Wednesday, February 28, 2007

HEADS UP: "Traditional" annual anti-Lent media event, Sunday, March 4, on Discovery Channel (etc.)

Sunday coming, March 4, will be the second Sunday in Lent.

Unfortunately, it seems that the now "traditional" annual anti-gospel headline-grabbing skeptical media event for Easter is off to an early start, with the upcoming Discovery Channel (and also Britain's Channel 4, Canada's Vision, and Israel's Channel 8) "documentary" by James Cameron, Director of the movie, Titanic.

The upcoming film is titled, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," and as Robert Knight of Media Research Center summarises in a WND interview, its story line is that: Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had son Judah, and they all died and were buried together in Jerusalem.

The -- rather slim -- factual foundation for such a major claim, from the Time Magazine blog report, is the discovery, 27 years ago, of of a crypt in Jerusalem:

. . . Israeli construction workers were gouging out the foundations for a new building in the industrial park in the Talpiyot, a Jerusalem suburb. of Jerusalem. The earth gave way, revealing a 2,000 year old cave with 10 stone caskets. Arch[ae]ologists were summoned, and the stone caskets carted away for examination. It took 20 years for experts to decipher the names on the ten tombs. They were: Jesua, son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Mathew, Jofa and Judah, son of Jesua.

The WND account augments: "two of the caskets in the crypt held remains that [through results of DNA tests] were unrelated maternally, then [the Documentary's authors] take the giant leap of logic that these two people were married and they were Jesus and Mary Magdalene."

In fact, as the Time account observes: " Israel's prominent arch[a]eologist Professor Amos Kloner didn't associate the crypt with the New Testament Jesus. His father, after all, was a humble carpenter who couldn't afford a luxury crypt for his family. And all were common Jewish names." (Dr. Jerry Johnson, of Criswell Christian College, Texas, remarks, tellingly: "An ossuary labeled 'Jesus' is about as specific to Christ as a chunk of wood that is claimed to be a part of the Ark.") So, we can see the force of the following ten points made in rebuttal:


  1. There is no DNA evidence that this is the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
  2. The statistical analysis [that the relevant cluster of names would be otherwise hard to account for] is untrustworthy.
  3. The name “Jesus” was a popular name in the first century, appearing in 98 other tombs and on 21 other ossuaries (or stone tombs).
  4. There is no historical evidence that Jesus was ever married or had a child.
  5. The earliest followers of Jesus never called him “Jesus, son of Joseph.”
  6. It is highly unlikely that Joseph, who died earlier in Galilee, was buried in Jerusalem , since the historical record connects him only to Nazareth or Bethlehem .
  7. The Talpiot tomb and ossuaries are such that they would have belonged to a rich family, which does not match the historical record for Jesus.
  8. Fourth-century church historian Eusebius makes quite clear that the body of James, the brother of Jesus, was buried alone near the temple mount and that his tomb was visited in the early centuries, making very unlikely that the Talpiot tomb was Jesus’ “family tomb.”
  9. The two Mary ossuaries do not mention anyone from Migdal, but simply has the name Mary, one of the most common of all ancient Jewish female names.
  10. By all ancient accounts, the tomb of Jesus was empty, making it highly unlikely that it was moved to another tomb, decayed for one year's time, and then the bones put in an ossuary.
[Excerpted, Kristen Fyfe, Culture and Media Institute, February 27, 2007]

It would be easy to brush this sort of media splash event aside as foolish headline-grabbing speculation that exploits the most tenuous links to jump to obviously unwarranted conclusions, adn conclude that we need say or do little about it. But that would be to confuse two very different things: the science and philosophy of warrant and the rhetoric of popular persuasion.

The difference is illustrated by a key point demonstrated by the Da Vinci Code phenomenon. For as Mr Knight noted, people often believe what they see or read in a source they think is credible, especially one that tells them what they want to hear:

"We saw this with the 'Da Vinci Code.' People bought into the alleged historical accuracy of claims, made even in a work of fiction, so when a documentary comes along, posing as objective critical analysis, that means more people will buy into the absurd and unproven premise that Jesus was just a man and that his earthly remains have been found."

So, it is time again to draw attention to the true facts on the origins of the Christian Faith, and the famous and still unmet challenge put out in a previous generation by Attorney Frank Morison, in his justly famous book, Who Moved the Stone?:

[N]ow the peculiar thing . . . is that not only did [belief in Jesus' resurrection as in part testified to by the empty tomb] spread to every member of the Party of Jesus of whom we have any trace, but they brought it to Jerusalem and carried it with inconceivable audacity into the most keenly intellectual centre of Judaea . . . and in the face of every impediment which a brilliant and highly organised camarilla could devise. And they won. Within twenty years the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish Church and impressed itself upon every town on the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean from Caesarea to Troas. In less than fifty years it had began to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire . . . . Why did it win? . . . . We have to account not only for the enthusiasm of its friends, but for the paralysis of its enemies and for the ever growing stream of new converts . . . When we remember what certain highly placed personages would almost certainly have given to have strangled this movement at its birth but could not - how one desperate expedient after another was adopted to silence the apostles, until that veritable bow of Ulysses, the Great Persecution, was tried and broke in pieces in their hands [the chief persecutor became the leading C1 Missionary/Apostle!] - we begin to realise that behind all these subterfuges and makeshifts there must have been a silent, unanswerable fact. [Who Moved the Stone, (Faber, 1971; nb. orig. pub. 1930), pp. 114 - 115.]

