Mar 21, 2007

Skepticism and Faith

I recently received a form letter from Kendrick Frazier, editor of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, invinting me to subscribe to that publication. For those who don't know, the Skeptical Inquirer is a magazine dedicated to questioning and debunking myths, superstitions, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and other ideas that the publishers consider hair-brained--like religion. That I would get such and advertisement is not all that interesting. What was of interest was something Frazier said in that part of his letter where he set out a definition of the term "skepticism." He wrote: "skepticism is just a common-sense unwillingness to take anything on faith."

When I read that definition my first response was bewilderment. My second response was to chuckle. My third response was to shake my head in a brief exertion of pity for Frazier who is apparently in the grip of a powerful self-delusion. Why would I say that? Because it is patently and obviously false that anyone can live with an unwillingness to take anything on faith. That is, it is impossible not to take at least some things on faith. And if skepticism is defined as an unwillingness to take anything on faith, then no one is (or even can be) a skeptic--least of all Frazier and his skeptical cohorts at the Skeptical Inquirer!

Let me prove my point by listing a few items that I am fairly confident that Frazier believes but that he has no choice but to take on faith:

1. There is a mind-independent external world.
2. There are other minds than his own.
3. He has existed for more than 5 minutes.
4. His cognitive faculties (intellect, senses, etc.) are reliable.
5. Consciousness is a physical/natural phenomenon.
6. Evolution occured.
7. Science is the only (or most authoritative) source of knowledge.
8. He can live without taking anything on faith.

None of the above beliefs can be proven with certainty. Many of them cannot be proven in any sense, but must be assumed or presupposed. In either case, faith is involved.

Mar 5, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus Still not Found

Last night I watched the Discovery Channel special The Lost Tomb of Jesus. In the program, it is hypothesized that a tomb discovered in 1980 in Talpiot, Israel (near Jerusalem) held the bones of Jesus of Nazereth and his family, in particular, his wife Mary Magdalene and his son Jude, the Virgin Mary, and James, Jesus' brother. The clear and undisputed facts are that the tomb contained 10 ossuaries (bone boxes), one carrying the inscription "Jesus, son of Joseph," and others with the names "Mary," "Mariamne Mara," "Jude, son of Jesus,"and "Matthew." From these facts, it is (tentatively) concluded that this timb is very likely the tomb of the Jesus worshipped by Christians for 2,000 years.

The problems with this hypothesis are so numerous that it would take a book to explain them all. Below I will briefly mention a few of the more prominent problems. For those who want more, let me encourage you to take a look at the blogs of NT scholars Ben Witherington and Darrell Bock:

The major problems, as I see it, are these:

1. The statistics. The maker of the documdrama hired a statistician who concluded that there was a 1 in 600 chance that the tomb was NOT that of Jesus of Nazareth. IOW, it is a high probability that this is Jesus' family tomb. But, this conclusion is based on some unwarranted assumptions. First, that the first "Mary" in the tomb was the "Jesus" in the tomb's mother. There is no evidence to indicate that. It could have been a sister, a cousin, a wife, etc. Second, there is no evidence that the second "Mary" (Mariamne Mara) was Jesus' wife--again, even given the DNA testing, it could have been a half-sister or a cousin or an aunt. So, the program is totally bogus when it asks how many Jesus's in Jerusalem would have had a father named Joseph, a mother named Mary, and a wife named Mary, and then concludes that it's 1 in 600 that this wasn't Jesus of Nazareth. What should have been asked instead was how many Jesus's in Jerusalem would have had a father named Joseph and two female relatives named Mary--and the answer is: a whole heck of a lot! Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were very common names in 1st-century Israel (e.g., 1 in 4 women were named Mary!). One statistician on Witherington's blog calculates that the actual odds that this IS Jesus' tomb are (at best) 1 in 400--IOW, highly unlikely! And if you throw in the fact that we have no evidence at all (outside this tomb) that the NT Jesus had a son or a close relative named Matthew, then the odds get even worse.

2. The Names. The program postulates that Mary Magdalene was also known as Mariamne (a dimunitive form of Mary), and they cite a second century Gnostic text, The Acts of Philip, as proof. There are two problems here. First, there is no evidence from the first century to confirm this view (Mary Magdalene is consistently referred to as "Mary" in the NT) and simply taking the Gnostic text's word for it is anachronistic. Second, the Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is described as the the sister of Philip and is nowhere identified as Mary Magdelene. Also, the show says that the term "Mara" on the same ossuary means "master", and thus shows that Mariamne (Mary) was a leader in the Christian Church and this supports the view that it was Mary Magdalene in that tomb. However, "Mara" is a well-known, shortened variant of "Martha." So, the ossuary inscription simply reads "Mary Martha" and indicates either that one woman had two names or that two women were buried in the same ossuary.

Also, it is important to point out that Jesus is nowhere called by his friends and followers in any documents we have "son of Joseph" (cf. Luke 3:21). The fact that this phrase occurs on the ossuary is a huge prima facie reason to deny that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. And when we add that another name in the tomb (Matthew) is nowhere else associated with Jesus' family, the basis for that denial is even stronger.

Have they found the lost tomb of Jesus? I don't think so.