On the Christian Need for Relics: Holy Grail Edition

The Holy Grail, à la Monty Python

The Holy Grail, à la Monty Python

In the wake of yesterday’s post, “No, no, you DIDN’T find the Holy Grail,” I thought I’d take a moment to spell out what I believe to be the driving forces behind the constant need on the part of some to hunt for Christian relics.

For the purposes of this article, I define “relics” as both the physical remains of venerated individuals and the objects associated with them.

The reasons people seek out and claim discovery of relics can be boiled down to two general categories: money (including fame) and a confirmation of one’s faith (including hope and healing).

[Note: Much of what I say below was featured in my Inside Edition interview with Megan Alexander (Twitter) yesterday evening, where I responded to the most recent sensational, pseudoarchaeological claims made by a pair of Spanish authors claiming to have found the Holy Grail. And, Inside Edition was kind enough to post an extended version of the interview on their website, where I repeat some of what I say below.]

Let’s deal with the obvious reason first: money.

Religious relics are a HUGE business. Anyone who has ever traveled to Jerusalem or Rome can attest to just how influential religious tourism is in these regions, and how essential it is to their respective local economies. The spectrum of souvenirs sold by local shops ranges from ubiquitous pieces of artwork and religious literature on the one end, to much rarer objects like antiquities (both legal and illicit), and yes, relics and rumored relics on the other end.

But the money isn’t just made by shopkeepers and antiquities dealers; churches and museums (which are often one-in-the-same) bring in HUGE tourism dollars from pilgrims who will fork over large sums of money to view something that confirms their faith. (We’ll deal with confirmation of faith in a moment.) There are tickets to be sold and refurbishments of chapels to be paid for, and possession of a relic is one quick and easy way to attract both pilgrims and profits.

But money made from relics isn’t limited to those who possess the relics; authors of books and producers of television documentaries can make thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars producing literary and video content about the relics, even if they themselves do not possess them. Toss in an effective marketing strategy – one which almost always includes releasing the book or film (or both) on or around Easter or Christmas – and publishers can sell tens of thousands of copies of speculative books, and producers can sell sensationalized, factually-challenged documentaries to ratings-hungry cable networks, who are increasingly replacing substantive history programs with reality adventure fiction.

Thus, the business of relic hunts is one of the main driving forces behind the continued claims of holy relics.

The second reason relics are so popular is due to their role in confirming the faith of believers.

The fact is that people like to give their faith something tangible. In a world increasingly reliant upon evidence and verifiable data, relics offer a form of spiritual “evidence” that confirms one’s beliefs. People of faith crave evidence confirming the person of Jesus as well as the claims made about him.

But the desire for evidence is not a modern phenomenon.

We must remember that there is absolutely zero archaeological evidence that points to the existence of Jesus, and much less so that supports the claims made about him, such as his divinity, his miraculous powers, etc. And as for literary evidence, outside of the biblical text, there are no authentic references to Jesus from the first century CE. None!

Now, I should note that text of Josephus’ Antiquities (18 and 20) as we now have it does possess two references to the Jesus mentioned in the Bible. But, anyone who can read Greek (well) will quickly notice that these references to Jesus – commonly referred to as the “Testimonium Flavianum” – are Christian additions to the original text of Josephus that were added in an attempt to remedy the obvious (and somewhat embarrassing) problem that the best known, most prolific, and most knowledgeable historian of Jewish life from first century CE Palestine that we know of, Flavius Josephus, never once mentions Jesus. In all of his detailed histories of the events surrounding Herod and the Jews and all of the messianic pretenders he mentions, he never once mentioned Jesus of Nazareth. This was obviously a problem for early Christians, whose story of Jesus (with the dead being raised, and the earthquakes, and the eclipses, and healing stories, and the thrashing of the temple, and the crucifixion, and the resurrection, etc.) should have certainly merited mention in Josephus’ exhaustive chronicles had they actually taken place. (For more on this subject, see Richard Carrier’s blog post and JECS article.)

