Filmmakers and researchers on Monday unveiled two ancient stone boxes they said may have once contained the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but several scholars derided the claims made in a new documentary as unfounded and contradictory to basic Christian beliefs.
"The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and scheduled to air March 4 on the Discovery Channel, argues that 10 small caskets discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb may have held the bones of Jesus and his family.
One of the caskets even bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son, according to the film. (Watch why it could be any Mary, Jesus and Joseph in those boxes )
"There's a definite sense that you have to pinch yourself," Cameron said Monday at a news conference. He told NBC'S "Today" show earlier that statisticians found "in the range of a couple of million to one" in favor of the documentary's conclusions about the caskets, or ossuaries. (Watch Cameron talk about his involvement in the documentary )
Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the film, said that a name on one of the ossuaries -- "Mariamene" -- offers evidence that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family. In early Christian texts, "Mariamene" is the name of Mary Magdalene, he said.
The very fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in Cameron's documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.
In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.
"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said.
Shimon Gibson, one of three archaeologists who first discovered the tomb in 1980, said Monday of the film's claims: "I'm skeptical, but that's the way I am. I'm willing to accept the possibility."
The film's claims, however, have raised the ire of Christian leaders in the Holy Land.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.
"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this," Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."
"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 -- 10 being completely possible -- it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."
Pfann is even unsure that the name "Jesus" on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it's more likely the name "Hanun." Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher.
Kloner also said the filmmakers' assertions are false. "The names on the caskets are the most common names found among Jews at the time," he said.
William Dever, an expert on near eastern archaeology and anthropology, who has worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades, said specialists have known about the ossuaries for years.
"The fact that it's been ignored tells you something," said Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. "It would be amusing if it didn't mislead so many people."
Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government agency responsible for archaeology, said the Antiquities Authority agreed to send two ossuaries to New York, but they did not contain human remains. "We agreed to send the ossuaries, but it doesn't mean that we agree with" the filmmakers, she said.