Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A trinity we could probably do without: bad scholarship, bad theology and the Discovery Channel

Another "tomb of Jesus" - this one in ... India (?!?)

The "Jesus bone box" (aka, burial box, ossuary) story reminded me of the old saying in Mississippi about prohibition of alcohol, that the bootleggers and the Baptist preachers were the main supporters of banning alcohol. Mississippi even managed to collect a tax on the illegal liquor sold in the state! It was called the "black market tax". (I'm not making this up.)

The reason it reminds me of that is that this is a story where archaeological scamsters and Christian fundamentalists can bash each other and both benefit from the publicity. It's being aired next Sunday, March 4, by the Discovery Channel under the title,
The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

This is another case of the dumbing-down of science by the popular media. At least if the advance hype is any measure, the filmmakers seem to be hyping an archaeological claim that is just unfounded. But the Christian fundamentalists will be able to use this to point to the alleged evils of science, plus get quoted in the major media as "the other side" of the controversy.

And the "village atheists" will be quick to embrace it just to twit the religious folks.

Science and critical thinking wind up being the real losers.

Some of the problems from the scholarly/scientific point of view in the story are given in this story,
Tomb could be of Jesus, wife and son: directors AFP 02/26/07:

Israeli archaeologist and professor Amos Kloner, who documented the tomb as the Jewish burial cave of a well-off family more than 10 years ago, is adamant there is no evidence to support claims that it was the burial siteof Jesus.

"I'm a scholar. I do scholarly work which has nothing to do with documentary film-making. There's no way to take a religious story and to turn it into something scientific," he told AFP in a telephone interview.

"I still insist that it is a regular burial chamber from the 1st century BC," Kloner said, adding that the names were a coincidence.

"Who says that 'Maria' is Magdalena and 'Judah' is the son of Jesus? It cannot be proved. These are very popular and common names from the 1st century BC," said the academic at Israel's Bar Ilan University.
The conservative Christian Post has been reporting on the controversy. For instance, this article, Christian Theologians Reject Jesus Family Tomb Claims by Michelle Vu 02/27/07, presents a criticism that is consistent with literalism but also has some historical merit:

Meanwhile, Dr. George Guthrie, the Benjamin W. Perry professor of Bible and the chairman of the department of Christian Studies at Union University, queried why the Apostle James and Jesus’ other family members did not know of this family tomb.

“As believers, his family members confess the resurrected Jesus,” said Guthrie, in a statement. “No opponent of Christianity points to the tomb. No followers of Jesus revere the tomb. There is no evidence – beyond the circumstantial evidence of exceedingly common names – that point to this as being the tomb of Jesus’ family.”
Some merit - but Guthrie is essentially dismissing the tomb because the Bible doesn't tell the story that way. And in the literalist reading, the Christian Scriptures are historically and scientifically accurate in every detail.

This article from the Catholic News Agency,
‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ documentary claims unfounded, hype, archeologists says 2/26/2007, also quotes Amos Kloner making a point about the general unlikelihood of Jesus' family having such a tomb:

"There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb," Kloner told the Jerusalem Post. "They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE" (AD).
Scholars and clergymen in Jerusalem slam new Jesus documentary AP/Ha'aretz 02/26/07 reports:

Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in
Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.

"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this, Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."

"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 - 10 being completely possible - it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."

Pfann is even unsure that the name Jesus on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it is more likely the name Hanun. Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher. (my emphasis)
A couple of things but me about this documentary, and the superficial polemics and news coverage it's generating. One is that the film's promoters are claiming that it challenges the basis of the Christian faith. It's true that the Resurrection of Jesus is the central event for the religion of Christianity, just as the Exodus is the central event for Judaism, and the Prophet's hadj from Mecca to Medina for Islam.

But the Resurrection for Christianity theology is in essence a spiritual event. I don't want to be disingenuous here. Most Christian church-goers probably think of the Resurrection in terms of Jesus' physical body getting up from the dead and leaving the tomb.

But the religious essence of the Resurrection for Christians is that it is a "faith event". Even conservative Christian accounts stress that after the Resurrection, Jesus was not subject to the ordinary physical limititations of the flesh that he had experienced during his life as recounted by the Gospels, i.e., he had a "spiritual" rather than a physical body. We might quibble about whether, say, walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee counted as being within the normal limitations of the human body in his regular lifetime. But the post-Resurrection Jesuswho appears and disappears suddenly, who is not immediately recognized by his disciples, who rises into the heavens in the Ascension, is not subject to the limitations that the Jesus scourged and crucified by the Romans experienced.

While the fundamentalists may happily join with the village atheists in insisting that a physical resusitation of Jesus is essential to the Christian faith, that agreement represents a common ground for sloppy theology and bad history.

The Resurrection as a spiritual event can mean many things to Christians, a central message being the assurance that the love of God survives even death.

Now, since most of the people in the world are something other than Christian believers, the Christian view of the Resurrection can be challenged on a number of grounds, religious and non-religious. But unless the critics are content with just irritating the fundis (which is apparently what Stephen Pfann above has in mind in referring to "skeptics"), they should focus on what the Christian faith actually teaches and has historically believed about the Resurrection, not on the fundi/village-atheist consensus.

On historical grounds, the question of whether Jesus had a tomb at all is a relevant one. The strongest argument that he had a tomb, even one that became physically empty of his body, is in the Gospels which recount this story. The Resurrection, physical or otherwise, is simply outside the realm of history. But the emphasis placed on stories at the tomb in those earliest surviving written accounts is itself an historical fact.

As Ann Graham Brock emphasizes in Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (2003), early accounts of what occurred at the empty tomb - more particularly, to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared and in what order and what he said to them - became an important factor in laying claim to traditions of authority in the early Christian communities. The earliest of the Gospels, Mark, originally ended with the report of the empty tomb, not post-Resurrection appearances.

On the other hand, John Dominic Crossan reminds us in Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (1995), the Romans normally did not allow victims of crucifixion to be buried at all. The ancient world, including the Jews of the Roman province of Judea, had a special horror of not being buried. Sophocles' Antigone is a classic literary treatment of this theme; the burials of Patrokles and Hektor are major elements of the Iliad.

It was thought, to put it broadly, that the dead person would never be at peace unless the body was properly buried. In addition to the horrible physical torture crucifixion represented, the knowledge by the victim and his family that he would never be properly buried was part of the torture and punishment. In a particularly unappetizing description likely to be dismissed out of hand by conservative Christians, Crosson writes that the bodies were typically left on the crosses until they were eaten by wild dogs. (Unlike many artistic representations, the victim's feet were typically only a few inches off the ground in crucifixion.)

So it's not unthinkable that Jesus' followers somehow might have managed to get the body for burial, as the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea suggest. But in terms of the historical record, the small liklihood of that has to be taken into consideration.

Instead, what the Discovery Channel seems prepared to serve up to its audience is sloppy science that will compete with poor theology, to their mutual benefit.

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notrinitynbible said...

The Trinty Doctrine comes from the early Roman Church, not Scripture. Just like most of the other man-made teachings, sightings, myths, idolatry, etc.

bmiller224 said...

That's true, the doctrine of the Trinity was a development that came after the New Testament.

It's legitimate for later Christians to define the doctrine of the Trinity based on elements of the Scripture.  But a doctrine of the Trinity was not spelled out as such in the New Testament, and it's very unlikely that the early Christians understood God in that way.