But there is silence about Jesus in the extra-biblical literature from the first century CE. That is, outside of the handful of Christians, who were producing literature about Jesus, there is no mention of him in the first century CE. (It’s also the likely reason for the apocryphal Letters of Paul and Seneca, which seek to elevate Paul to a status of a revered Roman philosopher in order to remedy the fact that he was never mentioned by any of his Jewish or Roman contemporaries. Cf. Bart Ehrman, Forged, 90-92.)

Thus, because of the lack of outside literary and physical evidence of Jesus and of the claims made about him in the biblical texts, early Christians sought out other various forms of “evidence” that could prove, at least to them, that Jesus was who he claimed to be. And this desire to find and confirm relics associated with Jesus was not limited to the poor Christian populace, but was an endeavor undertaken at that highest levels of authority, exemplified perhaps no better than by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the express purpose of acquiring Christian relics and memorializing the locations of significant moments in the life of Jesus by building chapels on them.

For this reason, Christian relics – especially those associated with Jesus like the “nails of the cross“, pieces of the “true cross“, the “holy spear” used to pierce his side, his burial shroud, and even fragments from his supposed tomb, etc. – have been the focus of scrutiny (and many, many books and documentaries) over the years. Relics allow Christians to touch what they believe to be evidence of Jesus, thereby confirming their faith.

Included within this confirmation of faith is the ancient belief that objects associated with Jesus possessed miraculous powers, and principal among them, healing powers. This tradition that objects associated with Jesus possess healing powers may stem from the biblical story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman found in Mark 5:24b-34, and paralleled in Matthew 9:19-22 and Luke 8:43-48.

Mark’s version of the story reads:

Mark 5:24b  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Mark 5:25  Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.
Mark 5:26  She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.
Mark 5:27  She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,
Mark 5:28  for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
Mark 5:29  Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Mark 5:30  Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
Mark 5:31  And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”
Mark 5:32  He looked all around to see who had done it.
Mark 5:33  But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
Mark 5:34  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Note that the woman in the story merely touched Jesus’ cloak, and that the text says that Jesus felt power go out of him. Luke 11:46 says, “But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.'”

This detail in the text implies that Jesus’ healing power can affect people who merely touch objects that touch him, and can do so even when he’s not consciously intending to perform a miracle. Again, in this story, Jesus is like a statically charged doorknob, whose power can be discharged by anyone wearing Uggs on a shag carpet making contact with him. In the story, the woman receives the healing simply by touching only his clothes, and Jesus confirms the act of touching by acknowledging that he felt power go out of him.

Because of stories like this, people likely began searching for objects, any objects, said to be associated with Jesus, hoping that they too might be the recipients of the unconsciously administered residual miraculous healing powers of Christ contained within the relics, thereby further confirming faith in Christ to them and to all who might witness the healing.

And when we add this story to Old Testament accounts of healing that arise from touching relics, such as the account of a man being resurrected from the dead after coming into contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha as recorded in 2 Kings 13:21, we can begin to understand how the obsession with discovering relics was not just about money, but about a confirmation of a faith that relies on miraculous accounts in the absence of archaeological evidence.

On Claims of the Holy Grail

Specifically addressing the recent claims of the discovery of a Holy Grail, let me remind readers that we know what common and industrial use cups from first century Palestine look like. There have been a number of archaeological discoveries that show us what common cups look like, including cups eligible for ritually pure meals. Such vessels can be found in the remains of the Burnt House in Jerusalem, and at Qumran – the site associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – where both stone and ceramic cups have been discovered, and most recently in the Mount Zion excavations in Jerusalem.

