I've reviewed some bad documentaries
in my time. In 900-odd reviews to date, some of the stuff I've popped
into the DVD player has turned out to be real dreck. I've seen many
"controversial" programs and many more that took mildly
speculative stuff and puffed it up with a hefty dose of
sensationalism. I've seen topics that I really liked butchered by
poor argument and ineffective presentation. So it really means
something when I say that The Lost Tomb of Jesus is, by far,
the worst documentary that I've ever forced myself to sit through.
My main approach in this review is to look at the way the filmmakers handle their material (since to my mind that's the main job of a documentary: to present an informed and balanced look at its material). That can seem like the review is arguing with the material itself... but my objective in raising counter-arguments is frankly to point out how the film avoids them and how it uses argument badly to make its points. I teach in my critical-thinking classes that the best way to deal with an opposing point of view is not to ignore it, but to address it head-on. That's the perspective I took here. (As I take in all my documentary reviews: for instance, as a reviewer I had a lot of problems with The Corporation even though, as a viewer, I completely agreed with the points it was making.)I wouldn't be making nearly any of the criticisms that I'm making, if the film had actually made an honest argument for its point rather than avoiding key objections and using rhetorical sleight-of-hand.
OK, so why do I call it the worst?
Not in the choice of topic: let's
get that straight to begin with. People have enjoyed spinning far-out
stories about Christianity for about two thousand years. We've seen a
post-Da Vinci Code surge of breathless conspiracy theories,
some of which have made for interesting documentary filmmaking
(Digging for the Truth handled the topic solidly, with only a
mild sprinkling of sensationalism, for instance.) I don't believe
that there's any topic that should be "off limits": no
matter what, everything is going to offend someone, and even a
relatively blown-out-of-proportion piece can have the beneficial
effect of stimulating viewer interest in a worthwhile subject (in
this case, the historical origins of Christianity).
So no, The Lost Tomb of Jesus
doesn't offend me in the slightest by its premise. But I have
to admit, the film did offend me, deeply - as a rational, thinking
person. You see, I'm an honest intellectual and a great believer in
knowing the truth. I think that it's a good thing to really think
through what you believe (one way or the other) and base your
conclusions on real evidence and solid reasoning. That's where The
Lost Tomb of Jesus hits a nerve for me.
I have never, and I mean never, seen
a documentary that so deliberately and consistently uses circular
reasoning, ad hominem attacks, unfounded assertions, straw-man
arguments, and general poor reasoning. One of the subjects that I
teach in college is critical thinking, and The Lost Tomb of Jesus
offers a blow-by-blow exposition of logic and reason being twisted
until it screams for mercy. (Presumably the screams were dubbed over
in the final edit.)
To begin with, The Lost Tomb of
Jesus uses a quick sleight-of-hand to establish the premise. What
if, we are asked, the family of Jesus took his body from the tomb to
re-bury somewhere else? That's swiftly taken as a given, and then
we're off to find the tomb. But hold on: the film never takes the
time to establish that it's a worthwhile theory. Why would the family
even want to re-bury Jesus in a different tomb, given that the
wealthy Joseph of Arimathea had already donated a tomb (which he
wouldn't have needed to do if the family of Jesus had a tomb ready
for use, incidentally), and Jesus' body had already been taken there
and wrapped, with expensive spices and all? The documentary also
assumes that Jesus' family participated in this burial and later
re-burial of Jesus' bones in an ossuary (bone box). But if they'd
done that, then all of them would have known, conclusively, that
Jesus had not been bodily resurrected as the Gospels state. How,
then, can we explain that James, one of Jesus' brothers, who had been
a skeptic during Jesus' life, became after Jesus' death one of the
most powerful proponents of the resurrected Jesus? If he'd really
seen Jesus' body being re-buried (and later, his bones packed in an
ossuary) that would have reinforced his skepticism, not caused a
complete turn-around. Does The Lost Tomb of Jesus deal with
these issues? It doesn't even acknowledge them, which for me was a
first strike against its intellectual honesty.
I could forgive this beginning, if
that was the extent of the logic-twisting, but it's not: the
arguments throughout The Lost Tomb of Jesus are so
consistently circular as to cause dizziness. Try this one on for
size: Scholars have concluded, based on the evidence, that a
particular tomb and ossuary belonged to Caiaphas, a key figure in
Jesus' trial. Therefore, it is possible to find tombs of major
figures, and tombs are uncovered all the time in Jerusalem.
