Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lost Tomb of Jesus = Lost Integrity of Scholarship

Gentle reader "Sleepless in Cincinnati" has asked us to weigh in on the announcement from the Discovery Channel of the airing of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," a film which purports to identify as the tomb of Jesus a tomb recently discovered in Jerusalem.

We hesitate, of course, to offer an opinion on something that we haven't seen, especially since, living in a cable-and-satellite-free household, we probably won't see it. But we will make the following observations nevertheless.

The "discovery" is that there is a tomb near Jerusalem that held ten ossuaries (stone boxes containing the bones of deceased persons, per the custom of the time and place retrieved from tombs after the flesh had decayed away). Six of these ossuaries have names on them. The names match up with the names of persons in the Gospels. And a statistician has apparently concluded that this combination of names is unlikely unless the tomb belonged to Jesus' family.

We note first of all the following quotation from the Discovery Channel's web site:

All leading epigraphers agree about the inscriptions. All archaeologists confirm the nature of the find. It comes down to a matter of statistics. A statistical study commissioned by the broadcasters (Discovery Channel/Vision Canada/C4 UK) concludes that the probability factor is 600 to 1 in favor of this tomb being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

Let's note what that actually means:
  • "All leading epigraphers agree about the inscriptions." That is to say, they agree that the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the tomb have the names that they have.
  • "All archaeologists confirm the nature of the find." That is to say, they all agree that this is an authentic Jewish tomb with authentic Jewish ossuaries from the Second Temple period, perhaps offering even a bit more chronological precision than that to identify the ossuaries as from the first century of the common era.
  • "It comes down to a matter of statistics." That is to say, we're offering a statistical argument as the only means of identifying this tomb as belonging to Jesus' family.
  • "A statistical study commissioned by the broadcasters. . ." That is to say, there's no objectivity whatsoever to the statistical study. Discovery and C4 would not have paid for a statistical study that drew a negative. Trust this study like environmentalists trust studies commissioned by oil companies. Look carefully in the show for phrases describing the statistical work like, "according to the assumptions of this study," which will acknowledge that what's important are not the statistics but the assumptions used to set them up.
Now, let's say something about the personnel. Though it includes its share of for-profit purveyors of the sensational, the team of "filmmakers and experts" includes accomplished scholars. Francois Bovon is a widely respected scholar of Luke-Acts and of the apocryphal Acts. Shimon Gibson is an real archaeologist famous for his discovery of a cave containing paintings that appear to depict John the Baptist. James Tabor is a famous author who chairs the prestigious University of North Carolina at Charlotte religious studies department.

However, and this is a big however, Gibson has largely lost his credibility in the scholarly world for his outrageous identification of the cave with the John the Baptist paintings as the locale of John's ministry. There is nothing, of course, to suggest this conclusion except the paintings, and everything to suggest that the paintings merely were made by followers of John or even followers of Jesus who respected John. The uniform evidence of all ancient texts that discuss John locate his activity at the Jordan, and Gibson's discovery does nothing to challenge that. However, simply discovering some important ancient paintings does little to get the archaeologist in the public eye, or to make the money that comes from popular-level publication of such "discoveries." Hence, Gibson compromised his scholarship on a previous occasion, and he looks set to do it again.

The same may be said for Tabor. His publications have drifted toward the sensationalistic, the most recent, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, clearly an effort to cash in on the obscene profits associated with the Da Vinci Code.

Bovon's involvement frankly puzzles us. We are not surprised that the good folks at Discovery and C4 wanted someone with Bovon's panache (Harvard chair, distinguished scholarship, cool continental accent). We expect further that they paid him lots of dough. We have utter respect for Bovon's meticulous command of primary and secondary sources, but we will say as well that his original interpretive work, as opposed to his summary and synthesis of others' work, has tended toward eccentricity and as a result has held little influence among scholars of any ideological persuasion. He is, in other words, the person that other scholars rely on to bring together a lot of information on his specialty, not to offer judicious conclusions about it. We will not be surprised if Bovon was coaxed into some guarded statements that, edited with the more outrageous claims of Gibson and Tabor, move the discussion along in the intended sensationalistic path. Neither will we be surprised if he offered some really odd conclusions based on what he saw of the data. He's done that kind of thing before.

Most notable is that there is utterly no scholarly counterpoint included in the project, unless Bovon is that counterpoint. Responsible programs of this kind would include scholars who have examined the same evidence and come to different conclusions, if such can be found. We guarantee that scholarly conclusions different from the ones implied on the program web site could be found almost anywhere that such matters are seriously studied, not even limiting oneself to the theologically orthodox.

Now a larger perspective, again in response to a quotation from Discovery's web site:
Part archaeological adventure, part Biblical history, part forensic science, part theological controversy: this is a story that will be carried around the world.
This is to say, mix (a) Indiana Jones, (b) a story that a couple of billion people regard as sacred, (c) CSI, and (d) the only way that the media can cover religion, and you've got a show that we hope will make a lot of dough in the international television market, and for less money than it takes to produce either (a) or (c).

