Can we call Lost Tomb a hoax now?

jesus tombQuestion: does anyone other than the good folks behind the Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus believe the claims that this crypt contained the bones of Jesus Christ? I have yet to see any independent confirmation anywhere, or anyone (other than the filmmakers) expressing a single bit of confidence that any of this could be true. Considering that everyone (other than the reporters covering the matter and the filmmakers) is saying this thing is bogus, what are we to make of the coverage? It's a legitimate story that this film is being made and makes the claims it does, but at what point does it tip over into a hoax?

A second-day story by Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman appropriately carries the headline "'Lost Tomb of Jesus' Claim Called a Stunt." Cooperman is a day behind the coverage, but that extra time seems to have given him a chance to write a more balanced article and find sources outside the usual suspects:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.

Scorn for the Discovery Channel's claim to have found the burial place of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and -- most explosively -- their possible son came not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.

"I'm not a Christian. I'm not a believer. I don't have a dog in this fight," said William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars. "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated."

Most of the coverage has been somewhat skeptical of the initial claims. Reporters generally understand that this is essentially a publicity stunt.

But if the only people who believe these claims are the filmmakers, why did reporters treat it initially with the premise that one side claims one set of facts leads to a certain conclusion while another side disputes that conclusion? It seems rather clear that the side of the filmmakers consists of just them and their pets. (National Review's Dave Konig has released new information that somehow the filmmakers forgot to mention Monday.)

One answer to that question could be contained in the following quote from a Laurie Goodstein story in The New York Times:

"This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with 'The Da Vinci Code,'" said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. "One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don't know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call 'fantastic archaeology.'"

Professor Stager said he had not seen the film but was skeptical.

Mr. Cameron said he had been "trepidatious" about becoming involved in the project but got engaged out of "great passion for a good detective story," not to offend and not to cash in.

"I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century," he said. "It's absolutely not a publicity stunt. It's part of a very well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way that makes sense, with proper documentation."

Note Stager's statement that he has not seen the film. Has anyone seen the film? Is there a difference between "not seen the film" and "had not been allowed to see the film"? Reporters might want to ask that question and clarify it for all of us.

For a bit of historical perspective, check out an Atlantic Monthly essay by former editor Cullen Murphy. It documents the state of Jesus studies in 1986.

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