The great circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum famously quipped, "There's a sucker born every minute." Or did he?
Actually, it was David Hannum, one of Barnum's rivals. The story begins with Mr. George Hull, a student of archeology and paleontology who contrived a famous hoax to make money. Hull had a "giant" carved out of stone, and buried on his cousin's farm in Cardiff, New York. Why? Because evangelists of the time were preaching about lost giants that roamed the earth, and Hull knew he could make a mint if the buried giant was "suddenly" unearthed and put on display. And he did. Things went so well that he was able to sell two-thirds interest in the giant for $30,000 to a group of men, one of them being banker David Hannum (who believed the giant real). P. T. Barnum tried to buy the giant, but Hull and Hannum wouldn't sell. So, ol' P. T. had one carved of his own, and claimed Hull and Hannum's was a fake! Seeing the streams of visitors flowing in to see P. T.'s "giant," Hannum, still believing his own giant to be real, declared "There's a sucker born every minute."
A circus atmosphere. Hucksters and Hoaxers. Public credulity. Greed. Archeology. Carvings in stone. Elaborate duplicity. And lots and lots of money.
Some things never change. Our newest Hull & Barnum is the Discovery Channel, which has stepped in as the latest vendor of unearthed wonders with The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Given the monetary success of elaborate hoaxes like The DaVinci Code, it was inevitable that television producers would be unable to resist the nearly unfathomable depths of gullibility.
The Discovery film claims that ten ossuaries (small caskets used to store bones) that were discovered in a Jerusalem suburb in 1980 contain the bones of Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph, and indeed Jesus's hitherto unknown son, Judas, as well as other members of the "clan." The Discovery docu-drama is a slicked over version of an earlier BBC attempt to cash in that was filmed in 1996. Like P. T. Barnum, Discovery realized the heap of money to be made, and carved their own "giant" with the help of James Cameron, producer of the Titanic.
But as with both Barnum's and Hull's giants (that were later on admitted to be fakes) when you call in the experts, from scriptural scholars to archeologists not on the Discovery payroll, the story starts to crumble.
One such scriptural scholar to speak out is Ben Witherington III. Ben Witherington's academic credentials are impeccable. A graduate of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Witherington received his Ph.D. in Theology (with a concentration in New Testament) from the University of Durham in England. Among his many awards, he was named General Editor of the prestigious New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series in 2001. He has written over thirty books, and has appeared on the History Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, A&E, the PAX Network, and, yes, The Discovery Channel.
Witherington is not pleased with the combination of hucksterism and shoddy scholarship that mark both Discovery's The Lost Tomb of Jesus and the companion book, The Jesus Family Tomb.
To begin with the obvious, the names that appear on the ossuaries are quite common. Quoting fellow scholar Richard Bauckham, Witherington notes that of women's names recorded at the time, including those found on similar ossuaries, Mary is the most popular. In fact, 21% of total names recorded, with 42 occurring on ossuaries. Jesus is also quite common as well, with 99 occurrences, 22 of them being found on ossuaries. "The names Joseph and Joshua (Jesus) were two of the most common names in all of early Judaism. So was Mary," Witherington points out, "This is the ancient equivalent of finding adjacent tombs with the names Smith and Jones. No big deal."
Another "major problem with the analysis of the names on these ossuaries," adds Witherington, is that "one is in Hebrew, several are in Aramaic, but the supposed Mary Magdalene ossuary is in Greek." What difference does that make? The language spoken by Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene was Aramaic. And why would Jesus—whom Discovery wants to sensationalize (a la The DaVinci Code) as Mary Magdalene's husband—have his inscription in Aramaic? "It makes no sense that her ossuary would have a Greek inscription and that of her alleged husband an Aramaic inscription."
On top of that, the inscription taken to be of Mary Magdalene, Mariamene, does not actually connect to her. Mary Magdalene "is called ‘Maria' constantly in the first century Christian literature, and indeed well into the second century as well." The tenuous connection of Mary Magdalene to the name Mariamene comes from a 14th century Gnostic manuscript "which is theorized to go back to the fourth century A.D." Even worse, "It does not identify Mariamene as Mary Magdalene, rather it identifies her as the sister of Philip the apostle."
But hey, what do facts matter when there's so much money to be made.
Elaborate and financially profitable hoaxes like The Jesus Tomb are nothing new, and Witherington spends a good deal of time patiently defusing sensationalism with sound scholarship. Unfortunately, much of the sensationalism has its roots in the "latest" attempts by scholars themselves to cash in on the craze. So Witherington finds himself battling on both fronts, against both popular and scholarly distortions.
It is quite clear from his resume that Witherington is both deeply involved in the latest scholarship in regard to the New Testament, and deeply critical of the direction much of the scholarship has taken. In his newest book, What Have They Done with Jesus?Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible, Witherington takes aim at the recent attempts (both academic and popular) to undermine the credibility of the New Testament.
One of the main "strategies" of such attempts is to claim that a new gospel has suddenly been discovered, and that new gospel shows that the earliest Christians believed something quite different from the Christianity found in the New Testament. Hence the new gospel is the Gospel, the long-lost Gospel, the suppressed Gospel that is the true book of the Lost Christianity, and the New Testament is consequently the Gospel of the Oppressors Who Conspired to Cover Up the True Gospel.
Lost tombs and lost gospels. For Witherington, this is all historical bunk; that is, it doesn't stand up to historical scrutiny.
It is pointless to talk about ‘lost Christianities' if we are talking about the apostolic age, because there were no forms of Christianity like later Gnosticism already extant in the first century. Indeed, as far as we know there were no forms of earliest Christianity that did not worship Jesus as crucified and risen Lord,…All of the later variants such as Gnosticism, which were deemed heresies in their own time as well as afterward, were offshoots and aberrations of the second- through fourth-century Christian churches. There is not a shred of solid historical evidence that such movements and sectarian split-offs existed in the apostolic age.
In short, the notion that there are "lost Christianities"—the very title of one of Bart Ehrman's books, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew—is illusory. Those who are trying to revive these lost Christianities as if they actually existed in the first century are guilty of anachronism, of reading back later heretical aberrations into the first century AD.
Why are we so easily duped into believing in such fantasies? There are several reasons. First, argues Witherington, "In America we live in a Jesus-haunted culture that is biblically illiterate….In our soap opera culture, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would turn the story of Jesus into a soap opera. The problem is, that some people are naïve enough to believe it." Alas, the suckers lining up for The DaVinci Code and now The Lost Tomb of Jesus.
But there are also a number of people who, for one reason or another, are just plain skeptical about traditional claims of truth. Oddly enough, "they will gladly listen to new theories, even when there is little or no solid evidence to support them."
"Another characteristic of our culture is that we have bought into the essential sales pitch which drives our economy," and hence believe that "new is true." While new is better than old may apply to dish soap and cell phones, it is a poor way to judge the authenticity of New Testament documents.
Yet another factor is found in academia, what Witherington calls the "justification by doubt" factor. "Some scholars think they must prove (to themselves and/or others) that they are good critical scholars by showing how much of the Jesus tradition of the New Testament in general they can discount, explain away, or discredit. This supposedly demonstrates that they are objective. Oddly, these same scholars often fail to apply the same critical rigor and skepticism to their own pet extracanonical texts or pet theories."
We are happy to call attention to a top New Testament scholar who does not subscribe to a doctrine of "justification by doubt," and who applies "critical rigor and skepticism" to the "pet theories" now jostling for attention, both in academia and the popular market. And we can be quite thankful for folks like Witherington, whose calm and critical voice rises above the hawking of The Lost Tomb of Jesus.