You may have heard about the forthcoming Discovery Channel documentary and accompanying book in which archaeologists purport to have discovered the tomb of Jesus Christ—and his ostensible wife and son.

From the beginning this was an obviously silly notion, given that the main evidence provided for the find’s importance was that the names on some of the ossuaries found there matched some mentioned in the Gospels: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, etc. However, those names were so common at the time that the filmmakers’ assertion of high odds against a tomb carrying bones of persons with those names is openly risible. Even in Mexico today one could easily find families with all of those names.

In addition it was old news, having been mentioned on the BBC more than ten years ago, and was dismissed then by the first archaeologist who examined the site. 

Now, even the Washington Post, no friend of Christian literalists, points out the absurdity of the claims about this find. A story in yesterday’s edition notes that Jewish and other non-Christian experts consider the Discovery Channel producers’ claims ridiculous and indeed outrageously unscientific:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States 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 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," he said Tuesday.

Another story in yesterday’s Washington Post points out that this is actually an old story and that the first archaeologist to examine the site considers the documentary’s assertions specious and openly mercenary:

In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the subject, archaeologists challenged the link to Jesus and his family. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up to archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.

Regarding the filmmakers’ claim that it is extremely unlikely that persons other than those named in the Bible could have the names that are engraved on the ossuaries, the first-mentioned Post story reported as follows:

Dever, a retired professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, said that some of the inscriptions on the Talpiyot ossuaries are unclear, but that all of the names are common.

"I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought it was much of a story, because these are rather common Jewish names from that period," he said. "It’s a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction."

Similar assessments came yesterday from two Israeli scholars, Amos Kloner, who originally excavated the tomb, and Joe Zias, former curator of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that the documentary is "nonsense." Zias described it in an e-mail to The Washington Post as a "hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest."

The Post story quotes another archaeologist, Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, debunking the notion that the inscriptions refer to the people mentioned in the Bible:

Magness also said the names on the Talpiyot ossuaries indicate that the tomb belonged to a family from Judea, the area around Jerusalem, where people were known by their first name and father’s name. As Galileans, Jesus and his family members would have used their first name and home town, she said.

Contrary to the filmmakers’ hype, this story is no more plausible than The Da Vinci Code—and it lacks the latter’s kitsch value.