I was a little bleary-eyed yesterday because I stayed up last night to watch the Discovery channel documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” I opted for the 1am showing because the 9pm showing conflicted with Desperate Housewives. (Priorities, ya know?) I scheduled Tivo to record it, but ended up watching it anyway, since I was still up when it came on again. And though I thought I’d go to bed before it ended at 3am, I stayed up to watch until the end.
It’s an intriguing piece of film. Not being a historian or an archaeologist, I can’t say how much of it can or should be believed. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t vouch for the validity of the science used in the documentary either. At the same time, I don’t think its claims are any less believable than much of what people have believed for last 2000 years, based on not much more evidence than was presented in the documentary. And while I think that’s an important point that will inevitably get lost in the ensuing discussion, I think just the fact that the documentary was even produced could be a significant development in how religion is or isn’t discussed these days.
Like I said, I’ll leave it to others to offer a scientific critique of the documentary. PZ over at Pharyngula gives a pretty good “play-by-play” critique of some of the holes or contradictions he saw in the filmmakers argument, and the review in the New York Times points out other alleged flaws or shortcomings. My take is based on some of the Jesus-related stuff I’ve been reading in the past year.
Since watching (and reviewing) the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, I’ve read a few books (including one by a member of the Jesus Seminar) which theorize that Jesus didn’t actually exist, but was essentially a composite created by borrowing from other “dying and reviving god” mythologies popular at the time; books like Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God?, and The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus. There was also Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why which challenged the “infallible” and “unchanging” nature attributed to the bible, and pointed out some inconsistencies and alterations in the writings that now make up the gospels at the beginning of the bible’s new testament. So, what was most interesting to me about the documentary was that it was actually asserting that Jesus did exist, but that the stories passed down about him are either not factual or have been terribly misunderstood.
One of the questions I’ve been asked while reading and blogging about the above was “What does it matter whether he existed or not?” And I think this documentary raises the question “What does it matter whether the gospels (or other scripture, for that matter) are historically accurate or not?” Or better yet, “What does it matter if what millions of people believe to be literally true (and take great comfort in) may not be true?” Maybe I’m wrong, but I think those are important questions. And whatever the answers are, it’s even more important that those kinds of questions can be posed in a public forum.
I was intrigued by one detail I missed if it was mentioned in the documentary, but that stood out to me in a Newsweek article about the documentary; that the remains contained in the ossuaries were re-interred.
As common as these discoveries were, the Talpiot crew knew the drill. They immediately stopped work and called in the Israel Antiquities Authority, the government agency that controls and protects Israel’s archeological treasures and runs the Rockefeller Museum. That Sunday, after the Sabbath, a small team of IAA archeologists arrived to excavate the site. Under pressure from the builders, the archeologists worked fast. “I tried to record as much as I could without thinking too hard,” says respected archeologist Shimon Gibson, who was a young surveyor at the time and worked on the site. “Time was of the essence, and I tried not to panic as I measured and scribbled … This was an emergency evacuation.” The human remains in the cave, he says, were given over to the religious authorities, who reburied them in accordance with Jewish law.
So, there’s an answer to the question I’ve heard asked in at least one online forum where the documentary was discussed: “Where’s the body?” The implication being, I guess, that the filmmakers have ossuaries but no remains, so that either disproves their claims or (alternatively) “proves” the truth of Jesus’ physical resurrection. Well, there were remains. And, as this was a Jewish tomb discovered in Israel, the remains probably had to be quickly reburied according to religious law or tradition. And my guess is that it it would have been difficult to get permission to dig them up before the documentary, and virtually impossible to do so now that it’s aired. So, it’s unlikely there will ever be an opportunity to examine the remains. But at least it’s recorded that there were remains.
At least one expert interviewed for the documentary, John Dominic Crossan, asked the obvious question: Would the discovery of Jesus’ bones destroy the Christian faith? His immediate answer was that it would not destroy his faith, because he can get his brain around the possibility that the ascension mentioned in the bible was not a physical ascension, but spiritual ascension. That leaves a few questions still open (Like, when did the ascension happen? If it happened after the crucifixion and resurrection, and was a spiritual ascension, then did Jesus body die at that point? And what would it mean if Jesus’ bones were found and there was no evidence of the crucifixion described in the gospels?
But the most interesting question is one that I saw asked and answered over at Evolving Thoughts.
What would be the outcome of accepting that the stories in the Bible are just stories with a theological point?
