Mausoleum of God

A Crowded but Empty Tomb

I doubt you have been able to escape the news of the discovery (actually several years ago) of what some claim is the tomb of Jesus—and his family! The chamber housing several ossuaries, bone boxes, was found in Talipot, in Jerusalem, while engineers were working on new construction. They blundered into the unsuspected site. Upon close examination, the ossuaries bore scratched-in names including Jesus (or so some think) son of Joseph, Maria, Joseph, Judas, Matthew, and others from the New Testament period. James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty and a colleague of mine in The Jesus Project, argues, backed by professional statisticians, that, given the estimated population of Israel at the time, the chances of finding all these names, though common in themselves, combined in a single family, are six hundred to one. This means, they say, the tomb is that of Jesus Christ, his parents, his brothers, and quite possibly, his wife Mary Magdalene and their son Judah.

Who should be upset about this and why? First, remember, if you will, that many trumpeted the supposed James ossuary a couple of years ago as evidence of a historical James the Just and so of his brother Jesus (since the inscription there was “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). That one turned out to be one of many recent products of an artifact forgery lab, the forgers found out and arrested. One might guess that the disappointed fans of the James box would rejoice at this “new” find (again, actually a few years earlier, but given new attention now thanks to James Cameron’s documentary). But then, uh-oh!, this set of ossuaries would seem to prove too much! It would mean that, a la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, Jesus survived or escaped crucifixion, got married, and fathered children—much as happens in Jesus’ dream-escape from the cross in The Last Temptation of Christ. No saving death, no resurrection. Yikes.

Thus the James ossuary and the vault full of bone boxes would seem to stand or fall together. Both identifications depend upon name and population statistics. Both sets of artifacts have the same physical characteristics (patina quality, etc.). Tabor points out that the James ossuary and the others very likely come from the same site. Without it, the set lacks the requisite name pf James, a famous sibling. And at Talipot, there were empty spaces set aside for three more ossuaries! Tabor proposes that someone snuck into the vault and absconded with the James box. His theory implies that the James box and the “new” ones are all genuine. Tabor is among the few still defending the authenticity of the James ossuary (one of the many dubious features of his book The Jesus Dynasty).

But suppose he is right about the seeming connection, the James box looking like the missing piece of an incomplete puzzle set? Then, as R. Joseph Hoffmann (also of The Jesus Project) points out, the lifeboat must sink along with the ship. All of them would appear to be fakes. One thing’s for sure: you have no business appealing to the James box as proof of a historical Jesus if you don’t also accept a larger family unit including Mrs. Christ and Jesus, Junior.

Built on Sand

There is a larger issue here. And that is the issue of faith and history, of faith based on history. All the proud claims of theologians that Christianity, unlike, say, Hinduism, is inextricably based on historical facts, carry with them an inevitable compromise of intellectual honesty (on which yet another of our Jesus Project team, Van A. Harvey, has written the definitive book, The Historian and the Believer). From then on, the believer has a vested interest in certain historical assertions being true. He will have reason to worry if the latest archaeological discoveries don’t go his way! He will cheer if they do, but he will worry deep down that the next round may go against him. No momentary, seeming vindication of the Bible will settle the question, since one never knows what may come to light next. Will Father Guido Sarducci discover the check for the Last Brunch?

The poor Mormons have repeatedly been kicked in the privates, first, by the utter absence of any relic of the supposedly widespread Nephite and Lamanite civilizations of pre-Columbian America, and now by DNA texts which show a lack of any genetic overlap between Semites and American Indians. Denials of the facts at this point become exceedingly shrill, with believers having, so to speak, put bags over their heads like videotaped felons headed for the cop car. There they are in the police line-up next to Holocaust deniers and “Scientific Creationists.”