Therefore, it would be no surprise to find the tomb of Jesus.
Therefore... the tomb that is being discussed is likely to be the
tomb of Jesus. In this argument, it's assumed that Jesus' tomb exists
(and therefore it's just a matter of time to find it) and that
assumption is used as part of the very argument about the existence
of the tomb. The Caiaphas tomb is actually completely irrelevant to
the question, but it's drawn in as "evidence" for what is
really still just an unsubstantiated claim.
I lost count of the number of times
that untested assumptions are used as evidence for further
assertions. For instance, it's an assumption, not a fact, that there
even was a family tomb for Jesus' family. And yes, it's possible.
(Though in my view, unlikely; Jesus came from a working-class family,
and it was the wealthy who had rock tombs - remember how Joseph of
Arimathea had to donate his tomb? That would have been to save Jesus'
body from being buried in a common grave with other paupers.) But
even if we grant this assumption, and then further grant the
assumption that the tomb the filmmakers are focusing on is that
family tomb, that's still not evidence that Jesus was ever there.
Jesus was the one raised from the dead, not the whole family!
Then there's the (mis)use of New
Testament evidence. The New Testament is actually a rich source of evidence that in fact The Lost Tomb of Jesus uses to advance its argument. That's perfectly
fine - except that as soon as the New Testament material would point in a different direction than the filmmakers'
argument, they switch tactics. The lack of details about Mary
Magdalen in the New Testament is used as an argument that she was
really the most important disciple: theoretically the writers of the
New Testament were suppressing the mention of important women to
serve their patriarchal ideology. (Never mind that women actually
play key roles in the Gospels, cutting against the cultural biases of
One of the ossuaries in the
so-called Jesus tomb is listed as being that of "Judas son of
Jesus." That would seem to be evidence that we're looking at a
different Jesus, right? After all, every piece of information we have
about Jesus indicates that he was unmarried and did not father a
child. But wait! The Lost Tomb of Jesus can make even this contrary
fact work into its theory: see, this son of Jesus was kept so secret
that we have no record of him! Therefore, the absence of information
about this son is evidence that the son really existed... and
therefore the presence of "Judas son of Jesus" in the tomb
is supporting evidence for it really being Jesus of Nazareth's tomb!
Is your head spinning yet? Uh, guys - either the New
Testament is a reliable document, or it's not. I'm fine with the filmmakers taking either approach, but they can't have it both
ways, the better to suit whatever direction they want to take their argument in.
Let's not overlook the factual or
interpretive faux pas, of which we have several. First, according to
the documentary, the Church fathers in the second century did a lot
of "suppressing" of other Christian texts, presumably as
part of a conspiracy to wipe out the truth. Suppression? No -
canonization. For quite a while after the founding of Christianity,
there were a number of gospels and letters in circulation among the
new Christian community. Eventually the leaders of the Church met
and, over time, decided which ones should form part of the New Testament. Some made the cut,
and some didn't. That's selection, not suppression. What's in a word?
Quite a lot, really. It means that we shouldn't look at the
non-canonical material as being somehow better or more authoritative
than what made it into the New Testament, but the opposite. The early
Church leaders weren't dummies: they knew that the best texts were
the ones that were the eye-witness ones or ones that were based on
eye-witness testimony.... so we get Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts,
and a selection of key letters from people who knew and worked with
Jesus. What we don't get is something like the Acts of Philip, which
is a third- or fourth-century work, and therefore hundreds of years removed
from the material it was talking about. It's less reliable, not
more... but it's on the Acts of Philip that The Lost Tomb of Jesus
draws when it tries to work Mary Magdalen into the Jesus tomb story.
Then we get into the morass of early
Christian symbolism. The film acknowledges that crosses weren't used
as a Christian symbol until about the fourth century (true)... but
then goes on to argue that maybe people were using cross symbols
before then, and therefore the presence of a cross-like mark
on one of the ossuaries indicates that it belonged to Jesus. That's
not so much of a stretch as it is a vast and completely unwarranted
leap. The Lost Tomb of Jesus tries to justify this claim by
saying that there's no evidence for early Christianity, its practices
or symbolism, until after it's legalized by Constantine... which is
just flat-out wrong. The catacombs in Rome, for instance, supply
plenty of evidence of early Christian symbolism (which includes
imagery of fish, anchors, ships, sheep, peacocks, among other things
- but not the cross), not to mention the symbols that appear in the
New Testament itself. What is that cross mark? A mason's mark.
