Congressman Implies Archaeology Not in the "National Interest"; Plus: James Tabor Defends Talpiot Tomb
I don’t usually bring up political issues, especially not at the granular level of government appropriations, but a piece by anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce at Berkeley is important enough to call attention to. Joyce reports that Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) implied that archaeological research is not in the national interest. The conservative representative issued a press release about HR 3293, a bill that would require the National Science Foundation to justify all of its funding requests by demonstrating how they meet the national interest. In that press release, Smith provided five examples of grants he considered non-essential to America’s national interest. Three of these five were archaeology projects, even though archaeology represents less than 0.12% of NSF research funding. All three archaeology projects, not coincidentally, had implications for how humans adapt to climate change, according to Joyce.
The remaining two examples involved funding for a video game and for research into National Geographic nature photography. Smith also criticized the NSF for other climate-related projects not on his bulleted list.
Smith said that archaeology and other “questionable” research takes money away from “worthwhile scientific research” into technological such as “lasers” and “nanotechnology.” His list made quite clear that he strongly prefers the applied sciences over research with less immediate practical application, or research that might threaten political or social ideologies.
Smith has been pushing to politicize the NSF since at least 2013, and he has consistently advocated for more House oversight (read: Republican supervision) of NSF funding, presumably so that only politically advantageous science be conducted.
HR 3293 was introduced in July 2015, passed the House last week, and is currently in Committee in the Senate, pending a vote.
Meanwhile, on a completely different topic, the religious studies scholar James Tabor wrote a lengthy blog post yesterday rebutting a 2014 CNN.com article criticizing claims made for the Talpiot tomb as the final resting place of Jesus and his family. I’m obviously no expert in first century Judea and can’t begin to evaluate the accuracy of Tabor’s various statements, but I was troubled by the underlying assumptions that are not, strictly speaking, logical. Therefore, for our purposes, I will assume that Tabor is correct about the names inscribed on the ossuary boxes.
Tabor believes that the Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem is that of Jesus of Nazareth, though what he means by that name is perhaps the crux of the argument. Tabor does not believe that the Gospels are an accurate account of the life and times of this Jesus, and as a result, he is free to reconstruct the story of Jesus using assumptions and preferences that happen to fit with the supposed evidence of the Talpiot tomb. The trouble I have is that if we discount the Gospels as a source for the life of Jesus, we aren’t left with very much to determine whether the Talpiot tomb is in fact that of the historical figure presumed to stand behind the Gospel accounts.
In his analysis, Tabor explains that we simply don’t know enough about Jesus to exclude the Talpiot tomb as the one belonging to him:
The main problem with this objection is the assumption that we have something called “the Jesus story” that can serve as a control for what fits or does not fit archaeologically with the historical Jesus. What we have to realize is that our textual traditions (primarily the N.T. gospels) are not only late (post-70 CE), but extremely limited and fragmentary theological proclamations. Understandably, they are mostly silent in providing any basis for such exclusionary statements as to who “belongs” or does not belong in the “Jesus story”–much less the extended Jesus family. So the assertion that “Matthew” is not a part of the Jesus family “according to the Bible” is naive and misleading.
But this claim undermines the entirety of the argument for the tomb being that of Jesus of Nazareth as well. If the Gospels are limited, incomplete, and unreliable, then how might we adjudge, other than through prejudice and preference, which verses to accept and which to reject? Tabor presents in another blog post a very long discussion of his preferred version of the Jesus narrative, which he assumes to be an authentic account abstracted through textual analysis by stripping away all of the later encrustations. However, logically speaking, Tabor, even if correct, does not discover the “true” story but rather the oldest account, which may or may not be true in a literal sense. I can’t help but (blasphemously!) think of how we would reconstruct the death of Elvis if all we had were National Enquirer stories about how his corpse was substituted for a wax mannequin. These articles name real people and refer to real events, even if the story itself is false.
Similarly, even finding the entire Gospel family of Jesus inscribed on ossuaries in one tomb doesn’t prove it was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth in a strictly logical sense, even if one does not accept, as Tabor does not, that the collection of Biblical names could occur by coincidence. For example, it would be equally logical to argue that the Gospel writers might have generated character names for the family of Jesus by using the inscriptions from a known tomb that shared the name of Jesus, mistaking it for the “real” Jesus. (After all, as a family tomb, people went in and out all the time, so it wasn’t always sealed.) Once one admits that the Gospel accounts aren’t accurate or trustworthy, then there isn’t really any support for relying overly much on specific character names unless they can be shown to exist outside the Gospels.
All of this, though, is important primarily for Christians who accept the doctrine of bodily resurrection and would be very upset otherwise. Tabor believes that the first Christians believed only in spiritual and not bodily resurrection and therefore weren’t interested in bones. He’s probably right on that point. For our purposes, the tomb story is important because fringe believers don’t just want the Talpiot tomb to be the tomb of Jesus but to have been known and venerated as the tomb of Jesus, and the center of a cult built around the marriage and children of Jesus. That said, Tabor merely assumes marriage and children, and the tomb, even if genuinely that of Jesus, shows no evidence of marriage and children. Therefore, Tabor’s argument, which he presents as factual and logical, resolves into a series of assumptions, only some of which are supported by fact:
And the most important assumption of all: The Gospels are accurate when and where we want them to be accurate, and irrelevant where their factual accuracy cannot be proved or is demonstrably false.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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