Stacked, V-shaped drinking goblets from Qumran made of Pottery dating to between the 1st C. BCE and the 1st C. CE. Height 26.5 cm (10 7/16 in.), diameter 16 cm (6 1/4 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (65-72). More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Stacked, V-shaped drinking goblets from Qumran made of Pottery dating to between the 1st C. BCE and the 1st C. CE. Height 26.5 cm (10 7/16 in.), diameter 16 cm (6 1/4 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (65-72). More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Limestone cup dating to the 1st C. CE. Cup (A): height 7.5 cm (3 in.), diameter 8 cm (3 1/8 in.) Cup (B): height 12.8 cm (5 in.), diameter 19.4 cm (7 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (38,39). Cylindrical cups of this type are frequently found in sites of the Second Temple Period. It is believed that their capacities correspond to the dry and liquid measures mentioned in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic laws governing all aspects of Jewish life.  The surfaces of these vessels were pared with a knife or adze, and their surface was left un-smoothed. The vertical handles rule out the possibility that they might have been produced on a rotating lathe. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Limestone cup from Qumran dating to the 1st C. CE. Cup (A): height 7.5 cm (3 in.), diameter 8 cm (3 1/8 in.) Cup (B): height 12.8 cm (5 in.), diameter 19.4 cm (7 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (38,39). Cylindrical cups of this type are frequently found in sites of the Second Temple Period. It is believed that their capacities correspond to the dry and liquid measures mentioned in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic laws governing all aspects of Jewish life. The surfaces of these vessels were pared with a knife or adze, and their surface was left un-smoothed. The vertical handles rule out the possibility that they might have been produced on a rotating lathe. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Large limestone goblet dating to the 1st C. CE from Qumran. Height 72 cm (28 1/4 in.), diameter 38.5 cm (15 1/8 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (37). This large goblet-shaped vessel was produced on a lathe, probably in Jerusalem, and is extremely well crafted. It is surprising that an ancient lathe was capable of supporting and working such a large and heavy stone block. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Large limestone goblet dating to the 1st C. CE from Qumran. Height 72 cm (28 1/4 in.), diameter 38.5 cm (15 1/8 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (37). This large goblet-shaped vessel was produced on a lathe, probably in Jerusalem, and is extremely well crafted. It is surprising that an ancient lathe was capable of supporting and working such a large and heavy stone block. More at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/art2.html

Stone cup from the

Stone cup from the “Burnt House” in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE. These implements were likely used for industrial purposes. For more: http://www.jewish-quarter.org.il/atar-saruf.asp

A 22-faceted, pared stone cup discovered in the Mt. Zion excavations in Jerusalem, inscribed with cryptic writing. For more: http://www.uhl.ac/en/resources/media/

A 22-faceted, pared stone cup discovered in the Mt. Zion excavations in Jerusalem, inscribed with cryptic writing. For more: http://www.uhl.ac/en/resources/media/

Let us also recall that Jesus and his disciples were poor, and that Jesus taught a renunciation of wealth (cf. Matt. 6:19, 24; 19:21; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 12:33; etc.). Thus, Jesus and his disciples most likely did not carry with them the sort of bling that is often the focus of grail claims.

And let us also remember that the “upper room” mentioned in Mark 14:15 and Luke 22:12 was likely a rented room (some even argue a Sukka) for two reasons. First, Passover was a pilgrimage festival in first century Palestine. They needed to find a place because Jesus and most of his disciples were said to have lived in Galilee and were not from Jerusalem.

Second, the Synoptic Gospels all record the story of Jesus instructing his disciples to find a man carrying a jar in Jerusalem who would lead them to an upper room where they were to prepare the Passover meal. Thus, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the room did not belong to Jesus or one of the disciples, but was a room made available to them for the Passover meal during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Thus, the cup that was used during the Last Supper was either provided by the owner of the rental room, or by Jesus’ disciples. The latter is not likely because the disciples were not likely to carry expensive objects as Jesus preached a message of the renunciation of wealth. And the former is unlikely because the owners of rooms rented to poor Passover pilgrims in Jerusalem were not likely to lay out the fine China. Next time you stay in a hotel room, look at the quality of the coffee cup provided to you. I’m guessing it’s not made of agate or gold.

Thus, if we accept a historical Jesus and a historical Last Supper, the cup used by Jesus would most likely be a nondescript stone cup – the likes of which archaeologists have uncovered in Jerusalem and Qumran and other sites throughout Roman Palestine time and again over the years. These stone cups are usually made of limestone (which is ubiquitous throughout Jerusalem), and are usually carved by paring facets in the cup from top to bottom, forming a roundish cup with handles sometimes carved from the stone.

