Saturday, July 05, 2008

Memo to Scholars: Jesus Is Not Original

There's a new 1st-century BCE tablet that's making the scholarly rounds with a lot of missing and indecipherable text but which seems to talk about a Jewish messiah getting killed by the Romans and rising again in three days. The view presented in the NYT is that this should be scary for Christians, since it shows that their Jesus story is just another one of the messiah stories making the rounds around the low point in Roman-Jewish relations. “Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism.” But take it from an apostate: Christianity's validity doesn't rest on the idea of Jesus's story and its theology being brand-new. It rests on an interpretation of Jesus's life, teachings, and death in a history of Jewish prophecy and theology. So when you dig up texts before Jesus was born that talk about things that sound like Jesus's life, Christians for the most part don't say "Oh my god, Paul's a plagiarist," they say "hey, maybe there's another prophet foretelling Jesus's life." The Catholics spent centuries arguing that the Greek and Roman philosophers anticipated Jesus's theology. They can eat, digest, and excrete one more old tablet.


Museum Ethics Controversy said...

I would submit that this "ancient tablet" is probably another sensationalist scam, as is clearly indicated by the facts

(1) that no specific information (apart from a vague 3rd-party rumor) is available on its provenance and

(2) that no details are provided on carbon dating of the ink.

As such, this "news" brings to mind the faked Lost-Tomb-of-Jesus "documentary" designed to make a profit off of people's fascination with the "real" Jesus, as well as the larger scandal of the biased and misleading way the Dead Sea scrolls are being presented in museum exhibits around the world, with an antisemitic expression appearing on a government-run North Carolina museum's website. See, e.g.,


Gavin said...

Isn't calling bullshit supposed to be my schtick?

You know, the reference to the "Jesus tomb" controversy is a good one, if for no other reason than to illustrate that the standard of proof applied to first-century artifacts depends entirely on whether the object appears to be or not to be exactly what one wants it to be? How could we ever know that a particular tomb was the one in which the historical Jesus of Nazareth ever-so-briefly rested? (And I would remind everyone that regardless of the varying explanations, all of the ancient sources seem to accept that Jesus wasn't in his original tomb very long.) What test would we run? What evidence would be sufficient? Many people have argued persuasively that documentary filmmakers were painfully premature in the certainty which marked the announcement of their findings. At the same time, I've never seen any persuasive argument that the tomb itself is a hoax.

Once again, just so my question is not taken to be rhetorical, what would be meaningful evidence in this case? Or the Jesus Tomb? Or the Shroud of Turin? What exactly are we trying to prove or disprove? If this tablet is authentic, it does not disprove the resurrection. (How does one disprove a miracle--a non-causal event?) If it is a hoax, it does not prove that Jesus rose.

I think Tim's summary is succinct and on-point. If someone believes an absurdity (or a miracle), your evidence will never trump their experience.

Museum Ethics Controversy said...

You are certainly right that if the tablet is not authentic, it does not prove that Jesus rose. What it may show, however, is that there is an industry of essentially fraudulent claims being issued by "bible scholars," and eagerly marketed by the media (as well as "science" museums), to appeal to people's prurient fascination with Christian "roots." See, e.g.,