In other words, this project is one of many aimed at the same global audience that in record numbers bought up the Da Vinci Code, now a viral publication that has officially infected much discussion of Christianity in the media. Dan Brown, author of that unreadable book, is no scholar, but he hit on a formula that made him rich. Some scholars of the Bible, wanting some of the swag for themselves, have used their scholarly acumen to analyze Brown's formula for garnering sales. "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is clearly an example of the same, the latest example of the prostitution of historical and literary scholarship on the Bible for the sake of the Almighty Dollar.

In the run-up to the airing of this program, we commend to gentle readers the recent book by responsible scholar Craig A. Evans: Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. From pre-publication announcements, we gather that Evans is taking on the entire range of recent pseudo-scholarship, including both the Jesus Seminar and the neo-Gnostic revival of the Da Vinci Code and its spawn. From his massive prior work, we expect that Evans offers meticulous, balanced, responsible analysis.

Briefly, we will chase a still broader observation. Nearly everything we know about the ancient world comes from ancient books. We can only interpret material remains, the main stuff of archaeology, in light of texts. The most significant archaeological finds, in fact, are always texts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. But in the popular mind, the relative importance of texts and material remains is reversed: texts can't be trusted, but the right material remains will tell all. We'll attribute this mistake to the common exaltation of laboratory sciences as a way of knowing, a phenomenon existing simultaneously with misunderstanding of the nature and limits of the scientific method. We'll add further that mystery fiction--from Agatha Christie's perennial bestsellers to programs like CSI--just compounds the problem. We're sure that the legal profession suffers from the same reversal: it's testimony that convicts criminals, but the public panders for physical evidence that will prove all in contradiction to testimony.

Now, more specifically, what are the odds that these filmmakers and scholars have actually discovered a tomb belonging to Jesus' family or, as the web site for the show seems to imply, physical evidence that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene and died without rising?

For the former, there's some possibility that a tomb belonging to Jesus' brothers and their issue might have been found. The family of Jesus remained prominent in Jerusalem until its fall, and were well known in Galilee at least until the time of Domitian. That would be cool if it can be confirmed with any degree of plausibility, but such proof is daunting, to say the least.

For the latter, there's no possibility whatsoever. And we say that not because we believe in the biblical account of Jesus' resurrection and don't believe the absent-of-evidence claim that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene. We say it because at this point in history it would be impossible to verify any physical substance's connection to an event in that place and time.

One can compare the Shroud of Turin. Despite multiple examinations, it cannot be determined whether it was the burial shroud of Jesus, and no means can be imagined of determining the same. It can only be said that doubt remains as to whether the cloth could come from the appropriate period and as to whether one can describe a means by which the image could be produced by natural processes. To put it differently, one could prove that it couldn't be Jesus' shroud, but one could never prove that it was Jesus' shroud. Yet this Shroud that can never prove anything continues to fascinate thousands who look to it for evidence that they can't accept from the testimony of texts and the analysis of the same.

A responsible TV show on the topic of this "lost tomb" would lay out that limitation of evidence at the beginning. We won't hold our breath to hear such matters uttered, however. That's not how you make money in a medium that of late has been All-Anna-Nicole-Smith-All-the-Time, especially as the Easter season approaches, when all media must give some attention, however fleeting, to matters Christian.

Finally, we note very briefly that the program web site tries to inoculate itself from hate-mail from incensed believers by insisting that because many Christians believe in a non-physical resurrection, this show is consistent with faith in the resurrection. For those who want to know what's up with that and why it's so utterly, utterly inconsistent with every aspect of Christian faith and history, we recommend N. T. Wright's magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God. In fact, we'll recommend that any gentle reader who hasn't read this book should stop reading this blog until she has completed the reading of said volume. Consider it giving up SWNID for Lent, if you will.

UPDATE: We thank a gentle reader for alerting us via email to the London Evening Standard's report on "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." This article, considerably more revealing than the Discovery Channel's web site, notes that (a) the tomb in question was discovered in 1980; (b) it contains ossuaries (empty of bones, for what it's worth) with inscriptions naming "Jesus son of Joseph, Judah son of Jesus, Maria, Mariamne (thought to be Mary Magdalene's real name), Joseph and Matthew"; (c) the head of the original excavation dismissed any notion that the tomb was related to Jesus' family because of the overwhelming commonness of the names and Jesus' family's association with Galilee instead of Jerusalem; (d) Discovery Channel project personnel applied DNA tests to traces of DNA in the ossuaries of "Jesus" and "Mariamne" and found that they were not related by blood, suggesting that they could have been buried together because they were husband and wife.

So, it does really all depend on statistics, which is to say that the assumptions of the statistical analysis certainly determined its outcome.

We note again that a news conference from a filmmaker is not the mode by which serious scholarly findings or hypotheses are presented and tested. Challenged by one of the program participants as to the appropriateness of our tone in this post, we say again that there's no mistaking the timing of all of this, and note that the Evening Standard is also happy to make a collocation with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. We hope that the tenured academics who took part in this project offered to the program producers the appropriate level of skepticism that their method and mode of presentation deserves. More than that, we hope that they are prepared for the expressions of disdain that will inevitably come from their scholarly colleagues. But as for us and our house, we will insist that participation in tendentious and sensationalistic media projects does nothing to further public engagement in scholarship. Instead, in the eyes of the public, believing and otherwise, such involvement demeans the serious business of historical investigation of Christian origins.

