Jesus Lives! Well, at least as far as those marketing his name are concerned. Yes, at this time of year we’re bound to get books and TV specials all about him. These vary widely in quality, so I thought I’d talk about a few: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Let’s start with the good. Bart Ehrman has come out with a new book called Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman has made a lucrative career writing popular skeptical books about Jesus and the gospels, such as Misquoting Jesus and Forged. A prolific and engaging author, Ehrman’s latest venture makes the case that Jesus was indeed a historical person. Unlike his previous works, this one has Ehrman arguing alongside apologists and against so-called mythicists, like Robert Price and Richard Carrier, who argue that Jesus is a mythological figure. I have to say that I’m with Ehrman on this issue. I’ve taken enough New Testament studies courses to know that the majority of scholars, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, claim that Jesus almost certainly existed. Of course, many would argue that the gospels contain legendary material, but that there was a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth is not disputed. Although mythicism is universally rejected by mainstream scholarship, it enjoys popularity among internet ‘infidels.’ I’ve never understood this phenomenon. It’s always struck me as the atheistic equivalent of young earth creationism. I think Ehrman, an agnostic, is doing his fellow skeptics a service here.
So much for the good. Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor are at it again. A few years ago, they, along with James Cameron, produced a documentary in which they claimed to have uncovered the Jesus family tomb. The tomb in Jerusalem, called the Talpiot tomb, had been actually discovered in 1980 and contained ten ossuaries, or bone boxes, with inscriptions. Among the inscriptions were two Marys, and most intriguingly, Jesus son of Joseph. Of course, all of these are very common first century names. Jacobovici and Tabor commissioned a statistical study to calculate the odds that these names would be found together in the same tomb. The assumptions used to derive these statistics were heavily criticized. For example, the study assumed the rarest variants of the names. But even assuming the 600 to 1 number that the University of Toronto study came up with, we shouldn’t place much confidence in the hypothesis that this is the burial place of the Jesus of the New Testament. Think about it this way: the odds of finding the burial place of one man from the first century are close to zero. All the 600 to 1 figure means in this context is that the hypothesis that we’ve found the tomb of Jesus is 600 times more likely than it was before. But since the prior probability was next to nil, saying it’s 600 times more likely now, still doesn’t mean it’s very probable. But I digress. They’ve now excavated a first century tomb next door, containing two ossuaries with markings they claim are the earliest evidence of Christian belief in the resurrection. The ossuaries are decorated with what Jacobovici and Tabor interpret as Christian symbols: a cross and the so-called ‘sign of Jonah.’ The latter symbol is controversial. It could be interpreted as a fish with a man coming out of its mouth, but it could equally (and perhaps more plausibly) be interpreted as a pillar, vase, or urn with a circular ‘nephesh’, or soul, symbol, which has been found on many other ossuaries of the period. There is also an inconsistency in Jacobovici’s and Tabor’s thesis. They claim that the two tombs are related: in the one, they claim to have found evidence of early Christian belief in the resurrection and in the other, they claim to have found the bones of Jesus. This raises the question: how did the early Christians believe in the resurrection with the bones of Jesus residing next door? Jacobovici says that perhaps they interpreted resurrection in a non-physical sense. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of pretty much all the documentary evidence we have.
Now, the ugly. Thomas de Wasselow, a maverick former art historian at Cambridge, has published a book on the Shroud of Turin called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection. He argues the Shroud is the authentic burial garment of Jesus. He contends, for various reasons, that it couldn’t be a medieval forgery and that the 1988 carbon date that placed the Shroud in the 14th c. is flawed. So far, there’s nothing new here that self-proclaimed ‘shroudies’ haven’t been saying for years. The novelty of de Wasselow’s argument is to claim that the Shroud explains the early Christian belief in the resurrection. In other words, what the earliest disciples saw, was not the resurrected Christ, but the Shroud itself. This accounts for why the gospel writers claim that the earliest witnesses had difficulty recognizing the risen Jesus. Furthermore, he claims that the Shroud would have been viewed animistically, as a living presence. Based on the Shroud, the disciples formed the belief that Jesus was alive. Thus, sightings of the risen Jesus are reinterpreted as showings of the Shroud. As for how the image got on the Shroud, de Wasselow claims it was a chemical reaction, called the Maillard effect, between vapors leaving the postmortem body and the linen. Again, even though the body was found in the tomb, wrapped in the Shroud, the disciples inferred a resurrection and later gospel writers modified the story to feature an empty tomb. Regardless, of where one stands on the authenticity of the Shroud or the historicity of the Resurrection, this thesis is just plain silly. This is speculative, amateur history at its worst. Therefore, it wins the ‘ugly’ spot, narrowly beating out Jacobivici’s and Tabor’s new TV special, The Jesus Discovery.
So Jesus lives, as long as people stand to make money off his good name. The poor man must be spinning in his grave.