For a start, it seems that the resulting religion would be very bloodless, unemotional and reflective. This is not a good basis for cohesion, and a crucial role of religions, as with sports and subcultures, is to make a community cohere. Despite the best intentions, Unitarian churches and the like don’t seem to inspire the kind of devotion and loyalty against outsiders that the traditional faiths do. Present believers tend to see this as a flaw (I see it is a virtue, myself). So they’d probably have little choice but to treat the science on which this discovery is based (if there is any) as wrongheaded, just as some do for evolution.
But moreover, it means that apart from Christian theology being a tradition in the west, there’d be no reason to be a Christian at all. One might as well be a full-throated Spinozan, with a philosophical deity rather than one that matters in everyday life. It’s a conundrum for them. If this “discovery” of the bones of Jesus pans out, and I doubt that it will, it will be interesting to watch from the sides as they deal with it.
…Religion doesn’t seem to be easily insulated from science. It is hostage to fortune in that no matter what factual claims it makes, they are defeasible by empirical research. Perhaps religion needs to make no factual claims, but then it becomes purely moral philosophy. A conundrum, but not my conundrum, I’m pleased to say.
However questionable the science in this particular work may be, I think at the very least it plants some important seeds by challenging the factual claims of Christianity. That inevitably leads to one question I’ve also seen asked: “Why the need to disprove Christianity?” The implication being that the “need to disprove” actually “proves” the strength of the “evidence”? But that actually ignores some other questions. What evidence? And how reliable is it?
When the James Cameron (the producer) and the director were on Larry King last week, King’s guests also included the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who made the following claim.
I’m going to base my beliefs on the scriptures which hold together far better than the kind of farcical documentary we are talking about here, throwing in a little bit of statistics. I mean, you’re talking about the most common names, especially the most common male names, also frankly, female with the name Mary, you’re talking about anything that could be found just about anywhere.
It reminded me of Richard Dawkin’s interview with Ted Haggard in his documentary The Root of All Evil (here on Google Video), in which Haggard claimed — before kicking Dawkins out of his church, apparently because of Dawkins’ early assertion of human evolution — that the bible does not contradict itself.
Except when it does, according to some religious scholars, some of whom point out that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John don’t always agree on everything Jesus said, and when they agree on what he said they have him saying the same things at different times and places from one gospel to the next. (I think this is based on the theory that some of the gospel writers, whoever they actually were, worked from a document called the Q document by scholars, which was a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that were probably passed orally and were eventually recorded, but without context.) like Bart Ehrman, who points out in Misquoting Jesus where the gospels don’t “hold together” and apparently contradict each other.
… as he paces back and forth across the stage, Ehrman ruthlessly pounces on the anomalies — in this Gospel, Jesus isn’t born in Bethlehem, he doesn’t tell any parables, he never casts out a demon, there’s no last supper. “None of that is found in John!” The crucifixion stories are different — in Mark, Jesus is terrified on the cross; in John, he’s perfectly composed. Key dates are different. The resurrection stories are different. Ehrman reels them off, rapid-fire, shell bursts against the bulwark of tradition.
“In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you find no trace of Jesus being divine,” he says, his voice urgent. “In John, you do.” He points out that in the other three books, it takes the disciples nearly half of Christ’s ministry to learn who he is. John says no, no, everyone knew it from the beginning. “You shouldn’t think something just because you believe it. You need reasons. That applies to religion. That applies to politics . . . just because your parents believe something isn’t good enough.”
The class files out a few minutes later.
“Most of the students have never heard anything like this in their lives,” says Ben White, a graduate student. “For a lot of them, it’s very threatening.”
Most of them have never heard anything like that because stuff like that has, for a long time, fallen into the category of “Things You Must Not Say.” Which harkens back to something I said earlier.
The problem is that it’s still considered “rude” to speak critically of religious beliefs, institutions, or persons. But it’s still OK for people like Romney to make statements like the one above, and pretty much get a pass from the media and the general public. Meanwhile, the rest of us are wondering how far is too far? It’s probably going to far for me to say that this scripture or that sacred book is no more factual than, say, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and has even less to do with the real world. Can I say that a particular religious belief has no basis in reality, is destructive of human life and human happiness, and has no business being a basis for public policy? Is that going too far?
Who knows? That’s why so many quietly agnostic people remain quiet, rather than risk offense and having all hell (pun intended) break loose on them.
I return from Oxford enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask.
Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!”
But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”
“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”
“Well, that’s true.”
