The Discovery documentary and book aren't the first to focus on the so-called Talpiot Tomb. A BBC team stumbled across Kloner's research in 1996 and concluded that the tomb was that of Jesus and his family. Then, as now, scientific scholars and religious leaders challenged the report.Comment on this story
Leading the latest Discovery documentary team was director Simcha Jacobovici, who was at the center of a similar stir four years ago when he produced another piece for the cable company. That documentary focused on an ossuary that was thought to be the oldest archaeological find to bolster the Bible. It bore the inscription: James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.
Within months, however, Israel's Antiquities Authority deemed the ossuary a fake. Israel charged the antiquities dealer who owned it with being part of an artifact forgery ring, and the historic find was treated as a joke.Jacobovici said he continued to believe in the findings and to stand by his work.
Contributing: Cliff Churgin.