A fascinating $1-million libel trial is playing out in a Lod courtroom, one that many archaeologists, scientists and religious scholars are watching closely. The plaintiff is Israeli/Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, a three-time Emmy award winner best known as the host of “The Naked Archaeologist,” a syndicated TV series. He is also a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel.

The defendant is retired museum curator Joe Zias, a Michigan-born anthropologist who made aliyah in the 1960s and spent 25 years working with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Jacobovici, of course, is no stranger to controversy: Several of his feature documentaries have broken new ground or challenged conventional wisdom, among them “Deadly Currents,” “Hollywoodism,” and “The Exodus Decoded.” He is therefore accustomed, he says, to responding to charges that his work is sensationalistic or otherwise flawed.

But he wasn’t prepared to tolerate the Internet-based campaign of personal vilification that Zias mounted after the release of his two most recent documentaries — “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (2007), and “The Jesus Discovery/The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” (2012).

The films suggest two ancient tombs discovered in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood in the early 1980s are the likely resting place of Jesus, his extended family, and his earliest disciples. The first tomb contains ossuaries (bone boxes) inscribed with a constellation of suggestive names. These include Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus, son of Joseph); Maria, Latin form of the Hebrew name Miriam; Yose, a diminutive of Joseph, the name of one of Jesus’s brothers (Mark 6:3); Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus); and Mariamene e Mara, possibly Mary of Magdelene.

Engraving on one of life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in 'Patio Tomb', a first century burial cave located beneath an apartment building on April 4, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / FLASH 90 )

Engraving on one of life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in ‘Patio Tomb’, a first century burial cave located beneath an apartment building on April 4, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / FLASH 90 )

For orthodox Christians, the very idea of a Jesus family tomb is anathema. Jesus could not have had his bones bundled into a box because, according to church doctrine, he was resurrected and ascended to heaven. Nor do most mainstream Christians accept what the films imply — that Jesus was ever married, to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, or that he fathered children.

Jacobovici believes the second tomb, so far examined only by a camera attached to a tubular probe – Orthodox Jewish activists prevented the filmmakers from entering the cave physically — contains the first hard evidence of contemporaneous belief in Jesus by his original Jewish followers.

In an onslaught of web postings and emails to Jacobovici’s employers, bloggers and journalists, Zias, 72, charged the filmmaker with exploiting archaeology for financial gain or, in his words, “pimping off the Bible.”

More specifically, Zias accused the three-time Emmy award winner of “planting archaeology,” forgery, and inventing a Holocaust story.

“I don’t mind being criticized,” Jacobovici told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “People should be free to say what they want. But there’s a difference between free speech and libel. And when you make these kinds of allegations, you cross the line.”

Last year, the filmmaker formally filed a libel suit, seeking $1 million in damages – less than half the revenue lost, he claims, as a result of Zias’ email campaign.

The two principals are next due in the Lod courtroom in early April, under the jurisdiction of Judge Jacob Sheinman. However, given the glacial pace of Israel’s judicial system, it will likely be months before there is a verdict.

Will the real victim please stand up?

Zias declined to be interviewed for this article, as did his attorney Jonathan Tsevi. However, in various on-line postings, Zias has attempted to portray himself as the potential victim of censorship.

“In the search for fame and fortune,” he wrote in one posting, “powerful media and personal interests… have encroached upon what once was a honest profession [archeology]… In an attempt to silence academic critics, a small but financially powerful group… has chosen to react via libel ligation [sic]… an attempt to silence public criticism and freedom of expression in order to advance their own parochial interests.”

Jacobovici is not the first academic — in addition to his filmmaking he is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Sudbury, Ontario’s Huntingdon University – to earn Zias’ scorn.

In the past decade, Zias has charged half a dozen senior archeologists, scientists and religious scholars with malfeasance. For example, he accused the late Bar-Ilan University historian Hanan Eshel of forging a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, and lobbied for his dismissal. Aren Maeir, former chair of the university’s department of archeology, confirms that Zias urged him to fire Eshel, the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed papers.

Zias also lobbied university administrators to remove or censure highly respected academics, including Richard Freund, head of Judaic Studies at Hartford University and James Tabor, tenured chair of the department of religion at the University of North Carolina. Rami Arav, professor of archeology at the University of Nebraska, and Magen Broshi, former curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have also found themselves in Zias’ line of fire.