In short, historical explanations are not just free-form wild stories, or the cynical propaganda of those who win the power struggles in a given time. (And, BTW, the C1 Christians were by no reasonable estimation, the power brokers of the Judaean or Roman states! Just the opposite, they were too often to be found among the principal victims and scapegoats of those who held power. [NB: It must be pointed outthatthe very first Christians were a messianic Jewish community, and so remarks about the C1 Judaean and Roman powwer elites are not at all to be taken as targetting any one race or religion. Power elites can go horribly wrong in any culture or religion, as in Lord Acton's sobering words, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely . . .".] )

Not at all, to be historically credible, serious accounts of “what happened, where, when, and why” must meet the challenge of comparative explanatory power relative to the facts, to coherence and to elegant simplicity [simple, but not simplistic]. On this, as William Lane Craig summarised in his recent successful debates with skeptical German theologian Gerd Ludemann:

. . . the historian's task is very much like that of the trial lawyer: to examine the witnesses in order to reconstruct the most probable course of events . . . . I propose to defend two basic contentions in this debate: (1) Any adequate historical hypothesis about the resurrection must explain four established facts: Jesus' burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances and the origin of the disciples' belief in the resurrection. (2) The best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead . . . .
I want to share four facts that are widely accepted by New Testament scholars today.

Fact 1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea . . . .

Fact 2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers . . . .

Fact 3: On multiple occasions and under multiple circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead . . . .

Fact 4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason [i.e. it was counter to their interests and even safety] not to . . . .

In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. H. McCullagh lists six tests used by historians to determine the best explanation for historical facts. The hypothesis "God raised Jesus from the dead" passes all these tests.

1. It has great explanatory scope. It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw postmortem appearances of Jesus and why the Christian Faith came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power. It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution [his death being certified by the executioner and accepted by the governor, who then released his body for honourable burial] . . .

3. It is plausible. Given . . . Jesus' own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine confirmation . . .

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived. It requires only one additional hypothesis -- that God exists . . .

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. The hypothesis . . . does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don't rise naturally from the dead . . .

6. It far outstrips any of its rival theories in meeting conditions 1 through 5. . . . various rival explanations have been offered -- for example the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the hallucination theory and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of scholars . . . .

[W]hy, we may ask, does Dr Ludemann [as a representative among many other modernist-influenced scholars] reject the resurrection hypothesis? As you read his book, the answer becomes clear: the resurrection is a miracle, and Dr Ludemann just cannot bring himself to believe in miracles. He states, "Historical criticism . . . does not reckon with an intervention of God in history." Thus, the resurrection cannot be historical; the hypothesis goes out the window before you even sit down at the table to look at the evidence . . . He says, "Hume . . . demonstrated that a miracle is defined in such a way that 'no testimony is sufficient to establish it.' " The concept of a resurrection, he says, presupposes "a philosophical realism that is untenable since Kant." [Excerpted, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, Eds. Copan & Tacelli, IVP 2000, pp. 32 - 38. Links and parentheses added; italics in original. NB: Subsequent to this debate, Dr Ludemann became an atheist.]

In short, it is easy to make up skeptical stories that for many will be persuasive in discrediting the core witness of the 500+ witnesses that are the historical foundation of the Christian faith. But to actually seriously address the comparative explanatory difficulties is another matter entirely.

And, just what is that core historical testimony?

It is not too hard to find – it is probably sitting on your bookshelf or maybe by your bedside. For, as Paul summarised in his 55 AD epistle to the Corinthians, drawing on his own knowledge of the consensus of the early witnesses dating to the Apostolic circle in Jerusalem in the 30's AD -- i.e. well within a decade of the event -- far too early for myths to succeed facts:

CO 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born . . . 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. [1 Cor 15:1 - 8, 11.]

We hardly need to add, that the subsequent textual history of these NT documents begins by 96 - 110 AD, with the copious citations and allusions in the writings of the three Church Fathers, Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius. (Only two ofd hte 27 books in our NT were not cited or alluded to by these first three writing Fathers. We can take this as strongly establishing the C1 provenance of the NT and supporting its component books as being treasured by the church as Scripture from the very beginning.) The textual tradition continues in an ever-mounting flood down to the origin of printing, and is by far and away the best documented textual tradition from classical times. Indeed, we actually have key scraps of the Gospel of John that were found in Egypt, that credibly date to about 125 AD, directly implying that the NT documents were completed in the first century and enjoyed wide circulation and familiarity by the early second century.

So, as Simon Greenleaf of Harvard [a founding father of the modern theory of evidence] long ago counselled, we should not be unduly distracted by the sort of headlined fallacious selective hyperskepticism this upcoming documentary reflects.

But equally, we urgently need to properly brief our churches and the wider public on the skeptical spin games such media splash events reflect, and expose their want of proper warrant, not to mention, too often, also of basic common courtesy.

Why not announce the upcoming documentary in church this weekend, and inform the audience of why it is so utterly wrong-headed? END

UPDATE, Mar 1: Adjusted to include additional points in rebuttal and to make it utterly clear that no targetting of any one race or religion is intended. Apologies for any unintended pain caused to readers.]

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