Too bad for the Book of Mormon. The archeological verdict on the Bible is equally damning. Once a new generation of archaeologists threw off the blinders, the circular methodology, of Presbyterian apologist William Foxwell Albright, it became clear that virtually all of what even a skeptic like me had supposed to be actual history in the Bible was instead legend and fiction. No splendid Davidic empire or Solomonic wonders of the world. No damn Exodus. No genocidal Conquest (well, I can’t say that’s too dismaying!), no first-century Galilean synagogues, or, to keep going, no commercial hub of Mecca—pretty much no nuthin!

Two great nineteenth-century theologians, Martin Kähler and Wilhelm Herrmann (who both happened to be Paul Tillich’s teachers), saw the danger of faith with historical commitments, faith with historical strings attached. Given the necessary uncertainty and unpredictability of historical evidence, such a faith must be either eaten away by a growing cancer of doubt or corrupted by another cancer, that of intellectual dishonesty, an a priori decision to spin, twist, ignore, or discredit every bit of contrary evidence as soon as it appears. This is PR, not scholarship, and it is the business of apologists for the gospels and the Bible and the historical Jesus and the resurrection. Things have to be a certain way for them, or they are cooked, up the fiery creek .So they spin. So they issue the Holy Harrumph. Why can’t they see that, if anything, it is precisely this dishonesty that is going to damn them? They are sacrificing their own integrity on behalf of the faith that is melting away beneath them even as they continue to pettifog and prevaricate in its defense.

We don’t even need a definitive refutation of dogmatic faith for such faith to be refuted. The mere condition of uncertainty and the high cost of defending it are themselves fatal refutations of such faith!

The Booming Voice

And, don’t you see, it is the same in what might at first appear to be a different issue altogether, namely a scripture-based theology or ethics. The attraction of biblicism is the appeal it allows to an infallible sourcebook for answers. “We know there is life after death, and that it is like so-and-so because the Bible says so. We know that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so. We are not left to the endless debates on these issues that can never be resolved as long as we base them, as unbelievers do, on mere speculation.” But the immunity is illusory! Because Luther was wrong: scripture is simply not “perspicuous,” clear on important matters, so that all intelligent, sincere readers will agree. Various biblical passages yield radically different beliefs about life after death, including that there is no such thing (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”).

And homosexuality? It all hinges on whether or not Levitical bans on a class of acts deemed ceremonial transgressions continue on into the Christian dispensation (the ban on eating shrimp is one of them; homosexuality is another!) and on the meaning of three ambiguous verses in the epistles, two of these using rare Greek words so seldom appearing in extant literature that we cannot be sure what they mean. So what happens to the clarion-like proclamation of the word and will of God? One just cannot be dogmatic on the basis of an ambiguous text! How anticlimactic to hear from the pulpit, “There is about a fifteen per cent chance that God hates homosexuality! So you might want to repent--or maybe not.” Clearly, one must not pretend to tell people how to live their lives, one must not start punching tickets to heaven or hell, based on what experts or non-experts think the text might mean! The appeal to the Bible is no less victim to death by a thousand speculations than the blind gropings of unaided human reason. Because that’s all any of us have anyway, even if, like Bible preachers, you’d like to pretend otherwise.

Don’t you see? This is what we mean when we proclaim the death of God! And why we must proclaim it and furthermore rejoice to proclaim it! We are without a definitive sun of authority and infallible will around which to orbit! We have come of age by realizing not only that there is no court of appeal above ourselves, but that there never was! And why! Are we “reduced” to reliance upon our own “guesswork”? Yes, we are, and that means we have become gods ourselves. We no longer seek to evade responsibility for our ethical decisions by saying we are “just following orders,” the commands of God in the Bible or the Koran. We were childish when we unthinkingly idolized the speculations, the ad hoc judgment calls, of our ancestors, who did the best they could. We will be mature when we dare to wipe the Mosaic tablets clean and to write upon them anew with our own best wisdom. And if we in turn should become idols, our words the scriptures of a future generation, we can only hope that such a generation will raise up its own Zarathustras to send the idols toppling from their pedestals.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
March 2007


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