Titanic director James Cameron has unveiled two ancient stone boxes which he claims could have held the remains of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Speaking at a press conference in New York, the Oscar-winning filmmaker said: "This is the biggest archaeological story of the century."
Cameron is behind a documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", which argues that 10 coffins found in a Jerusalem suburb in 1980 may have held the bones of Jesus and his family.
The 2000-year-old cave was first discovered in 1980 in Jerusalem's Talpiyot neighbourhood.
Six of the coffins had inscriptions which, when translated into English, said "Jesus son of Joseph", twice "Maria", and "Judah son of Jesus".
"To a layman's eye it seems pretty darn compelling," said Cameron who is executive producer.
His film will claim that the Maria of the inscription is Mary Magdalene, thought to have been a prostitute who became a follower of Christ. The inscription of Judah implies that Jesus had a son - a claim sure to be highly controversial.
Cameron and film director Simcha Jacobovici, of Israel, displayed two of the coffins, which are on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
"There's a definite sense that you have to pinch yourself," Cameron said.
Later, on NBC programme Today he claimed that statisticians would say the chances are "in the range of a couple of million to one" that the documentary is correct about the caskets, or ossuaries.
The documentary is sure to be controversial because, according to Christian belief, Jesus physically rose again on the third day after his resurrection and ascended into heaven, therefore he would not have had a coffin.
The Associated Press reported that many Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. But the burial site identified in Cameron's documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.
DPA press agency spoke to a senior Israeli archaeologist who thoroughly researched the tomb after its discovery, and at the time deciphered the inscriptions, and who cast serious doubt on the documentary's claim.
"It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever," Professor Amos Kloner, who had published the findings of his research in the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996.
"The names that are found on the tombs are names that are similar to the names of the family of Jesus," he said.
"But those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE," he added.
Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government agency responsible for archaeology, said: "We agreed to send the ossuaries, but it doesn't mean that we agree with the filmmakers."
- AGENCIES, NZ HERALD REPORTER