Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Family Plot?

A great deal of media and scholarly attention has recently focused on the purported discovery of the family burial plot of, among others, Jesus, his wife, and their child. The details of the evidence are easily found via media sites and blogs but still slowly emerging. The key arguments include the interpretation of the inscriptions on the ossuaries found within the cave and statistical analysis of the probability that this collection of names is anything but a coincidence.

Like any finding that too easily solves a pernicious problem or too quickly refutes a long-standing consensus, I am skeptical. This all seems just a bit too tidy. However, I am more concerned with the wider implications of this announcement and its reception amongst scholars and the media.

Curiously, some who regaled the James ossuary as evidence of Jesus' historicity are skeptical of the documentary. I wonder if the faithful are far too anxious to find historical validation for their beliefs, the cynic too keen to unearth damning evidence. In my mind, this is where serious critical scholarship can play a vital role. With the scope of centuries of scholarship in mind, such sensational findings are viewed within a broader perspective.

Ultimately, this case can lead to a critical question. Does "public scholarship" have to play by the rules of modern media? Do new academic findings incorporate some spectacular or provocative edge to gain a hearing in the noisy din of 24 hour news cycles? Is the fray of cable news, blogs, and talk radio the proper venue for academic dialogue? Scholarship done well proceeds with caution and caveats, for higher education is a continuing reminder that many thinkers have preceeded us, that we stand in the wake of many scholars who have both prophetically incisive, disastrously flawed, and everything in between.