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The Talpiot Tomb and the Princeton Seminary Symposium

   On January 13-17 this year, Princeton Theological Seminary held a symposium on “Jewish Views of the Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism.” The subtitle to the symposium was: “Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context.” The list of participants included James Charlesworth and Geza Vermes. I daresay most of you are saying “umm… who?” These are not Evangelical scholars by any stretch of the imagination, which is what makes the findings of the symposium all the more interesting in light of the media hoopla over this topic. I will link to the full report below, but here’s a taste:

“A firestorm has broken out in Jerusalem following the conclusion of the [Symposium]. Most negative assessments of archaeologists and other scientists and scholars who attended have been excluded from the final press reports. Instead the media have presented the views of Simcha Jacobovici, who produced the controversial film and book The Lost Tomb of Jesus with Hollywood director James Cameron, and who claims that his identification has been vindicated by the conference papers. Nothing further from the truth can be deduced from the discussion and presentations that took place on January 13-17, 2008.”

   Read the full report for yourself. May it be of use to you as you encounter those who take the drivel of Jacobovici as fact.

Continued Interaction with Pellegrino on the Talpiot Theory

   I noted a few weeks ago a conversation that began on the Amazon website between myself and one of the two primary defenders of the Talpiot Theory, Dr. Pellegrino, co-author with Simcha Jacobovici of The Jesus Family Tomb. Dr. Pellegrino’s replies to me were rather lengthy and covered many topics. I replied to the first few on this blog, and began work on the next series, but was interrupted by all sorts of things, including tens of thousands of miles of travel. So I am trying to find some time, while recovering from this virus, to get back to my replies. There is a lot of development going on in the Talpiot arena, and those who stuck their heads in the sand a few months ago and tried the “laugh at it, it will go away” defense are so far behind now they will never catch up.

Dr White: I would gladly receive a copy of your book. And I do very much welcome a debate of the evidence (as opposed to some of your original blog postings equating our team to being in league with the antichrist – – and I agree with you, in fact, that anyone who compares his or her DNA to the DNA of “Jesus, son of Joseph” is embarking upon, at best, a foolish adventure).

Dr. Pellegrino:
   I checked my blog. The term “anti-Christ” was last used by me on my blog in 2004, outside of a citation of someone else in a completely different context. So, I am uncertain what you are referring to. There is surely no question that the claims of those promoting the Talpiot Theory are fundamentally anti-Christian, despite the less-than-accurate attempts to “soften” this in the book and the film. But I would like to know what you are referring to in your above comments.

Francois Bovon and other scholars are still debating the time and place of origin, with regard to certain textural strands that went into the Acts of Philip – and into the canonical Gospels, for that matter.

   There is no comparison, sir, between an analysis of first century documents such as the canonical gospels and the late 4th century Acts of Philip. When you refer to “textual strands,” please be specific. Are you referring solely to literary parallels, such as Bovon’s tracing the development of the historic Mary Magdalene from the canonical gospels to the mythical one of the gnostics into the even farther removed woman apostle of the Acts of Philip?

It is inaccurate to say that if I disagree with Bovon on interpretation of a piece of evidence, that I negate him, or he negates me. This is simply part of the usual scientific discourse, based always on doubt. What’s unusual here, is that the points and counter-points are being debated in a fish bowl, with the press looking on and with people of either religious or anti-religious agendas cherry-picking quotes from scientific discourse. The same exact thing is happening with the NASA-ESA Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons.