So while gold and silver cups are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the Temple (1 Chron. 28:17) and various palaces (Gen. 44:2), while Roman and Egyptian glass vessels were made at the time, and while expensive precious and semiprecious stone cups were made from onyx, agate, jasper, chalcedony, sardonyx, and carnelian, it is most likely that these expensive cups would not have been used by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Rather, ceramic, or more likely, limestone cups would have been used for ritually pure meals like the Passover. Mishnaic regulations taught that stone vessels were insusceptible to impurities (m. Kel. 10:1; m. Oh. 5:5, 6:1; m. Par. 5:5; m. Miq. 4:1; m. Yad. 1:2; cf. m. Betz. 2:3), while ceramic vessels could potentially absorb impurities into the bodies of the vessels. Thus, because stone vessels were thought not absorb impurities like ceramic vessels, and were therefore preferable for the storage and pouring of liquids, especially in a ritually pure state, one might suspect that the cup used in a Passover meal in Jerusalem in the first century CE would have been made of common limestone, and not of the semiprecious and precious stones that would have been prohibitively expensive to Jesus and his disciples. Likewise, the cup would have been of simple design like the cups we find in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem and Qumran.

Finally, because the room was a rented room, the cup was either left in the room (if provided by the room’s owner), or taken with the disciples (if provided my them) after the meal. Either way, we have absolutely no record whatsoever of a chain of custody of any cup used in the Last Supper – an essential piece of evidence necessary to prove the provenance of an archaeological object, and therefore to confirm any credible claim of a “Holy Grail”. So even if – and this is a big IF – there were a Holy Grail, we would have absolutely no way of proving a cup was, in fact, the Holy Grail. Thus, the entire endeavor is sheer and unadulterated speculation.

Lest we forget, Easter is approaching. And thus ’tis the season for those who prey on the hopes of the honest faithful to make money by making sensational pseudoarchaeological claims related to Jesus…money made from those eagerly seeking a confirmation of their faith.


Views on Evolution by Members of Different Religious Groups in the US

In 2008, the Pew Research Forum published the findings of a survey they did examining the percentage of the US population who agree that human evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth by members of various religious groups.

Percentage of the US population who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

Percentage of the US population who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

The results are fascinating.

But first, here’s a fun exercise: find your religious faith tradition on the bottom of the chart, and look at the traditions to the left and right of you. This allows you to put into perspective your view on the scientific fact of human evolution.

The chart is powerful because it allows US citizens to see where they are on the relative scale of beliefs.

You will note that there are three natural statistical clusters:

To the left, there are the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and ‘unaffiliated’ (which could mean anything from atheist to agnostic to “spiritual” to “aliens did it”).

Then in the center, there are Catholics, Orthodox, Mainline Protestants (right at the 50% mark), Muslims, and Black Protestants.

Finally, at the far right, there are the Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The far right category doesn’t surprise me: these three religious groups have led the way in denying science outright for some time now.

Interestingly, the Muslim category was farther left than I expected, probably due to the fact that the media usually portrays Muslims as more fundamentalist than the national average. (Again, Muslims in the US are less likely to be fundamentalist, and therefore less likely to be seen on TV. Rational folks don’t usually end up on TV; just watch any news program or reality show.)

Other than that, there are few surprises. Historically, the most densely populated Catholic parts of the country are in the northeast, where the average demographic is more liberal/progressive and better educated than the national average. Black Protestants and Evangelicals demographically appear in the south, where things lean more conservative and people are less educated than the national average. (Even FoxBusiness says so.) This sociological reality may partially explain the results.

Again, the chart is powerful because it allows US citizens of particular faith traditions to see where they are (and to whom they are intellectually closest on the issue of evolution) on the relative scale of beliefs.

So where are you?

using religion for political gain: a response to rick perry

There are few things that piss me off more than those who use religion for political gain. I especially despise those who use faith in one interpretation of a religious belief as a wedge to marginalize a believer of a different interpretation. And, I particularly hate (yes, a strong word, but i HATES it) those who use religion to discriminate against others who do not share their particular religious belief, and to suppress their civil rights.

