Contemporary Challenges to Jesus (1 of 3)
Dr. Mark Bailey: Welcome to DTS Dialogue: Issues of God in Culture. I'm your host, Dr. Mark Bailey, and I have the privilege of serving as president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Today, we have the opportunity to discuss contemporary challenges to the biblical accounts of Jesus.
Joining with our discussion, in the studio with me, is Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture, and Dr. Stephen Bramer, Professor of Bible Exposition.
Gentlemen, thank you for being with us in the studio to talk about this hot topic, obviously, within our culture: what the culture is thinking of Jesus. It's an age-old question. Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, "Who do men say that I, the son of man, am?" Now our culture is asking that question.
Why are we seeing an upsurge in discussion concerning the biblical accounts of Jesus? Darrell and Steve, as you are out there and about, from your perspectives, what's surfacing the challenges and what's surfacing the questions as to who Jesus is, and did he really exist, and what did he really teach?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, we are shifting from a written culture to a media culture. And we have been doing that pretty rapidly over the last several decades, with the opening up of the internet, with the function of cable television. And this has created the ability to have niche channels, the ability to have documentaries on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And so there's just a lot of time and space that is available. And you add to that the net that anyone can speak in about Jesus. That information can go directly to people, and all this has opened up numerous avenues, fresh avenues, for information. So I think that is one of the larger factors.
I think the second major factor is that the role of religion in life has come to a point where it's become appreciated anew. 9/11 is responsible for this to some degree, but it was happening before. Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, wrote a book a year ago in which she said that someone working in the State Department needs to have a knowledge of religion in order to do their job.
Now, you wouldn't have thought that that would've been said 20 years ago. So there are lots of reasons, I think, why we're seeing the upsurge, but those are certainly two of them.
Dr. Stephen Bramer: I think there's a natural human curiosity that, obviously, has always been present. But now, "Was Jesus married? Was he resurrected from the dead?" Combining the curiosity with the science that they're getting in school and the feeling that each person can make their own decision...
Darrell: That's right.
Stephen: And they get onto the net, and they see this material. And I think many of our people in our churches are actually biblically illiterate, compared to 20-30 years ago, and so they don't even have the background to evaluate, so they're curious.
Mark: On a previous discussion, with regard to The DaVinci Code I have recalled a conversation I had with a plastic surgeon who, having read that book, even as a maturing believer, his faith was shaken. And he didn't have answers immediately at hand, and so that caused him some fear, as, has he believed something in vain? And with just a few comments and a few observations, he relaxed because there is truth to bring to bear on these questions.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we watched the debates. Reflecting the interest that you men have mentioned, they asked the question "What role does faith play in their politics?" And I don't remember that being such a forceful question of interest, in my lifetime, up to this point.
There was some talk, back with John F. Kennedy, of being the first Catholic to be elected. There was a little bit of issue there, but not to the extent that every single candidate was asked to comment on the role of your faith in your politics. I think that also contributes to some of the interest, and it becomes a marketing factor for those that want to put Jesus out in the marketplace and make some money at doing it.
Which brings me to another question, and probably the most recent challenge to the historical and biblical Christianity is the Discovery Channel's documentary on the tomb of Jesus. There was the claim that they found the tomb of Jesus. Because the tomb contained bones, they assumed by name association and other methods, that they found, not only the tomb of Jesus, but the bones of Jesus Christ.
How do you respond to these claims?
Darrell: Well, this is an interesting one, because this is one that I actually was involved in before it became public. The Discovery Channel, because of other work that I had done, had actually asked me to preview this show about two weeks before it came out, and to give them feedback. I was put under a nondisclosure, which often happens when something controversial comes up, and was given one weekend to watch the show--actually about four hours.
And I remember typing on my computer when I finished my report and had gone through and had reacted to various things going on, I wrote to the Discovery Channel, "You have no idea what you're in for, " in terms of the reaction, and just all the holes that were there.
Technically speaking, what happened with these ossuaries, which are bone boxes. They have a process called "re-burial," in ancient Israel, where you initially deposit the body, and then you let it decay, and in about a year, you come in and you take the remainder of the bones and put them in the ossuary, in the bone box.
But what happened when they found this is, actually, they didn't find the bones, because the tomb had been raided. What they found was leftover biological matter that reflected the bones had been in the ossuary.
And so, we reported to the Discovery Channel the problems with this special, and they scrambled. And that's why you had the Ted Koppel special on right after the show came out, was because of the feedback they were getting were a variety of inputs, along with the immediate complete initial reaction that there was nothing to this.