A big deal is also made of the
tomb's location, halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which are
claimed to be the two most important cities to Jesus' family: a
perfect spot for the family tomb, right? There are lots of problems
with that. First, when you locate a family tomb, you typically put it
in the important town, not halfway between it and some other
place. Next, Bethlehem is pretty low on the list of important
locations. Jesus was born there, but only because Joseph and Mary
were on the road to register at the census. He actually grew up in
Nazareth. Last, the list of "important locations" related
to Jesus is so long that pretty much any spot in Israel is bound to
be halfway between two of them. In other words, this tomb's location
doesn't prove anything... except that it's actually not where we'd
expect it to be (Nazareth).
But hold on - doesn't The Lost
Tomb of Jesus give other, opposing scholars a chance to rebut the
film's theories? Yes, and... definitely no. After spinning out the
what-ifs, could-haves, and it's-possibles to make a particular claim,
the film does cut briefly to a few scholars stating that they don't
agree. And that's it. We don't get to hear their arguments; we don't
get to hear their evidence. They're whisked in to give the pretense
of balance and swiftly whisked off again. The only critical expert
who's given more than a 10-second sound bite is the curator of the
Israel Museum, who tries valiantly to curtail the flights of fancy of
the filmmakers. But the main discussion between the curator and
Simcha Jacobovici displays the opposite of fair and balanced
treatment. The curator's explanations are cut off, and Simcha
Jacobovici takes a hostile, belligerent tone towards him, almost as
if he's trying to provoke him. (The curator remains calm but is
visibly frustrated, very understandably.) The show of disrespect for
anyone with a different interpretation of the material is consistent
throughout the program, in fact. It's stated outright that anyone who
doesn't buy into the film's premises is biased by being reluctant to
even consider the subject; it's implied that there's a conspiracy of
scholars to validate other New Testament finds, but not to
investigate anything related to Jesus. (Anyone who thinks that has never encountered the publish-or-perish mentality of academia. Finding Jesus' genuine tomb would guarantee tenure for some underpaid professor of archaeology or theology somewhere!)
Finally, I also found the whole
"search for the tomb" to be both disingenuous and
appalling. Disingenuous, because re-discovering the original tomb at
Talpiot really has very little to contribute to the topic. The tomb
had been mapped; the ossuaries had been removed and cataloged, and
were on view; there's no real reason given as to why it's useful at
all to find it again. Kind of cool, sure - but not essential. Then
there's the search for the second tomb... which becomes "evidence"
in an interesting way: this second tomb is connected to Jesus,
because it's located next to another tomb that is potentially the
tomb of Jesus. Hypothesis taken as fact, once again. What this part
of the program actually does is serve as an Indiana-Jones-style
adventure, one that gathers its own momentum: if we get caught up in
the excitement, we're quite likely to forget that finding and
entering the tomb doesn't prove the filmmakers' proposition.
That covers disingenuous: what about
appalling? I was horrified by the cavalier attitude the filmmakers
took to doing archaeology. There's no indication that the team was
composed of professional archaeologists, and they're not associated
with any university or research project; their approach is just to do
whatever it takes to find what they want (including calling in a
plumber, at one point, to knock through some blockages en route to
looking into a tomb). In short, these guys are practically looters. I
found the overall sense of disrespect for Jerusalem's archaeological
treasures to be distressing. Anything goes, as long as it makes great
film footage, right?
I could go on - some of the logical
twists are so absurd as to be even laughable. But there's really not
much point. The entire film is a conspiracy-theory engine, pulling up
anything and everything as fuel. Any one of these logical faux pas
could be forgivable by itself: after all, I expected a certain amount
(that is, a lot) of sensationalism to begin with. But what we
actually get is a consistent disregard for logical, evidence-based
argument; it's a slap in the face to any viewer who actually uses his
or her brain.
