Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An argument over nails

An old proverb, variously attributed to the Arabs and to the Chinese, says, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  In a striking example of this principle, in yesterday's news we find a story about religious history that has resulted in what may be a first: something that atheists and devout Christians seem to be in complete agreement on.

Simcha Jacobovici is a filmmaker.  There are sites that call him an archaeologist, but that seems to be a leap; he's done a number of film documentaries about archaeological sites in the Middle East, but as far as I can tell that's the limits of his archaeological training.  Most of his films have been fairly obscure,  but recently he has leapt into the spotlight with an interesting claim -- that he has discovered two of the nails used in Jesus' crucifixion.

Jacobovici's claim rests on the assertion that the tomb where they were found belonged to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest whom the gospels assert was the man who turned Jesus over to the Romans.  The nails, Jacobovici states in an interview, were bent in such a way as to keep a crucified man's wrist from pulling free, and that there would have been no other reason to keep the nails unless they had been important.

"Caiaphas was not a man who sent thousands to be crucified," Jacobovici said.  "He is known to have caused the crucifixion of one man and one man only, and that is Jesus."

The claim is a fairly tenuous one right from the start.  To begin with, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is doubtful that the tomb belongs to the Caiaphas of the gospels.  That assertion, and therefore the rest of Jacobovici's argument, a spokesperson stated, "has no basis in archaeological findings or research."

Even if it is Caiaphas' tomb, the rest of the argument relies on some pretty flimsy logic.  Jacobovici's statement that Caiaphas is known to have turned only one man over to the Romans is true, but the key word here is not "only" but "known."  We know next to nothing about Caiaphas' life other than the couple of lines in the gospels that mention him (there is also a brief mention of him in Acts as having been present at the trials of Peter and Paul).  In any case, there is not a shred of evidence to back up Jacobovici's claim that Caiaphas had the nails buried with him out of guilt over Jesus' death.

So, as far as I can tell, Jacobovici's argument runs something like this:  a couple of nails that look like they may have been used in a crucifixion were found in a tomb that may or may not have belonged to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest of the gospels.  We can imagine that Caiaphas might well have felt bad about sending Jesus to his death.  Conclusion: the nails were the ones used in Jesus' crucifixion, and Caiaphas commanded that he be buried with them because he felt guilty.

This claim has resulted in howls of derision from two different groups -- from serious archaeological researchers, who decry Jacobovici's methodology (to use the word fairly loosely), and from devout Christians who are understandably concerned about such claims further eroding public confidence in the evidence for the veracity of the gospels.  Both camps consider the film a cheap publicity stunt, a view I entirely share.  Jacobovici seems more concerned about turning a quick buck in such venues as The So-Called History Channel than he does about serious scholarship.

Jacobovici, of course, is defiant.  "It's easy to scoff," he said, in an interview on ABC News.  "But it's hard to do three years of investigation, which I've done. Could it be that these are the nails? You ask the question, you don't scoff."

Actually, Mr. Jacobovici, what you do is you examine the evidence with a skeptical mind; you don't make claims based on a chain of logic the consistency of taffy, and expect us to believe you've proved anything.  You don't make unverifiable assertions and then get your knickers in a twist when serious researchers criticize what you've done.

But that's not what this is about, is it?  This is about money, and you don't really care that the experts are scoffing as long as it will result in more people watching your film.  Because, as Irish poet Brendan Behan said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

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