Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Didn't Indiana Jones already find this...?

Well, the last couple of days have been fairly interesting, as James Cameron is set to debut a Discovery Channel documentary about “the lost tomb of Jesus” entitled, appropriately, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. Keeping in mind that the Discovery Channel also runs documentaries about skunk-apes and el chupacabra, why is this particularly interesting? Well, this particular tomb contains ossuaries that seem to bear the names of Jesus’ family. One of them even contains the bones of a guy named Jesus. Thing is, there were a lot of guys named Jesus at the time. Jesus, James, Mary, etc., were all common names of the day, but, barring forgeries, the concentration of names in still intriguing.

So why isn’t a ferocious atheist like myself doing backflips down the street at the thought of this kick in the crotch to organized religion? Because, as the name of this blog implies, I’m also a skeptic, and skeptics have to be our most skeptical when evaluating things that we personally wish were true. Indeed, this is something that a lot of people need to remember here. In a recent AP story, Stephen Pfann, a scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem had this to say:

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

Now that’s a truly whacky quote. Skeptics don’t want anything except to know the truth (as much as it is possible to do so). I personally don’t want to hang my hopes on a potentially shoddy piece of scholarship just so I can take an extra jab at the religious folk. Keeping in mind that the tomb itself was discovered 27 years ago and archaeologists since then seem to have been largely unimpressed by its contents, (and further keeping in mind that Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, not Jerusalem, and were supposedly not of a social class able to afford nice tombs) right now I have to come down on the side of this being mostly showmanship on Cameron’s part, perhaps being aided and abetted by some of his contacts who have more of an eye for making a name for themselves than doing good archaeology. If it turns out that a solid examination of the evidence indicates that this find is authentic evidence of a historical, mortal Jesus of Nazareth, so much the better (for atheists). Until then, it’s nothing for either side to get too excited about.

What’s even more silly is the current talk of “DNA evidence” being extracted from the bones in the ossuaries. Unless there’s magical unknown God DNA in the “Jesus bones”, what will it prove except that the people in the tomb are related to each other? If the bones prove to be unrelated to each other it would expose the tomb, or at least the inscriptions on the ossuaries, as a hoax. If they are related, the (plausible enough) claim that it was just a tomb full of people with names similar to the holy family will be made. Other than that, the term “DNA evidence” is just being used as buzzword here.

I happened to catch James Cameron and his producer Simcha Jacobovici squaring off on Larry King Live against Al Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (I have the dubious distinction of living in the same city as this guy), and William Donohue, the apparently constantly enraged president of the Catholic League. The vast majority of the show consisted of these four men being rude to each other. The sole expert opinion came from non-archaeologist James Tabor, who’s the chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and he didn’t have a lot to say. (Even less considering that Donohue interrupted him at will.)

In a nutshell, Cameron and Jacobovici want people to watch the documentary, Al Mohler thinks it's bunk, Donohue thinks it's part of a global conspiracy against Jesus, and Tabor thinks the find is intriguing but really didn’t defend his position too well. To be honest, and I really hate to say nice stuff about Albert Mohler, but Mohler really made the best arguments, noting (in different words) that a bathtub full of DNA evidence means about as much as boobs on a cactus without a sample to compare it to. For those who are interested, the transcript is here.

At the end of the day I’m afraid that this might become a sort of a reverse Shroud of Turin: an icon that would have such powerful religious implications if it were true that people will pretend that it IS true no matter what. Hopefully true skepticism will prevail here until real archaeological arguments are made. Of course, even if bones were discovered in Nazareth in a box that said “Jesus, wandering prophet and son of Joseph and Mary, crucified in Jerusalem” and the bones were wearing a shirt that said “I got executed for claiming to be the Son of God and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”, Christians wouldn’t believe it anyway. That’s what’s ultimately sad here. Hardcore Christians won’t be negatively persuaded by any kind of scientific evidence, so what purpose does this serve but to lead skeptics (who aren’t that interested in the religious controversies anyway) into a series of debates about (probably specious) propositions put forth by the dude that directed “Titanic”?

Only a critical, neutral evaluation of the tomb to balance out both Cameron’s claims and the vitriolic reactions of religious leader will produce anything useful out of this.

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