My joke is that this is one of the few theories that has been put out there that's managed to bring together conservative, liberal, moderate Christians, devout and secular Jews, archeologists, historians. Usually you get a debate on something. This one didn't generate all that much of a debate in terms of what was going on. It's an example of what happens when a project goes directly to the public without peer review.
Mark: That's a great statement. They distinguished on the Ted Koppel review, the difference between - or in the criticism - the difference between the documentary and a docudrama. This one seemed to have more drama than document.
I remember even seeing a friend who was on the film, a friend from Jerusalem, Dr. Steve Pfann and they used him to pronounce an inscription, then cut away to something else as if he was helping authenticate the identification of the ossuary with Jesus and the family of Jesus. He came out later and said "That's not what I think. I think the whole thing's a fraud."
But it was interesting how he was made to look in support by the way, as you say Darrell, it was put together before it ever got peer review or critical review. So there were a number of retractionary kinds of statements to it.
Darrell: You know what was interesting is that it just so happened that weeks after that story broke, Steve and I took a trip to Israel. We had dinner with Steven Pfann and we also met with Tal Ilan who is the Israeli expert on names. We also met with Amos Kloner who did the original excavation at the site, supervised the original excavation of the site, back in 1980.
He was able to hear, as I was interacting with them, their responses. Two of them had been filmed for this show. Steve, it might be interesting to hear your impressions about what it was to watch that all take place.
Stephen: It was just wonderful to see just so many Jewish, both students at the University of Ben-Gurion. Especially the professors just agree with us that it was not a well done documentary. That the evidence had not been properly analyzed, that there were implication after implication that were put in there to build the story.
I can remember one person in one of the sessions, Darrell, that you were doing, that just kind of raised his hand and said, "Why are we even talking about this?"
It's not good science. And he just wanted to go on. But, I think we do need to talk about that. When this broke, a person in our church had a call from his girlfriend actually, and she was crying in the other end and she said, "They've discovered the bones of Jesus."
Stephen: And here's a Christian who should know better, but getting it through the media. I think that once again, as you said, they're going directly to the public now. They're not going to the academic community and and the academic community doesn't really want to respond to this, and yet they must.
Stephen: They must because the general population is responding to it.
Darrell: You know, Tal Ilan, when I was interviewing her said, she felt like a hostile witness for a murderer on the special, because what they did is they would ask her a question and she would answer it and they wouldn't be happy with the answer. So they would reframe the question, and they would narrow it and narrow it, and finally they would state it in such a hypothetical way that she had to qualify her answer and give room for the possibility that this might take place.
She said, on the one hand, she felt the responsibility to answer honestly but inside she was just frustrated with the way this has been said. Even Hershel Shanks in the Biblical Archeology Review wrote an opening piece to open this last issue in which he talks about Tal Ilan complaining about how she was interviewed on this. We saw it because she was very forthright about how she felt about being interviewed for that program.
Stephen: I think Amos Kloner as well...
Stephen: Was just very, very upset that his name was being attached to it in material that he had available to them was not being used that would disprove the case...
Stephen: Such as the ossuaries that were in there, and the 10 ossuaries, and where the tenth one went; all of that. He was just very frustrated that the truth was not getting out.
Darrell: Yeah, in fact, that was an interesting interview because we asked the question, we asked one question and he was off. I don't think I asked another question for another 10 or 15 minutes. He just told the story and this is actually available on my own blog. We did the interview and taped it, but we ask one question and he's off and running. He had stuff he wanted people to hear.
Mark: That's great. This ossuary box- this burial box- were the bones of a deceased person. It was discovered in 1980. Why has it taken 27 years to make a splash?
Darrell: Well I think the short answer to the question is the people who produced this special have made something out of it that the experts who worked with the material never thought was there. They did do a couple of things that hadn't been done before.
They did do the DNA testing on two of the bone boxes. And they did work with the statistical likelihood of this being Jesus' family or not on the basis of a whole series of assumptions that had to be in place before you get there. That's what took this from the realm of complete speculation to the giving it an air of plausibility--those two moves.
Because whenever you combine forensics with archeology, it looks like you're combining science and history. Whenever you can give the impression that that's what's going on it, leaves a powerful sense to someone who doesn't know what's behind all that.
Stephen: But Darrell, the DNA really was only able to prove that the two boxes, the people in the box were not related.
Darrell: Exactly right.
Stephen: So it was not really helpful at all.
Stephen: And then to claim that these two were therefore married...
Stephen: Is a huge conjector.