It's also far from unbiased,
although it claims to be (and it certainly whips out the "biased"
card to pre-emptively stop any rebuttal). One of the main
participants claims that the film is taking a "strictly
historical approach," so its methods and conclusions must be
valid. Except that it's not: it's assuming as settled the very
question that lies at the heart of the topic. The film assumes that
Jesus was not bodily resurrected, and therefore his body (and tomb)
must be out there somewhere, waiting to be found. The possibility
that there is no tomb because there is no body is discounted as
something that people just believe, in the teeth of the evidence, as
it were. This neatly sidesteps the fact that the fundamental claim of
Christianity is a historical one: that Jesus died and was
resurrected, and that the reason the disciples were willing to die on
the basis of that claim was that they knew it to be true, based on
what they'd seen with their own eyes. However, the film
avoids considering that possibility as an
explanation for the events surrounding Jesus' death. Note that I'm not objecting to the filmmakers' conclusions, but rather to their unwillingness to tackle the counter-argument. But even though
I'd have liked to have the counter-arguments placed on the table for fair
discussion, the film's sidestepping of the issues doesn't surprise or bother
me. That, I expected.
What I find objectionable that the
viewing public is being presented with something that feels so
fundamentally cynical and manipulative. It's not just a house of
cards, it's a mean-spirited one that devalues opposing points of view
and insults the viewer by consistently twisting logic and evidence
for its own purposes. I've seen plenty of speculative documentaries
that I was perfectly OK with, but this is the first time that I felt
that I wanted to wash my brain after watching a program.
Production-wise, how does The Lost Tomb of Jesus work? Pretty well, which is part of the reason the flaws in logic bug me as much as they do: they're nicely packaged. The program is certainly engaging, with a fast pace and what I'd call a good storyline; the Indiana-Jones style search for the tomb has a definite energy to it. The reenactments are nicely done with good production values, sidestepping the cheese factor that's always a danger: here, you could really imagine "you are there." The section on statistics is explained reasonably well, with the use of a nifty visual to show how many people would have answered to names like Jesus and Mary.
In the end, it's fun to watch if you're OK with a "hey, it could be!" attitude and don't really mind the problematic logic here. (I teach argument; it probably bugs me more than the average guy on the street.) Frankly, I wish the filmmakers had made a feature film instead of a documentary: their style is a whole lot more suited to fiction than documentary filmmaking. I liked the Da Vinci Code (OK, I haven't seen the movie, but I liked the book) but it was presented not as fact (even though it was taken that way by some) but as loosely historically based fiction. The Lost Tomb of Jesus is, in the end, exactly that: a what-if fiction. An exciting what-if story? Sure. A factually sound, well-reasoned what-if story? Well, no. Shelve it under fiction, not documentary.
contains the "director's cut", which runs 105 minutes.
The Lost Tomb of Jesus is presented
in a clear, clean widescreen image, at the 1.77:1 aspect ratio,
anamorphically enhanced. Colors look natural, and it looks pleasing
to the eye. There's some pixellation, and some grain in the outdoor
darker shots, but it's fine overall.
The soundtrack is a Dolby 5.1
surround track. Some parts of it feel like it has decent surround,
but for the most part it plays like a stereo track. That's fine,
since a documentary doesn't really call for lots of surround action
anyway. The participants' voices are clear and easy to distinguish.
The main special feature is a set of
interviews. We get four segments apiece from director Simcha
Jacobovici and executive producer James Cameron, commenting on
various aspects of the production and topic, and running about half
an hour in total. In a section called "Experts" we get
about half an hour's worth of additional interview footage from two
of the people interviewed for the film - notably, we do not hear from
any of the experts who disagreed with the conclusions drawn by the
Minor special features include a
trailer, a photo gallery, a two-minute "behind the scenes"
segment, and a nine-minute piece called "The Lost Tomb of Jesus:
Epilogue" that runs like a short overall featurette.
I've noticed that many people who actually liked the documentary seem to think that those who criticize it must be Christians who are offended by a challenge to their beliefs. Sure, the "you don't like it because you can't handle the truth" card is an easy one to play, but it's not helpful here. I actually think that the topic is one that could have been handled in an interesting, thought-provoking, and informative way... except that's not what we get. I admit, I expected the film to be a bit overdramatized and sensationalistic (what else is new?), but I didn't expect this blatant disrespect for logic,
argument, honest discussion, and simple fact.
The Lost Tomb of
Jesus appears to be a cynical and manipulative attempt to cash in
on the Da Vinci Code mania of inventing Christian conspiracy
theories, without the least respect for the intelligence of its audience (non-Christian and Christian alike). It didn't offend me because of my beliefs (which I haven't mentioned here one way or the other); it offended me as a thinking person and a scholar who
believes in using honest argument and real evidence. Skip it.