Asked for comment, Zias – in an email exchange – said only that “none of the above have [sic] any respect among colleagues. They are mocked by all.” Later, he added, “Change no respect to little respect.”

Zias also played a central role in spurring the Israel Antiquity Authority to charge collector Oded Golan with forgery in connection with the so-called James ossuary.

The 'James ossuary,' one of the pieces at the center of Golan's forgery trial, had been hailed by some scholars as the first physical proof for the existence of Jesus (photo credit: AP Photo/Biblical Archaeology Review)

The ‘James ossuary,’ one of the pieces at the center of Golan’s forgery trial, had been hailed by some scholars as the first physical proof for the existence of Jesus (photo credit: AP Photo/Biblical Archaeology Review)

The IAA spent almost a decade trying to prove that Golan forged the latter part of the box’s inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Among the key witnesses for the prosecution, Zias claimed to have remembered seeing only the first part of the inscription in an Arab-owned Jerusalem antiquities shop.

But as Time magazine later reported, Zias’s testimony fell apart on the witness stand when he confessed that “he could not actually read the Aramaic inscription and that his Hebrew wasn’t good enough to read his own name ‘Joseph’ on the box.” Golan was declared innocent last year, although the IAA continues to insist the inscription has been forged.

‘I think Zias is meshuge’

“I think Zias is meshuge [crazy],” says geologist Amnon Rosenfeld, of the Geological Survey of Israel. “He’s had a very strong influence because of his former IAA status, but his scientific contribution is zero.”

In “The Jesus Discovery/The Resurrection Tomb Mystery,” Jacobovici suggests that the cave may have been on the estate of Joseph of Arimathea who, according to the Gospels, was the affluent member of the Sanhedrin who claimed Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

 By pure coincidence, the same family name – Aramati – appears on a mailbox in the building constructed over the ancient tomb in the early 1980s.

Before the trial started, Zias claimed — in letters sent to Jacobovici’s broadcaster National Geographic, his publisher Simon & Schuster and others — that the filmmaker had pasted the Aramati name on the mailbox, to draw the parallel with the Biblical disciple of Jesus.

This act, apparently, is what he meant by “planting archaeology.” Jacobovici denied the allegation, noting that the Jerusalem phone book showed a family named Arimathea (in Hebrew Aramati) living at the address long before the documentary was shot. Since then, in court depositions, Zias has admitted that there is such a family living in the building.

Zias’s depositions have also backed away from his forgery allegation. By forgery, he later explained, he meant that the documentaries used computer-generated software (CGI) to enhance images carved on the ossuaries.

Does Jacobovici’s Jesus tomb theory have legs?

Not long after the first Jesus documentary aired, a leading group of 70 scholars assembled in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. As part of the proceedings, they gave a lifetime achievement award to honor the late archaeologist Joseph Gat — part of the team that excavated the first tomb in 1981.

Accepting on his behalf, his widow disclosed that, while her husband had never publicly discussed the find, he was convinced they had found Jesus of Nazareth’s family tomb. He never talked about it, she claimed, because he thought the news would unleash a wave of anti-Semitism. Gat was a child survivor of the Holocaust and feared a recurrence.

Zias, who worked for the IAA until retiring in 1999, had previously claimed that no serious archaeologist supported Jacobovici’s thesis. When the widow’s remarks suggested otherwise, Zias contended that Jacobovici had orchestrated the entire scene to promote his cause – arranged for the award to given, for Mrs. Gat to appear, and written the script she delivered, including the Holocaust reference.

Jacobovici categorically denies the charge.

Himself the son of Holocaust survivors, Jacobovici was born in Israel and raised there and in Montreal. He made his home in Toronto from 1980-2006, before making aliyah and now lives with his wife and five children in Ra’anana.

‘It’s one thing to claim this and that. It’s another to accuse a child of Holocaust survivors of inventing Holocaust stories’

“It’s one thing to claim this and that. It’s another to accuse a child of Holocaust survivors of inventing Holocaust stories and then argue that a sentence from a woman I met once in my life justifies this language,” says Jacobovici.

As it turns out, support for Jacobovici’s tomb thesis did not only come from Gat’s posthumous musings. Although initial academic and religious response was overwhelmingly dismissive, the ground of opinion may be starting to shift.

Late last year, the official proceedings of the Jerusalem conference were published, edited by Princeton’s James Charlesworth, one of the world’s top New Testament thinkers. The results are surprising because, while the naysayers have dominated headlines and blog postings, 12 of the 28 contributors now concede at least the possibility that the tomb is indeed that of the Jesus family.

