Several professors at Brigham Young University are joining a chorus of scholarly voices debunking the claim in a new book that Jesus was buried with his family in a tomb outside early Jerusalem — rather than resurrected, as the New Testament gospels say.

"The Jesus Family Tomb," written by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, ranked 10th on last week's New York Times' best seller list in the nonfiction category. But the majority of biblical scholars who are familiar with the work say it is little more than a slick blending of heavy fiction with slim fact.

The book's story line was also recently the subject of a controversial documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which aired earlier this month on the Discovery Channel. It shows ossuaries — stone boxes — containing what the authors say are likely the bones of Jesus, his mother, Mary, as well as Mary Magdalene, and a purported "son" of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, known as "Judah," along with others.

It also says that an ossuary found a few years ago and inscribed in Aramaic with the name "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" was once part of the "family tomb" collection.

Richard Holzapfel, managing director of the Religious Studies Center at BYU, has gathered a team of fellow scholars who will discuss what he said are the book's numerous misinterpretations and manipulations of archaeological data and historical interpretation during a conference on Saturday, April 7.

"Behold the Lamb of God," will be held at the Joseph Smith Building Auditorium at BYU and will feature the panel discussion including Holzapfel, Jeffrey Chadwick, Kent Jackson, Frank Judd and Thomas Wayment.

The group sat down recently with the Deseret Morning News to give a preview of some of the issues.

The book and film assume that only family members were buried in such tombs, Holzapfel said. "But we have evidence that some non-family members were put in such tombs." The stone boxes were often used to hold the bones of multiple people, he said.

"Just by studying the bones, they are different bodies. So we know the burial box could contain multiple people."

As an archaeologist who has done excavation work in Israel, Chadwick said the fact that Jewish, Christian and secular scholars almost uniformly reject the assertions in the book and movie is telling. "Jewish and secular scholars have no reason to want to make the case for or against this" other than their interpretation of historical artifacts and records, he said.

Jackson said not only were the names Jeshua, or Jesus, and Joseph extremely common during the first century, "it's clear to anyone who reads the New Testament, to every Christian, that they're not going to bury Jesus in a box and call him 'the son of Joseph."'

Historical Christians believe Jesus was God made flesh, not the son of a mortal man, while Latter-day Saints believe he was the son of God.

"This is not a scholarly piece, and no one views it that way," Jackson said. "They have been accused of pimping The Da Vinci Code," the recent book whose admittedly fictional account of conspiracy theories and extra-biblical truth helped it sell more than 60 million copies worldwide.

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Jackson and Holzapfel believe many Latter-day Saints are susceptible, "more often than others," to truth claims that are based on a blend of fact and fiction "because of the unique doctrinal claims we have."

For information about the upcoming panel discussion and conference, which are free and open to the public, call 422-6975.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com