This is why everything that Rick Perry is bugs me. And now, his most recent political ad is nothing other than a political wedge ad simultaneously targeting Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith (about which he is usually (and rightly) silent, as it should not be a political issue in a secular nation where matters of church and state are to be separate) and Newt Gingrich (whose Baptist turned Catholic faith also receives little discussion from Gingrich). So, Rick Perry is out to capture the Evangelical Christian vote, and in doing so has produced one of the most ridiculous ads in history:

Now, in response to this ad, I must choose one of two routes: I can rail against folks who simply make stuff up. For instance, can kids really not pray in school, or can they not do so in an organized, school-sponsored fashion, as if they were in a private Christian school? And, are students really not allowed to celebrate Christmas, or are they taught to acknowledge that maybe not all kids in a public school profess the same Christian faith their parents have taught them to profess so proudly in class? (UPDATE: For rules about praying in public schools, read Dr. Paul Flesher’s article on the Religion Today blog entitled, “It’s OK to pray in Your School.” – see comments)

In his anti-gay political ad touting his religious faith, Rick Perry sports a jacket quite similar to the one worn by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

In his anti-gay political ad touting his religious faith, Rick Perry sports a jacket quite similar to the one worn by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

The other route of criticism would chastise Rick Perry for being upset that gays are not openly discriminated against in the military. Apparently, the ever-faithful Rick Perry believes that some Americans, who happen to believe differently than Rick Perry, should be disqualified from offering their lives in service to this nation precisely because they differ in religious belief from Rick Perry. (UPDATE: And is it coincidence that the jacket worn by Perry subconsciously matches the one worn by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain? HT: Al Schlaf – see comments)

I shake my head.

However, methinks I shall ultimately choose to fault Rick Perry for making things up, like falsely claiming that a president who doesn’t pander to the Evangelical right is somehow engaged in a ‘war on religion.’ Because that is precisely how you use religion as a weapon in a political campaign: you claim that anyone who does not believe precisely the same interpretation of Christianity as you do is engaged in a ‘war on religion.’ In doing so, Mr. Perry makes himself the Christian equivalent of the leader of an Islamic state, who believes the laws of their religion’s holy book should be the law of the land. Rick Perry is a sharia Christian (if such thing can be said to exist).

So, Dear Mr. Perry, this is why your numbers are tanking, and this is why people think you’re not qualified to be President (or speak the English language for that matter). You will never be President because you use your faith as a political wedge against your opponents, as a tool to discriminate against others, and as a weapon against those who don’t agree with you.

So, with a tip of my hat to Emory University Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Dr. Jacob Wright, for pointing me to this video, I offer you the perfect response to Rick Perry’s most recent exploitation of religion. This video by Rabbi Jason Miller makes the point, makes you think, and makes you laugh. Enjoy!

james mcgrath on our shifting view of literalism and reality in the bible

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath had an interesting post on his Exploring Our Matrix blog recently. In it, he argues that no one (if they’re honest) really believes that the God of the Bible exists anymore.

I’ll repost the argument at length here:

The title of this post is not a complaint; it is merely an observation. No one confronts the representatives of another tradition with a contest to see which one’s deity will send fire from heaven as Elijah did. No Christian blogger claims that those who comment negatively will be struck with blindness for doing so, as apostles did. God is depicted in many parts of the Bible as knocking down city walls, parting seas and so on. Yet no Christian dominionists are likely to march around Washington D.C. and see it fall into their hands.

Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest. Their pastor may have preached recently on the story of the fall of Jericho, but it was applied to God “making the strongholds of sin in your come life crumbling down”, not to a battle plan to take a city.

To be fair, not all Biblical authors view God in the same way. And so there is no single “Biblical view of God”. But certainly God as depicted in some parts of the Bible is not the concept of the deity served by Christians today.

The question a Christian needs to ask is whether they have the courage to admit that their view of God is not the same as that of many depictions in the Bible. Do you have the courage to take the Bible’s actual words completely seriously, even when the result is that you are forced to acknowledge that you do not accept their literal truthfulness?

Let me end with a couple of thought-provoking quotes from Don Cupitt’s book, which I just finished reading:

“The Virgin Mary may cure many people in Portugal but she is much less active in Libya, whereas vaccination and inoculation are observably beneficial – and equally beneficial – in both cultures, the local religion in the end making no difference at all” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.123).

