Christians put on their Skeptic Hats to deal with the “Tomb of Jesus”

March 2, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

Such good irony.

I can’t help but shake my head at the many Christians who are temporarily putting on their Skeptic Hats to deal with a bold claim by a Discovery Channel documentary.  That documentary is claiming that a tomb discovered in Israel in 1980 held the bones of Jesus.   If true, the documentary’s claim would conflict with the alleged resurrection of Jesus.

[Note: there is controversy about the resurrection, based upon the original writings from the Gospel according to Mark]

Ebonmuse, an atheist, has pointed out many reasons to doubt the claims of the television documentary that the tomb discovered in 1980 was the tomb of Jesus.  He concludes:

I believe the most likely scenario is that this is a genuine tomb from biblical times, containing several ordinary people with names common from the time, which has been hyped beyond what the evidence supports by overzealous filmmakers trying to create a sensation. It is not a magic bullet to destroy Christianity . . .

Based upon the points raised in his article, I agree Ebonmuse.  For those same reasons, I agree with the many Christians who are now attacking the Discovery Channel documentary. There are, indeed, many good reasons to doubt these claims. It’s fun to engage in skeptical inquiry, marching side-by-side with devout Christian believers for a change!

No sooner are they finished criticizing the claim about the tomb of Jesus, though, you can hear many of these same believers asserting, as undeniable facts, all of those ancient “truths” of their own religions, those tenuous claims they do believe.  According to many Christians, we simply know that Jesus performed each of the miracles described in the Gospels.  We must not doubt that Mary floated into heaven.  And we are absolutely certain that Jesus never had sex with Mary Magdalene (I’ve sometimes heard Believers assert “He just wouldn’t have done that . . . ”). 

All of these claims, however, are based on uncorroborated and incomplete ancient writings by unknown authors, most of weren’t even witnesses to these incredible (alleged) events that they report. Many of these claims conflict with other passages from the same sacred writings. Often, the claims of Believers are based on nothing at all (e.g., what hell is really like, how God deals with unbaptised babies or whether Mary was really one of King David’s descendants).  All of this unbudging belief, when there is legitimate doubt about whether a man named Jesus ever really existed at all–Christian writers completely failed to even mention the life or miracles of Jesus of Galilee for more than 40 years following his alleged death (see “The Jesus Puzzle” and here).

Most religious beliefs are based on “proof” so flimsy that they would be (well . . . should be) laughed out of any courtroom (for those Christians who, by now, must be irritated with me, consider Muslims trying to prove their religion according to well-established rules of evidence).  Yet, we hear constant assertions that the factual claims of particular religions are inerrantly true. We hear these claims even though miracles seem to have entirely stopped in this age of the ubiquitous video camera.

This irony reminds me of an article by mathematician John Paulos, who commented that we readily admit lots of doubt about occurrences that are recent:

Forty years ago in the full glare of the modern media, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and we have only a hazy idea of the motivation of the killer or, possibly, killers. Only a bit more than 30 years ago, the Watergate controversy erupted before a phalanx of cameras and microphones, and we still don’t know who ordered what nor the identity of Deep Throat. And only two and half years ago, well into the age of the Internet, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked, and we have yet to learn the complete story.

These (and many, many other) examples of our ignorance of the details of recent events don’t seem surprising. We’re accustomed to suspending judgment, to estimating probabilities. We realize that people dissemble, spin, exaggerate, and misinterpret. And we know that even more frequently events transpire with no witnesses, and so we’ve developed an appropriate skepticism about news stories (and personal opinion pieces such as this).

When it comes to events that are ancient, though, it is the doubts that fade away and it is the hazy (and sometimes self-contradictory) facts that become ever more certain, at least for those who want to believe.

As Paulos concludes in his article about the Passion of Christ:   “Many important stories of the recent and distant past contain large holes and blank spots. Acknowledging uncertainty about them requires a braver heart than denying it.”

[Final Note: Lest anyone think that I am attacking believers personally, rather than pointing out issues regarding belief systems, please note that I have great admiration for the accomplishments of numerous people who sincerely hold religious beliefs.  See also, my disclaimer at the end of this article].

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Category: History, Religion, The Middle East

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (1)

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  1. Ebonmuse says:

    Hey there Erich – thanks for the mention!

    Really, I think Cameron and the other filmmakers involved in this project are overhyping it to the point of absurdity, and haven't done anything near the amount of footwork they'd need to validate this find as genuine. When your strongest source of support is a fourth-century apocryphal gospel that even ancient Christians didn't find to be credible, you've got to know you're treading on thin ice.

    On the other hand, Christians shouldn't be so quick to throw stones. At least Cameron is proposing something fairly ordinary – a man who got married, raised a family and then died and was buried. The alternative, which I've heard more than one Christian apologist refer to as "far more credible" without apparent embarrassment, is that the same man was killed, came back to life, and then flew off up into the sky. This find probably isn't what it's being touted as, but nevertheless, let's keep in mind our hierarchy of what's more likely.

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