This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’” This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
Because it’s rude, and impolitic to make statements like “Jesus never existed,” “Jesus didn’t rise again,” or “the gospel stories are not historical fact,” because it’s basically saying “The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss,” and that’s considered an affront to religious belief. Of course the other side of the coin is obvious, as Max points out.
You can’t say it’s insulting to infer the non-divinity of Jesus, since that is in fact exactly what some religions would contend, and inferring otherwise would be insulting them.
But it’s not considered an affront to other religions to make the assertions that Christians make on a regular basis, and there’s no unwritten social rule that the beliefs of non-Christians should be shielded from offense or inquiry. This is probably due to the fact that non-Christians are tiny minorities in this country, and it’s unlikely there would be a huge outcry about an affront against, say, the beliefs of Zoroastrians or such.
The consequences of the above situation are manifold. For starters, it leads to statements like the ones made by Haggard and the guy from the Southern Baptists, and others who are considered authorities by their fellow believers. That in turn leads to situations like the one Keith faced at Wilberforce, where students berated him about the bible while seeming to know little about it (assuming,for example that Paul’s words, or those attributed to him anyway, were actually Jesus’ words). It leads to evangelist leaders themselves being shocked to find out that only 10% of evangelicals are “biblically literate.” Unfortunately, the evangelical leadership’s response to this shocking news is one that isn’t likely to encourage the kind of inquisitiveness that Ehrman encourages in his students.
“If we capture and embrace more of God’s worldview and trust it with unwavering faith,” says [James] “Dobson, “then we begin to … form the appropriate responses to questions on abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, stem-cell research and even media choices.” But the real prize is bigger than any one issue. By fully embracing Truth, religious conservatives can “recapture Western Civilization,” which they “invented but have lost.”
The questions that will ultimately lead to recapturing the flag of civilization is born-again boilerplate: Is absolute truth defined by the Bible? Did Jesus Christ live a sinless life? Is God the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe, and does He still rule it today? Is Satan real?
Over the course of his 12 lectures, Del Tackett explains that we know the answers to be yes. We know because the Bible tells us so. In fact, the Bible tells us everything we could ever want to know — if only we read it correctly. Most of The Truth Project thus involves parsing Scripture and teasing out its life lessons for 21st-century Christians. This text analysis is often ridiculous, with Tackett probing the possible double meanings of Biblical diction, as if the King James Bible had been transcribed directly from the mouth of God, and was not an artistic creation of a team of 17th-century scholars in Oxford and Cambridge.
The same basic approach was echoed by Andrew Sullivan during his dialogue with Sam Harris on Beliefnet.
Agreed. As the Pope said last year, I believe that God is truth and truth is, by definition, reasonable. Science cannot disprove true faith; because true faith rests on the truth; and science cannot be in ultimate conflict with the truth.
It’s the kind of belief that I was brought up in, where the bible is treated as though the deity himself leaned down from heaven with quill in hand and penned the whole thing from beginning to end in King James english. It wasn’t until my process of coming out caused me to question that belief and I started studying and exploring other beliefs that I learned that the above wasn’t the case. It rocked my world when I stumbled across a copy of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels that I heard that there were other books that didn’t make it into the final version, and started wondering who decided what did make it in and based on what criteria. Who decided that those other writings weren’t the “word of god”?
Participants in Dobson’s “Bible Boot Camp” would have been better served — not to mention saving money on admission price, even including a plane ticket to D.C. — to have visited the Sackler gallery’s exhibit of old biblical texts last year.
They are rarer than dinosaur bones, these fragments of papyrus and animal skin that tell the Bible’s story. With names such as Codex Sinaiticus, the Macregol Gospels and the Valenciennes Apocalypse, they evoke lost empires and ancient monasteries as surely as archaeopteryx and ceratosaurus conjure up primeval swamps and forests.
The Sackler’s exhibition, “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000,” is one of the broadest assemblages of this material ever brought together in one place. “It has not happened before, and we will not see its like again in our lives,” said guest curator Michelle P. Brown, professor of medieval manuscript studies at the University of London.
These are documents with the proven power to shake faith. That’s what happened to Bart D. Ehrman, author of the 2005 bestseller “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”
… “I thought God had inspired the words inerrantly. But when I examined the historical texts, I realized the words had not been preserved inerrantly, and it would have been no greater miracle to preserve them than to inspire them in the first place,” said Ehrman, now chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Michael over at Gay Orbit raises a few related questions rendered no less apt by their irreverence.
My only question is this: If God could have taken the time to etch out a few commandments on stone tablets, create the universe in 6 days, burn a few bushes, etc., then surely, a few milennia later, he could have taken the time to write the Bible himself right? I mean, seriously, is he so lazy that he gets tuckered out after carving ten sentences into stone? Is that the limit of his stamina? He has to get humans to do all the work?
Divinely inspired humans? Please. If the guy wanted us to actually believe those are his words, then he could have picked a better way to get it out there. I mean, the guy zapped the world into existence. Certainly, creating a book and delivering it to every resident of Earth and explaining to each of us that this is his inerrant word… well, that shouldn’t have been much of a problem.
And, by the way, if the Bible is inerrant, then why do the titles of the gospels contain the words, “…According To?” Couldn’t God just pick one and call it “The Gospel?” I think that having several different versions of the same story pretty much proves that whatever god supposedly inspired the Bible was fallible. He wasn’t even powerful enough to inspire mere humans to write the same versions of history.
And while it might be easy to argue that the texts were not preserved or kept free from error and alteration precisely for the divine purpose of testing faith and/or requiring people to rely on faith, but the Sackler curator’s words underscore the real challenge of the exhibit.
“There’s nothing here that’s going to shape or challenge people’s beliefs, except on one point,” she said. “It will challenge the belief that the Bible originated in the form we have today, rather than being the result of the very complex process of a lot of people of faith using scriptures to help them live God-focused lives.”
Her eyes flashing, pink cheeks turning pinker, Brown warmed to her point.
“If people come looking to find something new about Jesus, they won’t find it in this exhibit. That’s not what it’s saying. But it is saying that we didn’t start out with this,” she said, producing a red Gideon’s Bible from her Washington hotel room and giving it a resounding thwack with the palm of her hand.
And we don’t know exactly what we started out with either; as Ehrman points out, the “original texts” are lost, and were probably based or oral traditions that changed as they were passed along, like a ancient game of “Telephone,” with various languages, translators of questionable motives and scribes of questionable literacy thrown in to make it interesting. So what we do have, copies of copies of copies of copies of copies over a long span of time, all put together contains more errors and contradictions than it does words.
For the next 12 years, he studied at Moody, at Wheaton College (another Christian institution in Illinois) and finally at Princeton Theological Seminary. He found he had a gift for languages. His specialty was the ancient texts that tried to explain what actually happened to Jesus Christ, and how the world’s largest religion grew into being after his execution.
What he found there began to frighten him.
The Bible simply wasn’t error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts.
“Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” Ehrman summarizes.
But to have any idea of those variances you’d have to read the book, and then read other books about the history of its origins. And folks like the students at Wilberforce and the folks plunking down $179 for Dobson’s “Bible Boot Camp” skip over that part, just as they skip over some parts of the very book they’d like to append to the constitution. Back in January, Faithful Progressive pointed to this article by a Chicago professor of Christian literature suggesting that the Christian right is not so biblical after all, based on her study of how they used or quoted the bible.
Biblical? Yes and no. Biblical in the sense of seeking biblical support for an agenda? Yes. Biblical in the sense of reading the whole Bible? No. Biblical in the sense of reading the Bible literally? No, not consistently. Biblical in reading parts for the whole, and in using the Bible as a source of weapons to define themselves against their enemies? Yes. Wrestling with the possible plural meanings and complex legacies of Bible itself? Not in public, at any rate.
Remember, we know the truth because “the bible tells us to,” and it alone tells us “everything we need to know” if only we “read it correctly.” Fortunately there are people who have taken on the task of telling us “how to read it correctly.” So not only do we not need to read anything else but we don’t need to listen to anyone else, as we don’t need to understand anything else.
To give you an idea of how far the repercussions of that reality go, consider these two examples. The documentary I mentioned earlier, The God Who Wasn’t There, spends a good deal of time drawing parallels between the elements of the story presented in the gospels and various different “dying and reviving god” myths. Afterwards, there’s a clip (available at the website, along with a few others) Christians who knew nothing of them. And even an expert, like the one quoted in the previous article on Ehrman makes statements like this one.
“Even if I don’t have a high-definition photograph of the empty tomb to prove Christ’s resurrection, there’s the reaction to something after Christ died that is very hard to explain away,” Bock says. “There was no resurrection tradition in Jewish theology. Where did it come from? How did these illiterate, impoverished fishermen create such a powerful religion?
