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A group of filmmakers and scholars yesterday unveiled a pair of limestone ossuaries in New York. They said these ancient boxes of bones could have contained the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and a son named Judah. Their documentary airs Sunday on the Discovery Channel, although a number of scholars say their claim is unfounded.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Unlike most news conferences revealing new discoveries, this came with a newly published book and a film, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by James Cameron, the director of "Titanic" and "Aliens." On the stage at the New York public library where the news conference was held, were two small bone boxes, or ossuaries, covered with a cloth, and a panel including religious scholars and archeologists and a statistician. James Cameron said he had never doubted the historical reality of Jesus.

Mr. JAMES CAMERON (Producer, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus"): But the simple fact is that there's never been a shred of physical archeological evidence to support that fact until right now.

ADLER: The tomb was discovered in 1980 in Jerusalem several miles outside the old city. There were scholarly articles about it in the late '90s. Six of the ossuaries had inscriptions recorded and catalogued. The inscriptions included Jesus, son of Joseph, two different Marys, and Judah, son of Jesus.

Simcha Jacobovici, the director of the film says the tomb was not really studied for 16 years.

Mr. SIMCHA JACOBOVICI (Director, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus"): Why wasn't it thought to be important? Because they are common names, so statistically speaking, they're not significant.

ADLER: But Jacobovici says there was another name that had not been really noticed that was on the ossuary of one of the Marys. It was what many scholars know as Mary Magdalene's real name - Mariamne, a Greek version of the Hebrew name Miriam. And next to it was the word Mara.

Mr. JACOBOVICI: Mara is a Greek rendering of an Aramaic word, which means master, a teacher, an apostle. Right there on the archeology, what for millions of readers and viewers of the Da Vinci Code was fantasy and fiction, that she was potentially a wife and an apostle, suddenly we read on this ossuary -Mariamne, the master.

ADLER: And Jacobovici noted that later gospels, the Acts of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, called Mary Magdalene an apostle and teacher in her own right.

Professor LAWRENCE STAGER (Archeology of Israel, Harvard University): Kind of doing a piggyback on the Da Vinci Code.

ADLER: Lawrence Stager, professor of the Archeology of Israel at Harvard University says most scholars believe the tomb of Jesus is underneath what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the old city. The site where the ossuaries is several miles outside the old city. He says the Acts of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene were later gospels. He doesn't think they are authoritative, and he questions all the claims.

Mr. STAGER: From what I know about it at this moment, it sounds rather preposterous.

ADLER: He says he'll wait until there's a vetted scholarly article in a reputable journal. Since many scholars say the names inscribed on the ossuaries were common among Jews of that time, Jacobovici and Cameron brought in a statistician who said the grouping of these names together has a probability of 600 to one.

Other scholars say the names are not clear and that ancient Semitic script is difficult to decipher. Archaeologist Amos Kloner, who described the tomb more than 10 years ago as the burial cave of a well-off family, says there are 900 such burial caves within several miles of the old city of Jerusalem and that the name of Jesus was found 71 times and Judah, son of Jesus was also found. The documentary airs on the Discovery Channel next Sunday.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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