Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jesus' tomb: impossible, unlikely, possible or probable?

James Tabor's latest post, Clearing the air: Rational Thinking on the Talpiot Tomb, distinguishes helpfully between Jacobovici and Cameron's The Lost Tomb of Jesus (with all its strengths and flaws) and the underlying question: whether or not the Jesus-son-of-Joseph of the Talpiot tomb was Jesus-of-Nazareth. Ultimately it is the latter question, not the media event, that matters. Tabor can imagine four possible positions among responsible academics:
  1. There is good evidence that this Jesus son of Joseph cannot be Jesus of Nazareth
  2. The identification is inconclusive, or even unlikely; there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion.
  3. Such an identification is possible, even likely, though not conclusively proven.
  4. There is evidence that such an identification is probable or even highly probable.
Four thoughts.

First, some will complain that Tabor unfairly excludes the view that "this could not be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth since he ascended bodily to heaven." But since historians can only trade in probabilities and since the bodily ascension of Jesus surely qualifies as an extremely improbable historical event, I'm not sure Tabor's exclusion can be faulted, given the context of an academic debate. Moreover, he seems to be excluding only the view that says, up front and without concern for possible physical evidence, that historical and archaeological data are irrelvant to questions about the historical Jesus.

Second, Tabor suggests that "the only scholar who has argued the 1st option in print is Jodi Magness." A key phrase here is "in print," the meaning of which is becoming increasingly opaque in our digital information age. Evidently Tabor would include articles published in academic e-journals and posted on e-bulletin boards like SBL's Forum,where Jodi Magness' piece appears. But what are we to make of the negative verdicts handed down by generally respected academics who, only since the Jacobovic documentary and thus not yet "in print," have posted on websites and blogs, or spoken out on television, radio and in the press? I'm thinking of Richard Bauckham, Eric Meyers, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington, Stephen Pfann, Jonathan Reed, Joe Zias, Byron McCane, Darrell Bock, Randy Ingermanson, Chris Heard and others, all of whom reject the link between the Jesus tomb and Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps I need to re-read their statements more closely, but my sense is (a) that many statements are effectively "in print" and (b) that these statements lean much more toward option one than Tabor implies.
UPDATE: Thanks to James Tabor who clarifies his meaning in the comments section below. By "in print," he had in mind what he calls "solid and sustained academic treatments."
Third, the wording of option two may create confusion. Some of those who adopt it--Christopher Rollston, for example--may actually be much closer to position one than Tabor allows. Take Rollston as an example:
Based on the prosopographic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the relationships of those buried therein, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
Tabor is technically correct--Rollston doesn't say the identification is impossible--but I wonder if Tabor's position two would be more accurate if it read as follows:
2. The identification is inconclusive, or even unlikely; there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion and plenty to warrant profound skepticism.
Fourth, the phrase "even likely" in option three all but removes the distinction between three and four. How are we to distinguish betwen position three (the identification is "likely") and position four (the identification is "probable")? Perhaps the four views should simply be: essentially impossible, unlikely, possible and probable.

3 comments:

James D. Tabor said...

Bruce,

Thanks for your helpful comments and feedback on my Blog. By restricting my option #1 to Jodi Magness I was not including press reports and other statements criticising the Jesus Family tomb film, nor this and that statement about the tomb itself that have highlighted problems with its identification with Jesus of Nazareth. I had in mind solid and sustaned academic treatments, such as that of Magness, that argue the tomb cannot be that of JN. I have exchanged quite a few messages with Rollston and he does not say it is impossible that the tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth, but just that he thinks the evidence is not compelling.

Jim Deardorff said...

Shouldn't Thought #1 be given more thought in the context to follow?

"'this could not be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth since he ascended bodily to heaven.' But since historians can only trade in probabilities and since the bodily ascension of Jesus surely qualifies as an extremely improbable historical event,..."

We can safely assume that during his appearances to his disciples after the crucifixion, the man still contained his skeletal structure and bones, since he was recognized and touched, etc. Given that, why not entertain the possibility that a UFO had swooped down and picked him up, or even that he had been beamed up? (Not to heaven but to the inside of the UFO.)

Most anyone who has seriously studied the UFO phenomenon as it has occurred since WWII knows that there are hundreds of cases of this general nature on record. And UFO sightings have continued unabated since then to this day.

So in considering probabilities, there's a lot of substance here to work with.

Thanks for allowing this comment to be posted.

Jim Deardorff

James F. McGrath said...

I thought I'd mention here my own new book, The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. If you're interested in the historical evidence for how Jesus was buried, and what that might have led others to want to do to his body as a result, you should enjoy my book!