Archaeological sketch of the tomb siteNot long ago, Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code postulated that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were man and wife and had a child. Now the director of Titanic, James Cameron, claims to have tantalising archaeological confirmation of this. This week he released a documentary which purports to demonstrate that Christ did not rise from the dead, that the place where his body lay after the Crucifixion is not in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and that the central events of the Gospels are false. The Lost Tomb of Jesus was produced by Cameron and directed by an Israeli-born Canadian, Simcha Jacobovici, for the Discovery Channel. Its focus is a tomb found in 1980 in Jerusalem which appears to contain the remains of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their son.

If the documentary's thesis is confirmed, the history of Christianity would have to be rewritten. However, the level of scepticism amongst the experts is very high. The government of Israel does not seem to attribute the slightest importance to the discovery. One proof of this is that Israel's Archaeology Authority handed over the ossuaries (boxes of bones) for the documentary's opening night in New York on February 26. Would it have been so easy to obtain permission if there were the slightest suspicion that these stone boxes really were amongst the most important relics in the history of the world?

In any case, this is hardly a new story. Antonio Banderas starred in a 2001 film with the same storyline, The Body. He played Jonas McCord, a priest in charge of a similar discovery. And in 1996 it was the theme of a BBC documentary so sensational that it prompted a headline in the Italian newspaper La Stampa: "Jesus did not rise from the dead: we have proof". Strangely enough, however, Mary Magdalene, now in vogue after The Da Vinci Code, was not mentioned.

The underground gallery in which the ossuaries were discovered in 1980 was unearthed during building construction in the district of Talpiot. Inside were ten boxes which apparently belonged to the same family. Six of them bore Aramaic inscriptions which identified the deceased as "Yeshua bar Yosef" ("Jesus, son of Joseph"); " Maria "; "Yose" (a nickname for Joseph), who must have been a brother of Yeshua); "Matia" (Matthew), presumably another brother; " Mariamene e Mara" ("Mary the master" or "Mary the teacher", according to the filmmakers), and a child named "Yehuda bar Yeshua" (Judah, son of Jesus).

The Israeli Archaeological Authority is the body responsible for more than 30,000 sites in the Holy Land, amongst which are thousands of tombs similar to the one in the documentary. When Israeli archaeologists find a tomb like this, after analysing what has been found, they bury the remains of the deceased and seal up the site. This is what happened to this particular gallery, which is now cemented over in an area next to an apartment block. The archaeologists who studied the tomb at the time say that in spite of the coincidence of names, nothing special struck them about the discovery. These names were very common in the time of the Second Temple, when Jesus lived.

Critics of the documentary are describing it as a mere money spinner. Last year Cameron and Jacobovici released another Bible-debunking documentary for the Discovery Channel, Exodus Decoded. It was highly profitable in spite of the fact that experts criticised it as containing numerous historical errors. The Lost Tomb of Jesus seems to run in a similar vein. The fact that they spent five years to produce it is a sign that the directors and the Discovery Channel which commissioned them are confident that it will turn a handy profit.

Amongst the principal sceptics of the tomb of Jesus is Amos Kloner, emeritus professor of the University of Bar-Ilan. He was the director of the archaeological work carried out in the 80s in Talpiot. In recent times, he says, three or four ossuaries of the Second Temple period have been found with the inscription "Jesus, son of Joseph". One of these is in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem — and no one has linked it to Jesus.

"The name 'Jesus son of Joseph' has been found on three or four ossuaries," Kloner told the Jerusalem Post. "These are common names. There were huge headlines in the 1940s surrounding another Jesus ossuary, cited as the first evidence of Christianity. There was another Jesus tomb. Months later it was dismissed. Give me scientific evidence, and I'll grapple with it. But this is manufactured."

Kloner has been completely dismissive of the so-called discovery. "It makes a great story for a TV film. But it's completely impossible. It's nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.

Kloner's assertions were supported by other experts "Simcha has no credibility whatsoever," Joe Zias told Newsweek. Zias was the curator for anthropology and archaeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 and personally inspected the ossuaries found at the Talpiot site.

He was fierce in his disdain for Jacobovici. "He's pimping off the Bible… He got this guy Cameron, who made Titanic or something like that. What does this guy know about archaeology? I am an archaeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, 'Who is this guy?' People want signs and wonders. Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession."

Vicente Poveda writes for the Spanish web magazine Aceprensa.