   I’m sorry, but the process of evaluation of the merits of ancient documents is far removed, in form and substance, from the Cassini mission outside of the presence of humans with their agendas. In any case, Bovon is not disagreeing on an interpretation. He is correcting a misinterpretation and misuse of his words. When the film presents him saying Mary Magdalene is Mariamne, the use by the film and book is, according to repeated statements made by Dr. Bovon (statements consistent with his published writings made prior to the film), inaccurate and misleading. Yet, without that connection (which the book admits is the linchpin), I see no means of rescuing the entire theory. This identification is the heart of the argument.
   So, what I’m saying is this: Dr. Bovon’s identification is literary only, and has never been meant to be used as a support for a historical claim about the woman, Mary Magdalene, mentioned in the canonical gospels. Yet, the book and film use his identification as a basis for a tremendous number of claims and a mountain worth of speculation. Yet, the vast majority of this speculation and assertion runs directly counter to first century sources. In essence, in your book and in the film, the Acts of Philip is not only given equal provenance with the canonical gospels, it is given superior provenance. Yet, as surely you know, there is no comparison between these documents, historically, textually, etc. A thousand years separates the earliest manuscript of the Acts of Philip we possess from its writing, yet P52 is barely 30 years removed from the time of the origination of its original (the Gospel of John). But beyond this, the very nature of the Acts of Philip differs fundamentally from the canonical gospels as well, and it does so in the very context that is most important to historical inquiry and utilization.
   What I’m saying, Dr. Pellegrino, is that on every level important to historical inquiry, the Acts of Philip, as a literary work, is irrelevant to the identification of first century ossuary inscriptions. I find it hard to believe that many will defend the idea that such a work, so far removed temporally, geographically, and linguistically, from Jerusalem in the shadow of the Roman legions, can stand up to the weight being placed upon it by yourself and the others promoting the Talpiot Theory.
   I wonder, Dr. Pellegrino, if you have read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham?

Away from analogy, and back to ancient texts: My work at Herculaneum and at other extraordinarily well preserved first century AD Roman sites yields the overwhelming impression that people were not living under our usual “Dark Age” assumption of widespread illiteracy. In Herculaneum, even slaves were quite often educated. Being able to read and write appears to have been more rule, than exception. This would probably have been even more so in Jewish communities. From Pompeii’s Number 11 House, we even have prayers, dating to AD 79 or earlier, and praising “Maria,” the mother of Jesus.

   I would tend to agree, though you will find many, like John Dominic Crossan, firmly wedded to a very illiterate population as a whole in Judea. Be that as it may, I wonder if you have considered that this observation alone undercuts a large portion of the current scholarship upon which, it seems, your theory is dependent in reference to the marginalization of the canonical gospels? That is, the very late dating of the gospels, the completely “oral” nature of the nebulous “tradition” to which many scholars appeal (contra the compelling evidence provided by Bauckham noted above) are all based upon your own assertion here not being true. So, if it is the case that people were more literate than many assume, would it not likewise follow that the wholesale editing, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus, of the apostolic proclamation and message–an assumption so prevalent in modern scholarship–would be the exact opposite of what you would expect to find? But this cannot be true, for that would completely close the door on the entirety of your own theory, which requires one to view the gospels as seriously misleading, edited, compromised documents. So I again wonder if you are applying the same standards to the sources upon which you are dependent that you apply to the canonical gospels?
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Resources for Evaluation of the Claims of Charles Pellegrino Regarding Stephen Pfann/Tomb Issues, With Comments