“To put it bluntly, classical Christianity is itself now our Old Testament…We have to use traditional Christianity in the same way as Christianity itself has always used the Old Testament. In both cases there is a great gulf but there is also continuity of spirit and religious values…When a Christian sings a psalm he knows there is a religion-gap and a culture-gap, but it does not worry him because he believes his faith to be the legitimate successor of the faith of the psalmist. Similarly, since the Enlightenment there has developed a religion-gap and a culture-gap between us and traditional Christianity, but we may still be justified in using the old words if we can plausibly argue that our present faith and spiritual values are the legitimate heirs of the old” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.135).

I agree. The truth is that any Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally would be no different from the very sharia law fundamentalists they so vehemently criticize in Islam. Likewise, few actually believe that God actually works in those same ‘mysterious’ (read: literal, vindictive, destructive, directly miraculous, genocidal) ways anymore. Yet, if you ask Christians today how many of them believe in a ‘literal, inerrant, infallible’ Bible, that percentage would be quite high, especially among Evangelicals.

All of this is to say that anyone being halfway honest must admit that 1) we can’t read the Bible literally, and 2) our views of God are significantly different today than in the first Christian century, in spite of any myth among particular religious denominations that we believe and practice exactly what and how the early church believed and practiced.

on the virtues of doubt

question markI was invited by my friend Jason Boyett to write a piece on doubt for his blog, O Me of Little Faith. I wrote an essay entitled, “On the Virtue of Doubt: A Brief Autobiography of the Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” in which I discuss the influence that doubt, skepticism, and science have had in my life and career. I recount portions of my personal story moving from my Christian upbringing in central California to life as a scholar embracing science, evolution, and the critical method, and rejecting literalistic interpretations of the Bible. I describe my struggles with issues of faith and what I’ve learned from it all.

Please give it a read.

Lawrence Schiffman, Robert Cargill Interviewed Live on Israel National Radio’s LandMinds Program

Arutz Sheva's Israel National RadioI was interviewed live this morning on Arutz Sheva’s Israel National Radio on the LandMinds program with Barnea (Selavan) and David (Willner). Jim Long sat in for Barnea, who was away. NYU’s Dr. Lawrence Schiffman was interviewed in the first hour (mp3: part 1, part 2), and I was interviewed in the second hour (mp3: part 1, part 2).

Professor Schiffman answered questions about Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first hour and provided some wonderful insights and background to the study of the scrolls. In the first part of the second hour, I answered questions about Qumran and offered my opinions about the establishment of the site, its residents, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the role of virtual reality modeling in archaeology. In the second half hour, I answered questions about the history of archaeology, the role of scholars in public education, technology’s role in archaeological education, the importance of debunking pseudoscience and sensationalist claims, how to teach critical biblical studies without abandoning the faith and/or alienating people of faith, issues of biblical historicity and mythology, and finally answered the story about how I came to be Nicole Kidman’s private tutor.

Many thanx to David Willner and Jim Long for a wonderful interview. Don’t forget to add the LandMinds Facebook page.

LandMinds broadcasts live at www.israelnationalradio.com every Wednesday from 5-7pm Israel time, 3-5pm in the UK, and 10-12am EST. Shows are rebroadcast, and archived on the A7 and Foundation Stone websites for your convenience. Podcasts are also available on iTunes.

the purpose of worship

i find myself promoting some comments i recently made on worship to a blog post of its own. i feel that if one is going to criticize the practice of others and point out an injustice or a problem, then one ought to do something constructive as well, like offer a viable alternative. in this spirit, please allow me a few brief thoughts on the purpose of worship.

"Contemplation" by Jean Proulx Dibner. Bronze and Stone.

"Contemplation" by Jean Proulx Dibner. Bronze and Stone.

i have a fundamental difference of opinion with many others regarding the purpose of worship. this difference in the understanding of the purpose of worship is based upon a related difference in my understanding of what it means to live a life of faith. i seek enlightenment through knowledge and reason, allowing for the possibility of that which i cannot understand, but rejecting that which has been materially disproved, lamenting that which is ignorant, and attempting to shed light on darkness. a life of faith is not about a set of orthodox beliefs, but a set of adopted behaviors that rejects complacency and instead embraces a life dedicated to solving problems, be they intellectual or practical, individual or social.

