Easter is an annual rite of spring, and so it seems are new claims and books and television programs about the Jesus of history. This year is no exception, as a number of developments related to the Bible and archaeology are coinciding with the Christian remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Palm Sunday is April 1, marking the start of Holy Week observances that culminate with the celebration of Easter on the following Sunday, April 8.
The Jewish celebration of Passover – the feast of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt – also coincides with Easter this year, and stories about the historicity of the Exodus story are also often featured during this season. The first night of the weeklong observance of Passover is Friday, April 6.
This edition of ReligionLink provides background and resources on biblical archaeology to help journalists report on the latest claims and to assess discoveries that are bound to emerge in the future.
Discoveries and publications related to the historical Jesus and the New Testament have been most common this year. Among the developments:
- Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and biblical archaeologist James D. Tabor, professor and chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, claim to have discovered the earliest evidence of Christian belief in the Resurrection in a first-century tomb in Jerusalem. They also claim that the tomb, promoted in a television show and a book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (February 2012), bolster their 2007 claim to have found the tomb of Jesus’ family.
- Scholars and experts immediately disputed the latest claims, much as they did those in 2007. Read an April 4 story at Christianity Today about a blog set up on the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) website to provide a platform for scholars to react to the tomb story.
- After a nearly decade-long trial, Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan was acquitted of charges that he forged the inscription on a first-century ossuary that some claim held the bones of Jesus’ brother James, and was the earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars and experts who have long doubted the authenticity and interpretation of the bone box are quick to say that Golan’s acquittal does not validate the historicity of the ossuary.
- Daniel B. Wallace, a New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, in February revealed that he has found a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, which would be the earliest-known fragment of the New Testament. Wallace also said he had authenticated an early sermon on Hebrews and the earliest-known manuscripts of Paul’s letters. Wallace has revealed few details about the finds and says he will say more in a book on the discoveries to be published in 2013. But the prospect of such finds has set the biblical archaeology world abuzz and prompted intense debates about what it all could mean.
- A feminist theologian in England raised eyebrows, to say the least, when she claimed that Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite. In a paper titled “Intersex & Ontology, A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision,” Susannah Cornwall argues that it is not possible to know “with any certainty” that Jesus did not suffer from an intersex condition, with both male and female organs. The theory has few backers but is indicative of the kind of fascination – and speculation – that the historical Jesus engenders.
- Bart D. Ehrman, a leading New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a best-selling author on books about the historical Jesus, in March released a new book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. While Ehrman is himself an agnostic whose writings have ruffled the sensibilities of believers, he writes that a growing number of “atheists, humanists and conspiracy theorists” are arguing that Jesus never in fact existed – an idea he aims to debunk.
- Elaine Pagels, the Princeton biblical scholar whose books on the Gnostic gospels in the 1970s and 1980s were a huge success, has published a new book on the final and perhaps most controversial book in the New Testament. Her book is titled Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation and it has generated wide interest, including a write-up in The New Yorker.
- Craig A. Evans, author of the forthcoming “Jesus and His World,” lists his “Top Five” books on biblical archaeology in a March 27 post at Christianity Today‘s website.
Why it matters
Biblical archaeology’s shift from the ivory tower to the mass media has both fed and fueled an enormous public interest in the Bible and Jewish and Christian history. That interest has been welcomed by many religious leaders and scholars as an opportunity to educate a public that has a great stake in faith but often little knowledge of the history of religion. But this shift has also introduced elements of public relations and big money that require extra vigilance on the part of journalists who cover these stories. Moreover, the public’s fascination with religion, combined with its impact on so many areas of society, from culture to politics, is so great that various groups eager to push one agenda or another can try to exploit the latest discoveries to advance their particular viewpoint.
Biblical archaeology came to prominence in the 19th century because of a combination of factors, among them: a colonial Western, especially European, presence in the Middle East; a Western curiosity in “exotic” cultures and their histories; and a fascination with exploring the actual history of the Holy Land that mirrored a rise in biblical criticism in academia. See a Wikipedia entry on the history of the discipline. The outlines of the article are solid but as with any open-source Web page, details should be confirmed.
In 1945, the accidental discovery in Egypt of a cache of early Christian texts that were part of a school of belief known as Gnosticism — later rejected as heresy by the church and thought lost to history — generated interest in Christian origins. The gradual translation and interpretation of the Nag Hammadi texts (named after the village where they were found) maintained that interest. When The Gnostic Gospels by biblical scholar Elaine Pagels became a best-seller, the topic entered popular culture.
Similarly, the discovery of a hidden library of ancient Jewish texts, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at Qumran also fueled popular interest. The formation of the State of Israel the next year, in 1948, and subsequent easy access by archaeologists to biblical sites led to more discoveries.
Along with landmark revelations, there have also been a number of archaeological finds through the years that turned out to be hoaxes and frauds. Moreover, experts say that the field is especially volatile given the monetary value of the market in biblical antiquities as well as their potential use — or abuse — in claims and counterclaims by Jews, Christians and Muslims about the Holy Land.
The breadth of this “Indiana Jones” appeal is such that it seems that no major Christian or Jewish holiday can pass without a new theory or piece of evidence emerging that purports to confirm the accounts of the Bible or upend biblical tradition.
Debates over the authenticity and proper context of these and other discoveries regularly produce media sensations but also pose challenges to reporters and editors who are called on to write about these newsworthy announcements. These stories require historical perspective and a knowledge of the best scholarship in order to provide the necessary balance to what are often astounding claims. They also demand an ability to distinguish the elements of fact and faith that are often bound up in controversial arguments.
- Darrell L. Bock is a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a widely read author and commentator on popular controversies about biblical history. Contact 214-841-3715, email@example.com.
- James H. Charlesworth is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a widely quoted expert who has written extensively about early Christian texts. Charlesworth is also the editor of an important volume of essays by a range of biblical scholars called Jesus and Archaeology. Contact 609-497-7920, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Rev. Bruce Chilton is an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Chilton is the author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography and other books aimed at popularizing the latest historical research on the Bible. Chilton is also rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, N.Y. Contact 845-758-7335, email@example.com.
- Elizabeth A. Clark is a professor of Christian history at the religion department at Duke University in Durham, N.C. She is an expert on ancient Christianity and is past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History. Contact 919-660-3505, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bart D. Ehrman is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading scholar, author and commentator on early Christianity and the Bible. Contact 919-962-3940, email@example.com.
- Paula Fredriksen is William Goodwin Aurelio Chair Emerita of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. She specializes in the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity, from the Late Second Temple period to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. She has written and commented widely on modern biblical controversies. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Richard A. Freund is a professor of history and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. He is a field archaeologist and has written extensively on biblical archaeology, from the Exodus story to the origins of Christianity. Contact 860-768-4022, email@example.com.
- The Rev. Daniel Harrington is a Jesuit priest and a prominent biblical scholar at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Contact 617-552-6519, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Julie Galambush is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. She is a former Baptist minister who converted to Judaism and is author of The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book. Contact 757-221-2183, email@example.com.
- The Rev. Robin Griffith-Jones is an Anglican priest and Master of the Temple Church in London. Griffith-Jones is a New Testament scholar and became a popular commentator in the wake of the success of The Da Vinci Code, which sets a key scene at the Temple Church. Griffith-Jones is the author of several books, including The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler and the Mystic. Contact 011-44-207-353-8559, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Karen L. King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and a leading scholar and author on early Christianity. Contact 617-496-3398, email@example.com.
- Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. She is a widely quoted Jewish expert on early Christianity. Contact 615-343-3967, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jodi Magness is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in the archaeology of early Judaism, especially the excavations at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Contact 919-962-3928, email@example.com.
- Scot McKnight is a professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University, an evangelical college in Chicago. McKnight is a well-known author of books about Bible history. He is co-editor, along with James D.G. Dunn, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Durham University in England, of The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, a collection of essays by leading Bible scholars. Contact 773-244-5783, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Marvin Meyer is the Griset Professor of Bible and Christian Studies and co-chairman of the department of religious studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He is a widely quoted expert on early Christianity with special focus on the Gnostic gospels and other texts from the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Contact 714-997-6602, email@example.com.
- Eric M. Meyers is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a widely published author on biblical archaeology. Contact 919-660-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Elaine Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University in New Jersey, an expert on the Gnostic gospels and a best-selling author who comments frequently about issues in early Christianity. Contact 609-258-4484, email@example.com.
- James M. Robinson is the former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the school of religion at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif., and a professor emeritus at the school. He is a widely respected author and authority on the Nag Hammadi Library. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Rodney Stark is a well-known sociologist of religion who has frequently delved into the historical aspects of Christian origins, in books such as The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History and Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. Stark is currently at the department of the sociology of religion at Baylor University in Waco but spends much of his time at his home outside Albuquerque in New Mexico. Contact email@example.com or through his website.
- L. Michael White holds the R.N. Smith Endowed Chair in Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin and is director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. He is a frequent media commentator on biblical archaeology and appeared in the PBS series From Jesus to Christ. Contact 512-232-1438, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Hershel Shanks is the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, based in Washington, D.C., and editor of the society’s publication, the Biblical Archaeology Review. Shanks and the BAR are alternately praised and pilloried for efforts to “popularize” biblical archaeology. They were a driving force behind efforts to promote the so-called James ossuary in 2003. Contact 202-364-3300, email@example.com.
- ASOR, or the American Schools of Oriental Research, is an association founded in 1900 and dedicated to promoting archaeology in the Near East and a better public understanding of the field. ASOR is overseen by some of the top archaeologists in the field.
- The Society of Biblical Literature was founded in 1880 and is the pre-eminent academic organization for promoting biblical scholarship. The society has an annual meeting (usually in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), and its website offers a range of valuable resources.
- The Catholic Biblical Association is a leading organization of biblical scholars, numbering more than 1,200 around the world. The Rev. Joseph Jensen is executive secretary of the CBA, which was founded in 1936 and is based at Catholic University of America. Contact 202-319-5519.
- The Bible and Interpretation is a scholar-based and moderated website that provides a roundup of articles, commentary and other resources on the latest issues in biblical archaeology. The site is maintained by Mark Elliott of Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., with the sponsorship of a number of other institutions. Contact Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jennifer Knust is an associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the school of theology at Boston University. She is the author of Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity. Contact 617-358-4222, email@example.com.
- Dale Martin is the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies and specializes in New Testament and Christian origins at the department of religious studies at Yale University. He specializes in the social and cultural history of the Greco-Roman world. Contact 203-432-0747, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Shaye J.D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations of Harvard University. Cohen is a leading authority on ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Contact 617-496-6422, email@example.com.
- The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Jesuit priest, is a renowned biblical scholar and professor emeritus of biblical studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Contact 202-687-4273, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Lawrence H. Schiffman is vice provost for undergraduate education at Yeshiva University in New York City. He is an expert on late Jewish antiquity and early Christianity. Contact 212-960-5217, email@example.com.
- James H. Charlesworth is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written extensively about early Christian texts. Contact 609-497-7920, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Luke Timothy Johnson is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is a prominent writer and commentator on ancient biblical discoveries. Contact 404-727-6339, email@example.com.
- James F. Strange is a professor of religious studies and a biblical archaeologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Contact 813-974-1859, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- B. Diane Lipsett is an assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the divinity school at Wake Forest University. She specializes in early Christian literature. Contact 336-758-5121, email@example.com.
- Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He is a prolific author and regular commentator on biblical archaeology and history. He also has a blog. Contact 859-858-3581, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Stuart A. Irvine is an associate professor of Old Testament and Israelite religion at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Contact 225-578-6528, email@example.com.
- The Rev. Donald Senior is a Passionist priest and president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is a well-known New Testament scholar and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Commission. Contact 773-371-5420, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Charles W. Hedrick is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and has written extensively on early Christianity and ancient texts. His books include When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus. Contact 417-831-5514, email@example.com.
- Mary Rose D’Angelo teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. She has written extensively about early Christianity and women in Scripture. Contact 574-631-7040, Mary.R.DAngelo.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Roy Heller is an associate professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Contact 214-768-2096, email@example.com.
- Laura Hobgood-Oster holds the Elizabeth Root Paden Chair in Religion at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. She has written about Mary Magdalene and Gnosticism and esoteric Christianity. Contact 512-863-1669, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dennis E. Smith teaches New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., and is a member of the Ancient Myths and Modern Theories of Christian Origins Seminar, which is sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature. Contact 918-270-6442, email@example.com.
- Risa Levitt Kohn is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University. She was also curator of the June 2007 Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Contact through the main department number at 619-594-5185, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Michael Allen Williams is professor of comparative religion and Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written on Gnosticism, ancient texts and religious secrecy. Contact 206-543-4950, email@example.com.
- Karen Torjesen is dean of Claremont Graduate University’s school of religion and Margo L. Goldsmith Professor of Women’s Studies in Claremont, Calif. She teaches the early history of Christianity and women and early Christianity. Contact 909-621-8066, firstname.lastname@example.org.