Where? Well, the response of the early church fathers to their pagan critics implies an acknowledgment of the similarities (Dionysus, Mithras, Osiris, etc. all died and “rose again,” etc.) with such pre-Christian cults. And others have established that Jewish theology not only share a time and place in history with other philosophies, but that it was uniquely qualified catalyze a synthesis of those various philosophies, much in the same way a roux serves as the basis of a gumbo while harmonizing the various ingredients to yield a richer whole.
It adds up to a lot of us not knowing much about our own religious traditions, or those of others. A Boston University professor of world religions, this kind of religious illiteracy comes at a high price in a world where politics is increasingly driven by religious beliefs and this distance between members of different faith shortens daily.
This month, HarperSanFrancisco will publish Prothero’s new book “Religious Literacy,” a work whose message is far more sober than its author’s affect. In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, only a tiny portion of them knows a thing about religion. When he began teaching college 17 years ago, Prothero writes, he discovered that few of his students could name the authors of the Christian Gospels. Fewer could name a single Hindu Scripture. Almost no one could name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Prothero, who went to Yale in the early 1980s and speaks of his all-night bull sessions on politics and religion with reverence, realized that to re-create that climate in his classroom, his students first had to know something. And so he made it his job to (1) figure out what they didn’t know and (2) teach it to them. He began giving religious literacy quizzes to his students, and, subsequently, to everyone he knew. Almost everybody failed.
His motivation is more than pedagogical. In a world where nearly every political conflict has a religious underpinning, Prothero writes that Americans are selling themselves short by remaining ignorant about basic religious history and texts, by not knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite or the name of Mormonism’s holy book. “Given a political environment where religion is increasingly important, it’s increasingly important to know something about religion,” he says. “The payoff is a more involved [political] conversation.”
Indeed, knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite before invading a country shared by the two sects might have made a difference in the lives of countless Americans and Iraqis. But knowing that requires also knowing that the bible doesn’t and can’t tell us “everything we need to know,” even if someone tells us the exact right way to read it. It requires exchanging the bumper-sticker theology of “God said it! I believe it! That settles it!” for closer to Socrates’ “I don’t know. But I know that I don’t know.”
Though it will probably get lost in the debate over the plausibility or implausibility of its claims, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, is at least another opportunity to say that “We don’t know. But, in this case, “we know that we don’t know,” regarding the actual existence of Jesus; whether he existed or, if he did, whether his historical reality bore any resemblance to the story presented in the gospels. One kind of “knowing” — the kind exhibited by the Southern Baptist theologian on Larry King — brings with it a kind of comfortable certainty, but one that may have no basis in reality. The other has a tendency to destroy certainty, but also brings with it a potential to expand our actual understanding, and create more common ground with others. That may be a kind of “salvation” from having to see “through a glass darkly” as did people two millennia ago.
Getting there doesn’t require “disproving Christianity,” and the goal of The Lost Tom of Jesus doesn’t appear to be “disproving Christianity” so much as making the case that “We don’t know,” and beginning to establish that “We know that we don’t know.” At best, the result might be — instead of “disproving Christianity” — to understand Christianity as no more or less “provable” than any other religions or philosophies, and it’s claims no more or less worthy of being treated as factual than any religious claims.
As Crossan suggested, that doesn’t necessarily have to “destroy Christian faith,” so much as it requires an different understanding of its scriptures, like the resurrection being “spiritual,” and thus not threatened by the discovery of Jesus’ bones It’s unlikely that we’ll ever find remains that can be proven to be those of Jesus, given how little we actually know about him. So it’s unlikely that a “better opportunity” will come along, that square sufficiently enough with science or religion to be and acceptable rout to making the the point I’m tying to make here. But even if the resurrection and ascension are completely mythical, along with Jesus himself, it wouldn’t change that there is much worth retaining from Christian teachings; just as it wouldn’t change nullify the merit of Buddhist, Confucianist, or Taoist teachings if the central figure of each turned out not to be historical (And.
Earlier I echoed a question that was asked of me — What does it matter whether Jesus existed or not? And then I asked another that was implied in Crossan’s statements during the documentary — What does it matter if the resurrection and ascension didn’t happen as the scriptures say? The answer to both is simple: it doesn’t, because it doesn’t change and need not change what good there is in Christianity. What does matter is that those questions and more like them can be asked freely and not be taken as affront to anyone, but a liberating opportunity to say answer that we know, but we know that we don’t know, and to be OK with that.