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"Jesus Family Tomb" Aftermath

For those of you who did not catch the 1-hour roundtable discussion of the Jesus Family Tomb that immediately followed the documentary, you missed a bloodbath. The panel included Simcha Jacobovici, the producer/writer/director of the documentary, UNC-Charlotte Professor James Tabor, and five other scholars not involved with the documentary. All five scholars were not just critical of the program, but harshly critical. Professor Jonathan Reed went so far as to call it "archeo-porn." Ouch.

In the wake of what can only be called worldwide criticism, the documentarians are doing what most people in their situation do: shooting the messengers. The responses I have seen essentially boil down to: the world disagrees because the world cannot agree, because it is too invested in the truth of what we have the bravery to question. Jacobovici called it "the mobilization of bias." This has been the general thrust on James Tabor's blog for the whole week (Tabor was a close associate on the project, though it does not bear his name), and it hit its crescendo with an early AM post called, "Methinks Thou Protesteth Too Much."

This is the worst kind of elitist nonsense. There is indeed such a thing as "mobilization of bias." This is the type of power that is exercised when options are taken off the table before discussion has begun. Sociologists call it the "second face of power." However, that is not what is going on here. If you look around the web, you will clearly see critics offering evidence to support their critique. Thus, the arguments of critics assume that the claim might be valid. If their thesis is a priori wrong, there is no reason to offer evidence in the first place.

It is one thing to say "They say this, but here are two dozen reasons why they have no business saying this. Thus, I reject it." It is another to say, "They say this, but this simply cannot be true. Thus, I reject it." The latter is the mobilization of bias. The former is mobilization of evidence.

Their claim, then, is fatuous. It seems to me to be an attempt to win the debate by out-flanking the arguments for a last-ditch shot at the critics themselves. We can thus see the ever-widening circle of unfalsifiability that the documentarians seek to create. Not only is the evidence that contradicts their thesis a priori excluded. So also are those who critique the claim. The documentarians want to have a debate between (a) those who think that this tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, and (b) those who are unsure. All and sundry who read the book, who watched the documentary, and who find their claims laughably underdetermined are "biased."

Once again: heads they win, tails you lose.

Final point. Keep an eye on their evolving response. The next step in the cycle will probably be: why can't you just admit that this is possible? There are flashes of this from both Tabor and Jacobovici already. This, too, is fatuous. Anything is possible. Probability distributions never actually touch the x-axis -- which means that all options, at least in theory, are on the table. But that is not the point. The point is that it is highly unlikely. The point is that, when one actually takes the time to assign a probability to this being Jesus of Nazareth's tomb -- one comes up with a ridiculously low number.

Science -- even a "soft" science like New Testament studies -- is not, should not be about delineating all of the things that are possible. It is about making arguments about what is likely, what is expected to happen or to have happened. Making a big fuss about a "sexy" unlikelihood is pseudo-science.