Zias as a convenient stalking horse

Although the court will ultimately judge only the alleged libel and, if applicable, damages, the case raises other issues of interest to scholars.

Among them is whether Zias has become a convenient stalking horse for those who, for various reasons, reject Jacobovici’s provocative theories about Jesus.

Professor James D. Tabor speaks beside a life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in 'Patio Tomb', a first century burial cave located beneath an apartment building on April 4,  2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / FLASH 90)

Professor James D. Tabor speaks beside a life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in ‘Patio Tomb’, a first century burial cave located beneath an apartment building on April 4, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / FLASH 90)

“Some scholars see any claims to have found the bones of Jesus as crazy, fringe, and sensational,” explains UNC’s James Tabor. “Much like finding the Ark of the Covenant or proving the Shroud of Turin is authentic.”

Israeli/Jewish scholars, Tabor adds, “tend to not want to deal with things that challenge the basic assumptions of Christianity — not because they believe those assumptions, but just because it is best left alone. And academics of Christian background may hesitate to find the bones of Jesus for theological reasons — i.e., it threatens orthodox Christianity.”

The latter constituency, Jacobovici suggests, may be suffering from “paradigm collapse trauma.”

As archaeology gets closer and closer to the historical Jesus, he says, “it seems to contradict Pauline Christian theology in fundamental ways. As the evidence mounts, the inability to look at it also gets stronger.”

The same phrase has been used by Hebrew University archaeologist Josef Garfinkel in his on-going debate with Biblical minimalists that deny the historical veracity of the story of King David.

“When new data clearly show that an old paradigm is wrong,” Garfinkel wrote, “the scholars who created the flawed paradigm sometimes reject the new data and desperately attempt to keep the old paradigm alive.” Garfinkel declined to comment on the specifics of the Jacobovici lawsuit.

Other scholars targeted by Zias bristle at his allegations, but have so far declined to sue.

Of the fact that six widely published and much honored scholars were all accusing him of harassment, Zias seemed proud, writing: “Only six [?], you forgot a few, for starters Vendyl Jones, the original Indiana Jones… There are more.” The late Vendyl Jones was an American religious scholar who became fascinated by Israeli archaeology and ultimately led eight digs at Qumram.

To the charge that he planted archaeology – burying a metal casket in a graveyard — at Qumran, the ancient Essene encampment next to the Dead Sea, Hartford’s Prof. Richard Freund, says, “A film crew tracked [the dig] from the moment we started our work… I cannot understand why these allegations were ever leveled.”

Freund has authored six books on archaeology, two on Jewish ethics, more than 100 scholarly articles and appeared in 15 television documentaries.

Caves of Qumran (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Caves of Qumran (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Canadian geologist Paul Bauman, who worked with Freund, says his Calgary-based company works on “gargantuan industrial projects and top-secret defense sites of multiple nations.

“Why would I risk all my professional credibility by putting a metal box in a remote cemetery in the desert? I have never received financial compensation for any of the archaeology work I’ve participated in outside of North America – [it is] done entirely out of philanthropic intents. I’ve worked with Dr. Freund on at least 15 projects over the last 15 years. The very idea of ‘planting’ a find is inconceivable,” says Bauman.

Tabor, one of the world’s foremost scholars of early Christianity, says Zias wrote “scurrilous letters to my editors at Simon & Schuster, to my agent, to my provost, chancellor, and dean, as well as the chair of Anthropology, in which he charged that I was guilty of ‘conduct bordering on the criminal,’ …and that I was interested in only in fame and fortune and was a shame to the profession… Nothing of substance in Joe’s charges was upheld, and he was told so by the [university’s] attorney. He became very strident and threatened to expose our university as not taking responsibility for corruption. He subsequently wrote to UNC officials over the entire state system, making the same charges. ”

To this day, Tabor says, Zias regularly leaves slanderous comments on web pages and blogs, and sends e-mails to hundreds of colleagues. “He has even contacted some of my relatives and tried to get them to verify some of his charges of corruption.”

Tabor says he, too, considered suing Zias for libel. “There’s a trail of evidence that is irrefutable, but I’ve chosen to try to counter him in other ways. But Joe has vowed to try destroy Simcha, and boasted that he has done him great damage. I am a tenured professor, whereas Simcha has his own company and its reputation, plus the livelihood of his associates, to consider.”