Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Matt 24 Watch, 30: On two Bible Archaeology-related discoveries

Today is of course the twelfth anniversary of the initial so-called phreatic eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano, here in Montserrat. (Phreatic eruptions occur when hot magma or rocks heated by it and ground water come into contact. July is now regarded as significant for that, as this is when we tend to get the first serious tropical waves, after the typical early year dry time. That of course raises a concern on the current 208 million cubic metre dome, which has a semi-molten core and is probably gas-pressurised. One for prayer.)

A half-holiday has duly been declared and there will be a national church service at the new Little Bay George Martin Cultural Centre Auditorium. (And, yes, it is that George Martin. He has had a long connexion to Montserrat and once ran the world famous Air Studios here.)

Of course, that brings to mind also, a recent media eruption which occurred as the common sensationally headlined selective hyper-skepticism about the Bible and the Christian Faith came into contact with an opportunity to make a fair bit of money through a popular level skeptical reinterpretation of a1980's tomb discovery in Talpiot, near Jerusalem. [NB: The underlying statistical study has apparently not yet been completed or submitted for proper peer review and onward publication in the professional literature, it seems -- from remarks in the Dembski-Marks paper discussed below.]

This is of course, the so-called "Jesus Tomb" media splash event, and we noted at the time, that, because of the wrong location of the alleged Jesus Family Tomb [S. Jerusalem, not Galilee -- several days' journey away at a time when one would try to bury the dead within a day], because also of the relative poverty of Jesus' Family -- crypts were for the well-off, and because of the flawed statistics, it was most unlikely that the claimed 599 -to- 1 in favour of this being Jesus' Family Tomb would prove to be so.

Now, William Dembski of Discovery Institute, and Robert Marks of Baylor University have weighed in, with a critical statistical review. Scooping out a few key excerpts from the paper, we may see:
Probability and statistics lie at the heart of the startling claim by James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici, and others that the Talpiot Tomb, discovered twenty-five years ago outside Jerusalem, is the tomb of the New Testament Jesus. Specifically, proponents of this view have put forward a number—1 in 600—as the probability that the Talpiot Tomb could be other than the tomb of Jesus . . . . Readers of Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino’s The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History and viewers of Discovery Channel’s documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus are given the impression
that to deny that the Talpiot Tomb is the tomb of Jesus is to renounce the rigors of mathematical thinking and to embrace irrationality . . . .

[But in fact] A corrected version of Feuerverger’s model using reasonable estimates of the probabilities for the New Testament names found in the Talpiot tomb shows that there were likely to be as many 154 Jewish families living in Palestine at the time with the pattern of names found in the Talpiot tomb. On the “Jesus Family Tomb” people’s reckoning, this would yield a probability of 153 in 154 that the Talpiot Tomb is not the tomb of Jesus. And even if we go with the “Jesus Family Tomb” people’s smaller probability estimates for the New Testament names found in the Talpiot tomb, a Bayesian analysis that takes into account additional evidence not considered by Feuerverger increases this probability close to one . . .
In short, the Jesus tomb claim is on the evidence we now have in hand, the now commonly encountered skeptical hype, not substance. (The recent spate of brazenly hostile pro-atheism, anti-God books is very similarly seriously wanting in substance, too. Thanks, Dr Dembski, for your useful blog site!)

By sharp contrast, we may look at a recent discovery made by Michael Jursa, a visiting professor from Vienna, in the Arched Room of the British Museum, which holds "130,000 Assyrian cuneiform tablets, dating back 5,000 years." (The Museums of the world hold such a vast trove of Bible Archeology-related materials that it will take decades, maybe centuries to systematically sort through them all -- and more keeps coming in!)

As a Jul;y 11th Nigel Reynolds Daily Telegraph article "
Tiny tablet provides proof for Old Testament," rather breathlessly notes:
The sound of unbridled joy seldom breaks the quiet of the British Museum's great Arched Room . . . . But Michael Jursa, a visiting professor from Vienna, let out such a cry last Thursday. He had made what has been called the most important find in Biblical archaeology for 100 years, a discovery that supports the view that the historical books of the Old Testament are based on fact.

Searching for Babylonian financial accounts among the tablets, Prof Jursa suddenly came across a name he half remembered - Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, described there in a hand 2,500 years old, as "the chief eunuch" of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.

Prof Jursa, an Assyriologist, checked the Old Testament and there in chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah, he found, spelled differently, the same name - Nebo-Sarsekim.

Nebo-Sarsekim, according to Jeremiah, was Nebuchadnezzar II's "chief officer" and was with him at the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC, when the Babylonians overran the city.

The small tablet, the size of "a packet of 10 cigarettes" according to Irving Finkel, a British Museum expert, is a bill of receipt acknowledging Nabu-sharrussu-ukin's payment of 0.75 kg of gold to a temple in Babylon.

The tablet is dated to the 10th year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 595BC, 12 years before the siege of Jerusalem.

Evidence from non-Biblical sources of people named in the Bible is not unknown, but Nabu-sharrussu-ukin would have been a relatively insignificant figure.