More Update: Various news organizations are weighing in on the claims for the tomb. The AP article is especially rich in its chronicling of scholarly reactions, all of which are negative. Some quotations:

In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.

"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said. . . .

William Dever, an expert on near eastern archaeology and anthropology, who has worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades, said specialists have known about the ossuaries for years.

"The fact that it's been ignored tells you something," said Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. "It would be amusing if it didn't mislead so many people."

Dr. Tabor, if you're checking back, I hope that you're satisfied that ours is not the only opinion in the academy that decries the involvement of tenured scholars in this kind of circus.


JDT said...

I think it is a nasty and uncalled for comment to charge that my book, The Jesus Dynasty, was an attempt to "cash in" on the Dan Brown phenomenon. Since you surely know nothing about me, my lifelong work, nor my personal life, how and why would/could you say such a thing? I think it is a cheap shot, inaccurate, and insulting, and takes one away from a proper discussion of these matters.

James Tabor

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

I will assume that you are busy using search engines to alert you to blog postings about your book, presumably because you expect this kind of response because of the nature of your book.

My remarks are all qualified by my statement that I have not seen the television program nor read The Jesus Dynasty. It is difficult, however, to see any book published on this subject as prompted by anything other than the attention to this subject engendered by The Da Vinci Code. The same may be said for the hoopla surrounding the publication of the Gospel of Judas and the accompanying hullabaloo over who was included in the project and who wasn't.

The fact is that there was no scholarly interest in exploring these questions prior to the Dan Brown phenomenon, excluding the sort of thing that Richard Bauckham did on the family of Jesus that has nothing to do with Borwn's fantasies. And the fact is that there is nothing resembling primary source evidence to engage in the question now. It is furthermore clear that the Discovery Channel and C4 have a strong commercial interest in piggybacking what is otherwise a mildly interesting archaeological find on the Dan Brown phenomenon.

I sincerely hope, Dr. Tabor, that your book is a responsible and balanced approach to this topic that responds to the sensationalism that surrounds it. But "cash in" remains a valid way of describing a book that is commercially sold and that responds, positively or negatively, to a huge pop-culture phenomenon. It is not by itself a pejorative term. Cash is at least morally neutral, don't you think?

Let's take this in another area. If the discovery of this tomb is as significant as the web site for the program seems to suggest, why is it being presented in the venue of a television program around the Easter season? Why is it not first published in peer-reviewed journals? Or if it is, why does the web site not provide that information?

Sleepless in Cincinnati said...

Sorry to waste so much of the blogger's time. Although, you probably would have been talking about this without my prompt.

I agree with about 95% of what you say, even though I don't have the scholarship background to know who all of the players are and the quality of their reputations.

One thing I believe is in error. Most statistics are models. All models have assumptions and clear limitations built into the models. Anytime you take complex data sets and you try to say something meaningful about them, there are limitations to the strength of the meaning.

For example: Averages, medians, and modes are all limited ways of identifying / describing the middle of a list of numbers. What is middleness and how to we describe it meaningfully? The data set affects the method you choose and the strength or quality of the meaning you assign to what you have picked as the middle.

And there are statistical models that are 100 times more complex, making the meaning / significance interpretation of the statistician's conclusions 100 times more complex. Statisticians hide behind this complexity which is why nobody can argue with statistics. The truth is too complex for you to understand. Which is why I believe almost no statistics I hear (and my field is full of them).

On the other hand, simple mathematical probability involves very few assumptions. Or the assumptions are so foundational, that we don't argue with them.

Casinos operate profitably because of the known probabilities of every bet inside the building with the boat fascade.

Nobody knows what the statistician did on this project because the TV program hasn't been shown. Even then, nothing about the math will likely be said except for the fantastic conclusion.

But simple mathematical probability is the way it should be done. And if it is done right, the conclusions have some validity.

The degree of validity though requires that we know the entire data set. The casinos know how many kings, queens, and jacks are in every deck. Do we know how many Marys were in Palestine? Do we know how many Joseph's were in Palestine. In America, 1 out of 10 boys is Michael. What were the percentages in Palestine?

And to add another layer of complexity, who was buried with who by custom in Palestine or Jerusalem? Nuclear family only? Extended family? 3 generations? 10 generations? These are the facts that must be entered into the math equation. If we have good guesses, then the math provides some validity. If we don't, the whole thing is bogus.

So it's not the statistics, or the assumptions in a statistical model. It's the number of red marbles versus blue marbles versus green marbles, and who was being buried in these family tombs (which is incredibly complex by definition) (which are 2nd and 3rd dimensions which might be represented by marble size and level of transparency / opaqueness). Casino math isn't near this complex, but there are still plenty of fools who go.