   In the materials I posted earlier Charles Pellegrino make some pretty harsh accusations against Stephen Pfann. I found the rhetoric used by Dr. Pellegrino most regrettable, and more so, rather misleading. It was certainly far more personal than appropriate. I posted a link to Dr. Pfann’s blog, “The View from Jerusalem,” but I wanted to provide some specific links to the material that replies to or refutes Dr. Pellegrino’s accusations. Specifically:
   Dr. Pellegrino says Dr. Pfann’s reading of the ossuary (which I included in my book, along with Dr. Robinson’s suggestion, both of which have more probability than the reading adopted by the Talpiot Theorists) “simply flies 180 degrees in the opposite direction of all forensic archaeological evidence.” I would call upon Dr. Pellegrino to abandon the use of this kind of argument. It is invalid on its face. “All”? Surely anyone who has read Pfann’s paper is well aware that it is well argued and documented, so, the very statement is impossible on its face (see also here). Steven Cox has likewise examined the inscription using a number of modern scientific tools, and as noted by Dr. Pfann on his blog, the results have been submitted to the IAA (and I note, again the regular dismissal of the IAA by the Talpiot Theorists). The truth of these matters is not helped by this kind of rhetorical claim on Dr. Pellegrino’s part.
   Next, Pellegrino claims the strokes that appear before “MARA” and the “first stroke of the second “M” following the “eta” were “cut with the same stroke style and direction, with the same amount of hand pressure.” Here is Pfann’s response.
   Next, I have examined the images used by Pfann in his paper and compared them against the images found in Pellegrino’s book, and I find nothing of substance to the allegation of someone “brushing out” “vital punctuation.” Dr. Pellegrino will have to be more specific as to exactly what his claims are at this point, how the alleged “punctuation” is relevant to the reading of the inscription, etc. At this point, we only have bald assertion.
   I always get nervous when generic, and exaggerated, terminology is used in contexts like this. Pellegrino attempts to make it look like it is Pfann vs. “some of the best epigraphers in the world.” I assume Pellegrino is not including himself in this group, so, to whom does he refer? Rahmani and Di Segni? Surely Pellegrino recognizes that Rahmani’s work is not meant to be definitive, but, more of a cataloguing effort so that the data would not be lost. Pfann notes in his blog that Profs. Emile Puech and Tal Ilan have come to the same conclusions as he has regarding the reading, and that others, upon reading his paper, have agreed with his conclusions. Now, of course, just as with the Acts of Philip material, we are touching the very heart of the Talpiot Theory. If any other reading were to be allowed, Pellegrino’s entire work would have to be dismissed. So, I would suggest there might well be some “vested interest” here. At the very least, what Pellegrino offers here is not counter-argumentation on the level Pfann offered (why not provide refutation of his citation of other contemporary documents and sources that have similar forms of the word “kai” for example?) but mockery. Dr. Pfann’s article was scholarly in tone and demeanor. Why stoop to using language like, “were unable to read simple Greek” or “were according to Pfann too stupid to figure out”? This is inflammatory rhetoric unworthy of sound scholarship.
   I noted earlier problems with the DNA claims. I included Carney Matheson’s e-mails in my book, and would note that given the nature of mitochondrial DNA, the incomplete examination of the ossuaries, the nature of the “human debris” (i.e., extracting materials from one portion of the ossuary would not necessarily give you a complete picture of how many people had been placed in the bone box), coming to the firm and indisputable conclusion that only one person was in each of the tested ossuaries is not only unwarranted, but might indicate yet more bias in reference to the examination of the data. Remember, the documentation indicates a much higher estimation for the number of persons/ossuary than 1:1, but the Talpiot Theorists need 80/500 and 80/503 to have just one person in them.
   It is just here that I must again request of Dr. Pellegrino that he consider well the value of such statements as, “but according to Pfann, the top paleo-DNA experts on the planet are not as bright as he, either.” I am, sadly, quite accustomed to this kind of invalid argumentation in my own work, and it is normally a sign of a less-than-sound argument that someone would utilize it.
   Likewise, the entire second to last paragraph struck me as little more than rank ad-hominem. I am accustomed myself to the “scholarship is not something you do, it is something you buy” mentality of so many today, so I am particularly sensitive to seeing it being used against others. I would invite Pellegrino to provide me with URL’s or other forms of documentation regarding this “press conference” to which he refers, and, again, scholarly documentation regarding punctuation, “special effects,” and “redrawing.” How, specifically, is the reading of the inscription impacted by these things? How is the reading one sees in the pictures in Pellegrino’s book different from the same material found in Pfann’s paper? To accuse Pfann of “fraudulently manipulating the evidence” is serious indeed, but the bare accusation is not itself evidence. When the Lost Tomb of Jesus film told us that “the church” destroyed manuscripts of the Acts of Philip in the second century, two hundred years before it was written, or when it told us that the Acts of Philip tell us Mary Magdalene would die in Jerusalem (when it actually says Mariamne would die in the Jordan River, which does not flow through Jerusalem), are these errors constituent of “fraudulent manipulation of the evidence” I wonder?
   I am fully confused by Pellegrino’s commentary regarding University of the Holy Land. First, when did size become determinative of quality in education? Secondly, did Dr. Pellegrino actually take the time to look through the website itself? Just a moment or two’s examination revealed far more in the way of course offerings, etc., than Pellegrino indicates. So, why use this approach?
   It is surely my hope that Dr. Pellegrino will adopt a different approach in future discussions, for this kind of ad-hominem laced discussion adds nothing to these very important inquiries.

The Saga Continues

   For those using RSS readers, you might wish to add this one to your list. It is Dr. Pfann’s blog out of Jerusalem, and if you wish to keep up on the developments in the Talpiot saga (contrary to rumors, those promoting the theory did not throw up their hands, surrender, and go home after the Ted Koppel program), this will be of significant use to you.