a life of faith seeks to utilize one’s talents to help others. for me, a life of faith is to endow others with verifiable facts, teach them to reason, and encourage them to ask questions. a life of faith is one that understands the science of the physical universe, as well as the unquantifiable mysteries of love and beauty. a life of faith is neither about making money nor preserving money, but making sure that others have when they have need.

a life of faith should not revolve around proper doctrine and dogma, but service and compassion. it is not about being right; it is about admitting that we don’t know, and supplementing our ignorance with acts of kindness and service.

this understanding of a life of faith manifests itself in a particular view of worship. the goal of worship is not ecstasy, nor is it communion with the divine. in fact, the goal is not even about getting to heaven, as if proper behavior is somehow a means to an end, a capitalistic investment for a future return on my deposit. rather, the goal of a life of faith should be to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with god. it is to give the cup of cold water when i have one to give. it is to celebrate the joy, lament the sorrow, and laugh with (and at times at) that which is humorous.

for those who see worship as a pep rally, a concert, a money-making endeavor, or a charismatic communion with the divine, they have received their reward. rather, i view worship as an opportunity to say thank you. thank you for my life – good or bad – and for the opportunity to think, wonder, rationalize, philosophize, ponder, ask questions, discuss, learn, experience, and hopefully pass on both a balanced mindset of discovery and disposition of service to those around me.

worship is acknowledging and offering thanks for my very existence, the mere opportunity i’ve had to experience life itself.

if worship has any purpose at all, it is an opportunity to say thank you. it is not for us, but for god.

from jason boyett – noah’s ark found! robert cargill debunks!

Dr. Robert R. Cargill

Dr. Robert R. Cargill

here’s a piece from a friend and colleague, jason boyett. the picture’s a little older (beard is thicker w/ fewer grays), but the interview is new. he interviewed me about the recent claims of the discovery of noah’s ark and other issues of archaeology and faith. read it.

on the balancing act between faith and credible archaeology

i recently received a letter via facebook that asked an intriguing question: how does one do archaeology and still retain one’s faith?

the question alone gave me pause because it implied that doing science will ultimately lead one to renounce one’s belief in god, or at the very least shatter one’s theological understanding of the world.

this issue comes up again and again with students. essentially, archaeology students soon learn that while some of the passages and claims made within the bible are consistent with archaeological findings, many others are not. this quickly leads a person of faith to make one of two choices: either to cling to one’s faith and begin to look for alternate ‘methodologies’ that could explain the bible’s claims that are inconsistent with the archaeological evidence, or, to accept the scientific data and re-examine one’s religious preconceptions. afraid to admit that what they were taught or have believed for so long might be wrong, many students opt for clinging to their belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible and seek out new ways to interpret the data so that it is congruent with their preconceived beliefs. yet, this methodology leads only to poor science, even poorer interpretations of the data, and ultimately to misleading claims about the nature of the remains.

sometimes, archaeology is nothing more than boring rocks in the ground. but the true archaeologist does not seek out the big discovery that changes all we know in one amazing find, but rather gives his or her life to seasons of excavation and discovery, letting the evidence speak for itself until the larger picture of the social, economic, and yes, at times, religious makeup of the society is slowly revealed.

so for those seeking to balance faith and archaeology, here are a few tips:

  1. follow the data wherever it leads. sometimes the data doesn’t line up with the text of the bible. this is true about many sites and many verses. in some places, the text just isn’t supported by the evidence. this does not mean that the bible does not contain truth in other places, but it does tell us a lot about the author and the message the author was attempting to convey. remember, even the early church father origen offered a straightforward explanation of the preservation of factual truth within documents edited by human hands. in his commentary on john 10:4, origen says, ‘the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in material falsehood.’ just because a factual error exists in the text of the bible doesn’t mean that truth cannot still be conveyed.
  2. follow sound scientific methodology. if your methodology is good, your claims will be better received, and you (and/or your organization) will retain credibility. don’t fudge. take good notes, log everything (especially if it is contrary to your hypothesis), and don’t cut corners. methodical monotony is boring, but will be your friend in the long run. baby steps, small turns, an inch at a time. it is by the archaeological method employed that the academy will judge an archaeologist. credibility is earned over a long period of time, not with a single find.
  3. not every ‘biblical archaeology’ object is the same. just because noah’s ark and the holy grail are most likely legendary, doesn’t mean the ancient israelites didn’t carry a gold covered wooden box (the ark of the covenant) around in front of them when they marched into battle (like every other army at the time). each object is unique and should be treated as such. walls and pots are often (read: usually) more important than gold and silver. treat every object with respect, wash every sherd, and always check for writing.
  4. partner up. the best way to earn credibility as an archaeologist is to partner with and work for an established, credible archaeologist or excavation. don’t seek to strike out on your own too quickly. this requires substantial fundraising and once you begin asking for funds more than you dig, scholars begin to question your motives, your credibility drops, and your conclusions will be questioned more often. be humble. pay your dues. earn your stripes. and then, when you have established the credibility and education you need, work with the authorities to secure your own excavation.
  5. never, ever search for the ark of the covenant, noah’s ark, or the holy grail. adventure quests will always bring immediate derision and condemnation from the academy. never claim to be the first to discover anything; someone else has already done something similar. cite them! remember that most scholars rightly reject any primordial notion of god destroying the earth with a flood; they opt instead to see this story as a parallel to the gilgamesh epic or some other early flood narrative. sensational claims are the quickest way to expose oneself as a fundamentalist. know the literature, read, and always see what your opponents have to say before you make a claim.
  6. submit to the peer-review process. the most credible archaeologists submit to the peer-review process and allow their findings to be critiqued by the academy. submit articles for publication in refereed journals and present papers at national conferences. welcome criticism and feedback. this is the only way to ensure your that interpretations will gain the traction they need to become the accepted consensus.

ultimately, it’s not about what you believe, or even what you can prove. rather, a credible archaeologist or archaeology program is judged by the methodology it uses to reach its conclusions. if the science is good, and the results are published in credible journals, the program as well as the scholar will be a success.

notes from ucla lecture by harvard’s harvey cox entitled, ‘the future of faith’

Harvey Cox, Harvard University

Harvey Cox, Harvard University

tuesday evening i attended a lecture by harvard religion professor dr. harvey cox entitled, ‘the future of faith.’ the lecture was sponsored by the ucla center for the study of religion, and introduced dr. ra’anan boustan, who is taking over as director for the outgoing dr. scott bartchy, who has directed the center for 14 years.

professor cox spoke about his new book, ‘the future of faith,’ and made three brief points:

1. religion has not disappeared, it is growing. despite claims in the 60s that religion would disappear with the rise of science, it has not. in fact, religion has grown. pentecostalism is the fastest growing area, probably because of its simplicity and experiential focus. more xns now reside in asia, south america, and africa than in the traditional ‘christian’ areas of europe and north america. religion has not died, but it has transformed.

2. fundamentalism is dying. fundamentalism is not evangelicalism. sectarianism is dying because it requires too much energy in a socially networked world. sectarianism/fundamentalism requires physical and social isolation to thrive, but global communications, travel, and the internet (particularly social networking) puts the thoughts and ideas of all peoples within reach, harming fundamentalism. likewise, sectarianism cannot act politically, only unilaterally, because political success requires working with groups unlike one’s own. evangelicalism is shifting from a movement with a few large litmus issues (like abortion and the role of women or gay rights) to more complex issues of race, poverty, and social justice. evangelicalism is moving away from the ‘infallibility and inerrancy’ of the bible, to a place where the bible plays a role in instruction.

3. there is a change in the nature of religiousness. the change is characterized by a transition from doctrine to experience, from a hierarchical model to a communitarian one. doctrine has given way to issues of social justice. worship is now less geared towards an audience and more towards a participative experience. beliefs have given way to actions and a way of life way. dr. cox pointed out that there was no common creed for the first 300 years of christianity, yet it seemed to thrive. the rise of orthodoxy made christianity into more of an oppressive doctrinal system, one that is only now beginning to reemerge as a force for social justice rather than a political tool.

i agreed with many of the observations that dr. cox made. he noted the perceived rise of fundamentalisms in the muslim world is only the exception to the rule, and that this militancy has more of a nationalistic/tribal basis and less of a religious one (religion being the tool used inappropriately to bring about their desired political order). he was charming, confident, and humble. i enjoyed the lecture.

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