Saturday 24 February 2018



Whether it is in the book shop, at the box office, or on the TV screen there is nothing like the saviour to keep the tills ringing.

The unveiling of the stone ossuaries of Jesus's family at an event in New York was a stunt worthy of the famous circus impresario PT Barnum.

Barnum revelled in displaying sensational finds: phenomena such as the Fiji Mermaid, the embalmed body of a creature that was supposed to be 'half-fish, half-woman'.

There was nothing exceptional in the alleged discovery of the Jesus casket, of course.

The philosopher Erasmus has been credited with the remark that that there were so many pieces of Jesus's "True Cross" in circulation around Europe that he must have been crucified on a whole forest.

Since medieval times, there has been no shortage of entrepreneurial types who have made a fortune from the dubious relics of the saviour and other holy figures.

According to Karen Stollznow, an authority on holy relics, there are at least three claimants to the Holy Prepuce, the foreskin of Jesus.

Only last month, it was reported that a box containing the Holy Prepuce had been found at the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem.

There are countless claims made about Christ's bones, hair, teeth, blood, tears and clothes - not to mention the hullabaloo created by the Turin Shroud, the burial shroud that has been linked with Jesus, but which is now widely assumed to be a fake.

The spirit of holy entrepreneurship is perhaps best summed up in the tale of a travelling medieval monk who hoped to buy a good relic for his monastery.

He met up with a merchant who offered to sell him the skull of St John the Baptist.

The monk was flabbergasted, telling the relic salesman that he had just seen the skull of St John displayed in a church in France.

"That was the skull of St John when he was a child," said the merchant. "This is his skull when he was an adult."

After the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code and its countless spin-offs, we should not have been surprised when someone turned up boxes that allegedly contained the bones of Jesus and the Jesus family.

Having sunk the Titanic on screen, it was only natural that Cameron should raise the bones of the Saviour. The results will be shown on a documentary on the Discovery channel tomorrow night.

The ossuaries were actually found by building workers in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot in 1980, but Cameron's team only carried out research on them recently. They spent two years on the project, analysing inscriptions and carrying out DNA tests on the contents remaining on the boxes.

He said he based his belief in the casket belonging to Jesus on the fact that it was found in a family tomb with several others, including ossuaries labelled Joseph and Mary.

He said he was only convinced that this was Jesus's family by the discovery of another casket in the same tomb labelled 'Mariamene e Mara', a rare Greek adaptation of the phrase 'Mary known as the Master'. This unusual and specific variation, the documentary claims, was used by Mary Magdalene, and puts the statistical chance of the tomb belonging to any other but the Holy Family at about 600 to 1.

Cameron likened discovering the unusual name of Mary Magdalene to finding a grave marked Ringo alongside a John, Paul and George. "Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that's the Ringo that sets this whole film in motion."

How fortuitous that the Saviour's coffin should be found along with that of his putative partner Mary Magdalene and his son Judah.

The denouement of The Da Vinci Code revealed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child. So the story fits in beautifully. It could be called Da Vinci Code 2, in fact

Inevitably there will be a book to go with the documentary and, if The Da Vinci Code is anything to go by there could also be calendars, mugs and possibly a line of clothing.

As he unveiled details of his find this week, the film maker declared grandly: "It doesn't get bigger than this."

In box office terms he was probably right. The Da Vinci Code proved that the market for religious hokum is huge. The book sold 40 million worldwide (still somewhat short of the Bible which has sold 600 million)

The size of The Da Vinci Code industry including the original novel, spin-off books, CDs, the movie, documentaries and other related products has been estimated at close to ?1 billion.

Although the craze has now subsided somewhat, it reached absurd levels before the release of the film last year. Stephen Lanzalotta, an enterprising baker, even came up with a Da Vinci diet, based on a mathematical formula in the book.

In defence of Dan Brown, the author, his book was a work of pulp fiction. Such a defence cannot be made for James Cameron, who is claiming that his Jesus yarn is real.

Christian groups such as the US-based Catholic League describe Cameron's claims as a "Titanic Fraud", and their scepticism has been supported by archaeologists and theologians.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, an eminent Irish biblical scholar and archaeologist based in Jerusalem, says it is highly unlikely that the ossuaries had contained the family of Jesus.

"The names on the ossuaries were extremely common at the time of Jesus. I would say that people in Mexico would be highly amused by this, because so many people there are called Jesus. If you saw the name Jesus written on a tomb, you wouldn't conclude that it was the son of God."

Father O'Connor, who has studied the archaeology of Jerusalem for decades, says he is 95% certain that the tomb of Jesus was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the city.

Controversies surrounding relics have often caused trouble in the Catholic church, according to Father Murphy O'Connor. The sale of relics is now prohibited by the church, and is classified as a grave sin known as Simony.

After scientific analysis, bones that were at one time venerated as the remains of saints have been found to the bones of animals.

"After the nineteenth century there was a clampdown by the church," says Murphy O'Connor. "It was becoming absurd. Someone even claimed that they had a feather from the wing of the Angel Gabriel."

The sale of relics may be prohibited, but that has not prevented a thriving industry connected with them. Around 2000 books have been published on the subject of the Turin Shroud alone.

Father Murphy-O'Connor says the interest in the ossuaries and books like the Da Vinci Code showed that the church leadership was not meeting the spiritual needs of people fully.

"I think there is a sense that people feel let down by the leadership of the church, and this kind of thing is filling a vacuum."

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