"This is a fantastic discovery, a world-class find," Dr Finkel said yesterday. "If Nebo-Sarsekim existed, which other lesser figures in the Old Testament existed? A throwaway detail in the Old Testament turns out to be accurate and true. I think that it means that the whole of the narrative [of Jeremiah] takes on a new kind of power."

We may of course discount the puffery on this being the most important Bible Archaeology related find in the past 100 years -- surely the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rylands codex fragment of John from ~ 125 AD and the like are far more important [though long since passed from the headlines . . .].

But what is important is that here, again, and again -- even, by now "as usual" -- we see corroboration of even minor details of Biblical accounts. Such detailed accuracy of course lends credibility at points where we do not have such details to specifically cross-check, and it should give pause to those Ultra-Modernist Theologians and the like, who would assume or assert that unless there is such step by step confirmation, we should disregard the Biblical accounts. (On long track record, I am not holding my breath on this, though,as the just linked documents.)

It is therefore worth pausing and hearing Edwin Yamauchi's tellingly relevant remarks from the early 1970's:
Historians of antiquity in using the archaeological evidence have very often failed to realize how slight is the evidence at our disposal. It would not be exaggerating to point out that what we have is but a fraction of a fraction of the possible evidence . . . . only a fraction of what is made or written ever survives . . . . only a fraction of the available sites have ever been surveyed . . . . only a fraction of the known sites have been excavated . . . . with the exception of small and short-lived sites such as Tell en-Nasbeth, Qumran, and Masada, . . . only a fraction of any excavated site is actually examined . . . . only a fraction of the materials, and especially the inscriptions in languages other than Greek and Latin, produced by excavations has as yet been published. Because of the relative scarcity of scholars who can publish inscriptions in cuneiform and other types of scripts, there is often a serious time lag between the acquisition of scripts and their publication. [The Stones and the Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1972), pp. 146 - 154]
This last is of course precisely what has happened in this case.

However, we have now got sufficient evidence to discern the overall patterns in outline: Biblical accounts are often, indeed, I daresay: as a rule, astonishingly accurate, even down to incidental details. For instance, this was precisely the massive fact that persuaded William Ramsay to change his mind in favour of the historical soundness of Luke, something like 100 years ago now, on inspecting the relevant sites in the Acts. Similarly, in the 2004 Benthal Public Lecture on the Gospels, noted Canadian New Testament Scholar, Craig Evans, remarks:

My purpose tonight is to lay before you what I believe are key facets in the scholarly discussion of the historical Jesus. In my view there are five important areas of investigation and in all five there has been significant progress in recent years. I shall frame these areas as questions. They include (1) the question of the ethnic, religious, and social location of Jesus; (2) the question of the aims and mission of Jesus; (3) the question of Jesus’ self-understanding; (4) the question of Jesus’ death; and (5) the question of Jesus’ resurrection. All of these questions directly bear on the relevance of Jesus for Christian faith and some of them have important implications for Jewish- Christian relations . . . . The story told in the New Testament Gospels—in contrast to the greatly embellished versions found in the Gospel of Peter and other writings— smacks of verisimilitude. The women went to the tomb to mourn privately and to perform duties fully in step with Jewish burial customs. They expected to find the body of Jesus; ideas of resurrection were the last thing on their minds. The careful attention given the temporary tomb is exactly what we should expect. Pious fiction—like that seen in the Gospel of Peter— would emphasize other things. Archaeology can neither prove nor disprove the resurrection, but it can and has shed important light on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and missing corpse . . . . Research in the historical Jesus has taken several positive steps in recent years. Archaeology, remarkable literary discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and progress in reassessing the social, economic, and political setting of first-century Palestine have been major factors. Notwithstanding the eccentricities and skepticism of the Jesus Seminar, the persistent trend in recent years is to see the Gospels as essentially reliable, especially when properly understood, and to view the historical Jesus in terms much closer to Christianity’s traditional understanding, i.e., as proclaimer of God’s rule, as understanding himself as the Lord’s anointed, and, indeed, as God’s own son, destined to rule Israel. But this does not mean that the historical Jesus that has begun to emerge in recent years is simply a throwback to the traditional portrait. The picture of Jesus that has emerged is more finely nuanced, more obviously Jewish, and in some ways more unpredictable than ever. The last word on the subject has not been written and probably never will be. Ongoing discovery and further investigation will likely force us to make further revisions as we read and read again the old Gospel stories and try to come to grips with the life of this remarkable Galilean Jew.

And now of course, with this finding, Jeremiah, perhaps the most autobiographical OT Prophet, receives a further corroboration of a telling detail. [There has long been a recovered correspondence complaining of those who were weakening the hands of defenders from during the Babylonian invasion; which sounds ever so familiar to readers of Jeremiah.]

So, maybe again, we need to begin to be just a bit skeptical in our hearing of the skeptics, and give fresh attention and respect to that often despised but ever so powerful ancient primary historical source that sits on shelves in our homes -- the Bible? END

No comments: