Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Ralph (1)

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. ~Daniel J. Boorstin

A little while ago, I wrote about the Discovery Channel's latest attempt at fractured history, the "discovery" of the Jesus Family bone boxes. I don't know how they avoided putting something about "decoding" into the title, since they rolled out all the Mary Magdalene-had-Jesus'-baby stuff again, but apparently they felt some restraint was in order.

I didn't watch this farce. While I might be willing to take a look at the Gospel of Judas (which has some redeeming value in showing Gnostic thought) or coded messages about Templar treasure (which provides some entertainment in showing how far people will go to find a code where there is none), I draw the line at using some Hollywood personality to hype a shaky hypothesis.

Stephen Pfann probably wishes he hadn't had anything to do with it either. Unfortunately, Dr. Pfann did allow himself to be interviewed and does apparently appear in the show, albeit briefly. He has now come out and said quite clearly that Mr. Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, the program's director, are talking through their hats. To the point, he says that the box marked "Mariamene e Mara", which the show said was "Mary the Teacher" (and then extrapolated that to say it must be Mary Magdalene) actually was "Mariame kia Mara", which means "Mary and Martha." In other words, two women's bones were in the box. Moreover, Dr. Pfann says unequivocally that "kia Mara" was added later by a different hand. (His own detailed explanation is here.)

Putting more than one person's bones in a bone box was not unusual, nor was the practice of adding the name or names at that time.

Mr. Jacobovic, of course, disputes this with the devastating argument, "Anyone who looks at it can see that the script was written by the same hand." This is the same argument that kept Piltdown Man in anthropology texts for fifty years.

But what really irritated me was Mr. Jacobovici's answer to the various critics of his "discovery". He said, "What we're doing is democratizing this knowledge, and this is driving some people crazy."

What exactly does democracy have to do with this? Does Mr. Jacobovici suggest that scientific discoveries be subject to a vote of the people? Creationists everywhere would rejoice; they could vote Darwinian evolution out of existence (which they've already tried to do in several U.S. locations). Einstein could have rallied support to have quantum theory banished, although his theories of relativity might have been voted down for being too weird as well.

If we're going democratic with science, by golly, I want a vote on string theory right now.

I suppose what he really means is that he wants to more widely disseminate the information so people can make up their own minds. This is a laudable goal, so long as you accurately represent said information. It appears that Mr. Jacobovici, like the Naked Archaeologist, Graham Hancock, and Eric Von Daniken, is willing to play a little fast and loose with the facts. Ignoring expert analysis in favor of "anyone can see" is a typical defense of those who with weak arguments.

Certainly, experts have been wrong over the years, but when they are it tends to be because they either have a preconceived notion that they are trying to defend, or they haven't taken the opportunity to closely examine the evidence. The aforementioned Piltdown fiasco is an excellent example of both sins. It suited British academia to imagine that the missing link would be found in their land, and no one took a serious look at the bone fragments for years, taking the word of the discoverers instead.

Mr. Jacobovici would, no doubt, prefer that today's experts be willing to take his word for it rather than critically examine what he has put forth. Unfortunately for him and for Mr. Cameron, no one is buying in. It's probable that they sincerely believe what they are presenting. It just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Maybe next time they can find Mary Magdalene's skull.

(1) Old Catholic school kid joke. Ralph was the milkman.

No comments: