JERUSALEM — A scholar looking into the factual basis of a popular but widely criticized documentary that claims to have located the tomb of Jesus said Tuesday that a crucial piece of evidence filmmakers used to support their claim was a mistake.
Stephen Pfann, a textual scholar and paleographer at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said he had released a paper claiming the makers of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" were mistaken when they identified an ancient ossuary from the cave as belonging to the New Testament's Mary Magdalene.
The film's director, Simcha Jacobovici, responded that other researchers agreed with the documentary's conclusions.
Produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron, the documentary has drawn intense media coverage for its claims challenging accepted Christian dogma.
Despite widespread ridicule from scholars, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" drew more than 4 million viewers when it aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4. A companion book, "The Jesus Family Tomb," has rocketed to sixth place on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
The film and book suggest that a first-century ossuary found in a south Jerusalem cave in 1980 contained the remains of Jesus, contradicting the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven. Ossuaries are stone boxes used at the time to store the bones of the dead.
The filmmakers also suggest that Mary Magdalene was buried in the tomb. The scholars who analyzed the Greek inscription on one of the ossuaries after its discovery read it as "Mariamene e Mara," meaning "Mary the teacher" or "Mary the master."
But having analyzed the inscription, Pfann published a detailed article on his university's website asserting that it doesn't read "Mariamene" at all.
The inscription, Pfann said, is made up of two names inscribed by two different hands: the first, "Mariame," was inscribed in a formal Greek script, and later, when the bones of another woman were added to the box, another scribe using a different cursive script added the words "kai Mara," meaning "and Mara." Mara is a different form of the name Martha.
According to Pfann's reading, the ossuary did not house the bones of "Mary the teacher," but rather of two women, "Mary and Martha."
In Israel on Tuesday for a screening, the Toronto-based Jacobovici welcomed Pfann's criticism, saying "every inscription should be re-examined." But Jacobovici said scholars who had researched the ossuary agreed with the film's reading.