Monday, February 26, 2007

The Talpiot Tomb Controversey -- What to make of the latest eastertime criticism of the resurrection

It's an event as predictable as procrastination on taxes ("really, I meant to get it done early this year, but it just caught up on me") -- the Lent/Easter attack on the historicity of the resurrection. For the past decade or so, every Easter has brought out a new cadre of contenders hoping to cash in on a "brave" and "controversial" announcement that they've done what the Roman Empire and the Jewish Sanhedren failed to do when they had the chance -- prove that Jesus was a corpse in a grave rather than a resurrected messiah.

Undoubtedly you've heard by now about the Discovery Channel special about the "Jesus family tomb", which purports to prove that Jesus was buried alongside his father and mother, his wife Mary, his son Jude and his brother Matthew. I could power a subcontinent with the energy that's been put into analysis on this issue over the last 24 hours. It seems that the church will not be caught sleeping on this one, like it was with DaVinci Code. Here's a quick summary of thoughtful commentary thus far, followed by a few of my observations:

Texas Rainmaker gives us an actual picture of the stone ossuary (a great big stone coffin) that supposedly held Jesus' remains. See for yourself the inscription that purports to be "Jeshua bar yosef" (Jesus son of Joseph -- remember hebrew reads right to left and it's in hebrew characters) -- also note the cross sketched in beside the name- the cross a sign not used by the early church for the first couple of centuries. He links us to
This article on in which several scholars in Israel (including the scholar who wrote the original report of the excavation) dismiss this premise as a moneymaking publicity stunt.
IMonk's first page of resources on this topic -- includes links to William Craig Lane's debunk of the Empty Tomb theory, a link to the two original AP newswire stories that ran about this discovery in 1996, a link to NT Wright's defense of the resurrection, and great resources from Leadership University (also some really good commentary by Imonk himself). Particularly telling is the information that we have over 1000 ossuaries from Jerusalem at that time -- 6 have the name Jesus on them, and 2 of those are Jesus son of Joseph. Of all the female names, Mary occurs 25 percent of the time.
IMonk's second page of resources including links to Ben Witherington's outstanding commentary, Newsweek's questioning some of the methodology involved, and more issues about the translations of the names on the ossuaries
James White gives a stunning critique of the naming conventions, the idea that a poor peasant would have a middle class tomb, the flaws in resting upon statistical analysis, and the dodgy nature of resting on DNA evidence.

One of the thing that is clearly missing from this is an interaction with James Tabor's work The Jesus Dynasty, upon which the film is clearly based (with the exception of Witherington, who calls Tabor a nice guy who does some good work, but he's hitching his mule to the wrong wagon). I picked up the book from the library today and started reading. Tabor, a scholar from UNC-Charlotte, has some interesting comments about the find of the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb. He talks about the odd cluster of names found in the tomb and then writes:

"The only way anything else could be done scientifically would be to carry out mitochondrial DNA tests on the bone samples to at least ascertain how the individuals buried there might be maternally related. Such tests, no matter what the results, could not "prove" that this particular Jesus was the one who became known as Christ, but they could show whether any of these individuals were offspring of either of the two Marys, or had a sibling relationship to one another." (26)

So here, Tabor admits that the DNA testing can't prove anything other than a relationship among the people in the tomb. In this section of the book, he hints at possibilities of coverups and hidden information, though he actually doesn't come right out and say that there has been a cover up -- he leaves it up to the reader's imagination: "The Israelis are very sensitive to the Christian world and maintain official diplomatic relations with the Vatican. They are pleased to fill the role of the welcoming custodians for Christian tourism of the Holy Land. The last thing in which they want to be involved is some archaeological find that would spark controversey or provoke Christian theological debates." (27) -- No, he doesn't accuse the Israeli authorities of a cover up, but he lays out innuendo.

So he wants to link the tomb to his theories, but not too closely. He then suggests that his theories about the historical Jesus are not dependent upon the finds in the tomb. Good for him, for he launches into a typical Jesus Seminar type reading, setting James up against Paul. He does some fine scholarship and he is quite thoughtful, but he falls into the same trap as all the researchers of the historical Jesus -- selective acceptance of the gospel narratives.

Very telling are his words in the conclusion of his book "History is not merely an assemblage of constructed facts. It also involves an attempt to retrieve and imagine a past that we can no longer see or touch. History touches the heart as well as the head. And it is here that material evidence makes a difference. Historical artifacts, authentically connected to the people and places we study in texts, offer us an avenue of linked imagination that is both moving and significant....It is that tangible touching of the past that stirs the human heart, no matter how learned or reserved one might be." (305) He wonderfully conveys his passion -- a passion I share. While viewing objects of Tutankhamen at the Field Museum or reading Herodotus Histories, imaginatively the past comes alive and we make connections with the stories we know and love.

However, he's failed to make an authentic connection between the tomb and the gospels. Indeed, he admitted that such an authentic connection is not necessary for his argumentation. I believe Tabor is carried away by his passion for antiquities and a love for a good story -- Hey I've been there too. Lots of archaeologists have been there. Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of the ruins of Troy, was there. He made wild claims about finding Priam's Treasure, the Mask of Agamemnon and the Jewels of Helen. All balderdash. They were ancient finds that happened to be in the right mound -- he'd actually found the city of Troy -- but he dug too deep -- the artifacts were from an earlier era of history. Schliemann let his passion for antiquities and a good story get in the way of archaeological technique, careful analysis, and cautious pronouncement. It appears that the same things are in play this time.

More to come as this story develops.

Soli Deo Gloria