Darrell: And in fact at the Koppel special, they quoted a forensic scientist who said, "This proves next to nothing." Erwin Lutzer, I was talking to him about this, pastor of Moody Church up in Chicago. He said that the illustration he likes to use is that it's like proving that you're not related to anyone else in church who's not a member of your family, which is most of the people who are there.
So it's that kind of mood, but they laid it out systematically in a way that again, gave the impression of plausibility. One of the things, in writing my report, I would say, "Well, this is the next move that they need to make, in order to give this some credibility." Inevitably, the special would go there.
One of the things that made this special so interesting to me was that the process of doing the archeology in the special was actually very well laid out. You know, what does it mean to fall upon a site? What do you have to do to get to it, physically? You know, all those things that go with archeology were beautifully documented in the special; and in that sense, it was very much up to Discovery Channel standards. The problem was all the interpretation that was coming with each of those steps. So all this aired, gave a feel of plausibility to everything that was going on. That became the problem.
Mark: Darrel, you were on the panel. On the Ted Koppel special, there were two panels. There were archaeologists, historians, and then there was a set of religious representatives.
Darrell: That's right.
Mark: You were on there with two other people; and I was fascinated by their answers to the question. It's probably the big question in this whole thing - and that is, "If the bones of Jesus were found, would it make any difference to one's faith?"
Darrell: Well, it would make a huge difference because even though I had fun answering the question and said it would tweak Christianity. It would be a big tweak. The point here is that the Christian faith has always affirmed a physical resurrection. In other words, we're not just talking about a soul going to heaven, a disembodied spirit going to heaven or something. When God redeems, He's going to redeem the entirety of the creation; and when He redeems us, He's going to redeem the entirety of who we are.
Now, that resurrection body is not exactly what we are now, obviously. You can see Jesus appearing and disappearing and that kind of thing; but there is a physical component to it. That's the point.
Well, what the special was arguing was not only that it didn't need to be physical, but interestingly enough in their promotional material this didn't make a big difference to Christianity. And so, you know, it's a good thing they weren't in my class. They'd have to re-take it. And so, it was amazing to me that they would even make this proposal.
But what was happening is that there are a group of scholars who work in early Christian history, in early Christianity -- who believe that Paul teaches, in I Corinthians 15, some form of a non-physical resurrection, because of the contrast between the flesh and the spirit in 1st Corinthians 15. So, the idea that Jesus could be raised and yet his bones be left behind was something their technical-historical experts told their production people was possible.
Simka Jacbovici, who is the force behind this special, is actually an Orthodox Jew. We actually had a conversation after the Koppel special and talked a little bit about it, because of my own Jewish background. He said, "Well, you know, I was being told this wasn't a problem." I don't know whether he was just trying to get himself off the hook with me afterwards or whether he really didn't see the problem; but that's actually what we talked about after the special - why the resurrection had to be physical and the church is taught that from the very beginning.
Stephen: Darrell, aren't some of these men who are doing this early Christianity also relying on some of the Gnostic teaching that resurrection is really not needed or, since the body - the physical - is evil, that something like this really isn't needed?
Darrell: Yes, I mean, some of it is an influence of the Gnostic background; some of it is the influence of just Greek thought. Many scholars working in New Testament studies today see the New Testament impacted as much by Greek background as Jewish background, that kind of a thing.
And so, you know, we ended up having on this special a pretty interesting exchange, over about five minutes, in which Jim Tabor and myself (he was the technical adviser, teaches Early Christianity at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte) about whether or not a physical resurrection is necessary for the Christian faith. Of course, I was arguing that it was; and he was arguing that it wasn't.
He was arguing that that's what Paul argued in I Corinthians 15, and I was arguing that a physical resurrection is what Paul was arguing in I Corinthians 15. So people got to see a little five-minute give and take on that passage which really was about the heart and core of the Christian faith, in terms of not only the importance of the resurrection being physical, pointing to our own redemption, but also the importance of the resurrection as kind of God's vote about who Jesus is.
You know, the theology of the New Testament is, and the theology of Christianity has been, that when God raised Jesus from the dead, he ended up at the right side of the Father, that he shared God's presence and glory, which is a reflection of who he is. The resurrection is kind of a window into that, because the debate going into the crucifixion is: Is the Jewish leadership right in saying that Jesus blasphemed or was Jesus right in claiming that he could sit at the right hand of the Father? Well, the resurrection was God's vote on that matter; and so, all this then becomes very, very important and very much a hub teaching and doctrine of the Christian faith.
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