Friday, April 06, 2007

Lessons from an Ossuary

Several weeks ago the media was saturated with discussion of an ossuary or bone box that according to some theorists held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, thus falsifying the Christian claim that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. I did not comment on the subject as it is not directly relate to the areas of focus of this blog, and archaeology is not my area of expertise. However, I would like to approach the topic from another angle to see if something might be learned by way of comparison.

As the ossuary story was discussed in the news it also made its way to various websites and blogs, and of course many Christian websites touched on the topic as well. I read several of them and a pattern quickly developed in that the response of Christians was predictably one of critique in terms of the authenticity of the box and the credibility of the claim that its existence questioned the truthfulness of Christianity's central truth claims. The Christian response to this topic was understandably apologetic and defensive in nature, and in my brief and unscientific review of Christian perspectives I did not find a single Christian writing on the topic who appreciated the opportunity provided by the story to reassess a commitment to Christianity. Neither did I find any Christians sharing their thanks for this story in destroying their faith in Christianity while simultaneously facilitating their transition to agnosticism, atheism, or some other metaphysical commitment.

Again, the Christian reaction to this story was understandable. In a way the documentary program on the ossuary functioned as rhetoric designed to undermine the credibility of Christianity's truth claims, whether it was consciously produced to accomplish this function or not. Of course, this was not the first time such rhetoric has made the rounds, as the claims of the Jesus Seminar from a previous decade remind us.

I think we can learn important lessons from the ossuary if we compare it to another context. Just as Christians were not positively predisposed to consider the falsification of one of their major truth claims when confronted with a critical documentary, but instead responded defensively and apologetically, I would suggest that adherents of new religions are likewise not predisposed to positively consider overt Christian challenges to their faith commitments. A case in point for illustration is the recent Jesus Christ - Joseph Smith DVD currently being distributed in the United States and Canada. It is extremely likely that Latter-day Saints will respond to the challenges presented in the DVD in exactly the same way that Christians responded to the challenges presented in the ossuary.

I think these considerations present us with some interesting possibilities for reflection. What lessons might evangelicals learn from a limestone box?


Anonymous said...

I think as Christians we need to be very careful in criticizing the beliefs of others. For instance, James Cameron believes these are the bones of Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the Bible. It would be folly to jump in and harshly criticize him and his beliefs. His agnostic/atheistic beliefs cannot be attacked and be persuasive. We must engage him as Christians. Likewise, we should not criticize Mormons. Their faith is based on the grounds that we are apostates following a fallen religion. As Morehead states, it would be irresponsible of us to aggressively present Christianity as true. We must always be ever vigilant not to offend others - lest they find reason to be offended in any way by our offensive behavior. We need to be looking for ways to cooperate on documentaries with James Cameron - if he sees we are willing to pitch in and help cricize our faith he will be more open to perhaps one day listening to us politely say we might have some truth that cannot be discounted by his bones theory. But we must be extremely careful and cautious otherwise his feelings may get hurt and he will become even more zealous in his lack of faith. Those who were converted to agnosticism by James Cameron's documentary don't need for Christians to assail their new found beliefs - we must seek to understand each other and work together. Harsh critcism could result in the burning of bridges that have taken weeks to establish. By all means do not engage the apologetical services of Dave Hunt, really - don't do it...not a joke - do not use Dave Hunt. And don't create some kind of false "news program" format such as "The Search for James Cameron's Brain" - like some kind of cheap infomercial - please, that is so 1985.

jason said...

This is a brilliant analysis, well laid out (with the nice sucker punch at the end - in a good way). The popular Christian reaction to Cameron's documentary is a good example of why a positive interaction, or dialogue regarding spirituality is more productive than any attempt to expose the falsehood of another's belief or worldview.

If Christian's believe that their faith is THE true faith, let it stand on it's own two feet without destroying other's faith. If they believe in the truth of the premise of their faith, the grace and mercy of God revealed through Christ's sacrifice, then allow that to achieve it's influence without undermining the premise of other's faith. If Christians believe the Spirit is at work in the lives of Christians and others, then allow the Spirit to do it's work in the circumstance of those people, and be a part of that process as opposed to proving to those in whose lives the Spirit is working that what they believe is untrue. Otherwise the walls go up, the listening stops, and the likelihood of genuine interaction with those ideas Christians are so eager to share decreases significantly.

lucedellaluna said...

I would hope that if this ossuary turned out to be the burial box for Jesus, that Christians would look at this as a positive instead of a negative break for them, this would then prove that Jesus did live, and would be historical proof for the Bible and his teachings.

As Pagans we are very curious as to how Christians are responding to this new information. There have been numerous discussions online and in person about how Christianity is evolving and how it is hoped that Christians will see these events as positive and strengthen your spiritual beliefs.

As Pagans we have known for some time now that Jesus was a living man and a great teacher, this only solidifies those beliefs.

Keep strong in your beliefs. Believe it or not, but Pagans are praying for you and hoping that this turns out for the best for everyone involved.

John W. Morehead said...

Luna, thank you for your kind and gracious comments. It is nice to know that concern over this issue comes from the Pagan segment of the religious community.

As to how Christians feel about the ossuary, I addressed this in my post when I noted the skepticism that the box has been met with. I think it is helpful to keep several things in mind in this regard. First, the box has been known for quite some time, and it is interesting that the documentary comes in connection with the Easter season, one of the highest times of the church's sacred calendar. Second, since the box was discovered it has been met with skepticism and caution from scholars inhabiting a variety of faith (and no faith) positions. Its authenticity and applicability to Jesus of Nazareth is far from established. Third, if it were indeed established beyond reasonable doubt that it did contain the bones of Jesus it would represent the death blow to orthodox Christianity as its earliest documents from the community attest with Paul's claim that if Christ was not raised bodily from the dead then faith in him and Christianity is useless (1 Cor. 15). Christianity has long claimed that God intervened in time and space in the first century to raise Jesus in vindication of his message. This is why the ossuary was met with such stern resistance by the Christian community.

Thank you again for the kind sentiments, and the opportunity to share a Christian perspective.