Saturday, September 21, 2013

James Tabor Continues To Make A Fool Of Himself

Another sensationalistic headline in Huffington Post Religion: Bathtub Unearthed In Jerusalem May Have Belonged To One Of Jesus' Enemies (PHOTOS). Another headshake-inducing interview with Professor James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, infamous for suggesting that the "James Ossuary" once held the bones of the brother of Jesus Christ and giving some undeserved appearance of credibility to that charlatan and non-archaeologist, the Naked Archaeologist.

You really ought to expect this sort of thing from HP. It is what it is and its standards are what they are: pretty low. More, quite a bit more is usually to be expected from a full professor and department head at a major university, even if it is only the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte.

(Did Tabor very simply agree to say a certain amount of nonsensical things in exchange for a suitcase full of cash from the Naked Archaeologist? It wouldn't surprise me, and in a way it would be much less sad than if he really has lost his grip on certain realities.)

If HP didn't put "Jesus" in the headline they wouldn't get all these clicks from people who don't know or care about archaeology or ancient history and just want to argue about religion. ("Jesus is a myth." "Stay tuned... rumor has it Pontius Pilates' toilet has been excavated in the neighboring house." "I thought Jesus didn't have any enemies. You know, because he loved everybody right?" 3 actual posts, 3 of the 1st ones, quoted in their entirety. Oh, ha ha ha. Hee hee heee. Ho. Ho. Ho.) Tabor, a professor of Religious Studies, ought to be a bit more disciplined with his statements, but his own words give him away: ""From what we get in the Gospel, the Sadducees, or the aristocratic priestly class, they were [...]" etc etc. He begins by assuming the accuracy of Bible passages, and then trying to make the archaeological evidence for them. It should be closer to the other way around. I'm not saying that the Bible should be disregarded altogether when investigating history. Of course not. People who declare, "The Bible is fiction," and then stand there like they think they've said something profound which is all that needs to be said on the subject of the Bible and history, are clowns, every bit as silly as anyone else.

We possess a few different written sources on the history of Western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries. Not very many, but more than one, from independent sources, and so we can compare them with each other. If the Nibelungenlied were the only one we had, it would be tremendously important for the study of that history. (It's not entirely without importance as it is.) Analogously, the Bible, because it is the only written source we now possess for many episodes of history, is of tremendous historical significance.

But of course we can't read any piece of writing uncritically, whether it's the Iliad or Genesis or the Gospels or Gregory of Tours or Beowulf or the Nibelungenlied or Edward Gibbon or even The Wrong Monkey. It may be that the Gospel portrait of the Sadducees is accurate. But Tabor well knows that the Gospels were written by enemies of the Sadducees, and that enemies in all times and places have had a tendency to be unfair to one another, and that in ancient writings, by and large, this tendency was quite strong, and that the authors of the Gospels were not an exception to this rule.

Or at least he ought to know all of this very well, and constantly keep it in mind when sifting through texts such as the Gospels and wondering what parts of them might be true or partly true.

And he ought to make all of this especially crystal-clear when talking in an interview to be used in a piece of news presented to a lay audience. When referring to Gospel accounts of the Sadducees, a warning to take possible bias into account ought to be the first thing out of an expert's mouth. Communicating things like that are a very important part of Tabor's job, and he hasn't been doing it. His standards should be much higher than those of some outlets like the Huffington Post, and lately, they haven't been. Great for sensationalism, terrible for the advancement of learning. In a typical piece about archaeology in the Huffington Post or USA Today, it can be pointed out that the sensationalistic headline doesn't actually reflect what the expert is quoted as saying. Tabor is supposed to be the expert here. The grown-up, the authority. He's anything but these days, but he worked his way up to his current position by behaving in quite a different manner, and tenure is a bitch.

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