"I'm the King of the Jews!" (Originally Published, 2.27.07)
Renowned megalomaniac James Cameron -- director of Titanic and Piranha 2: The Spawning -- has now figured out a way to irritate not only everyone on this plane of existence but apparently the next as well. He claims that his new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, reveals just that: the final resting place of Jesus Christ.
The Discovery Channel special details an archaeological dig in Jerusalem which stumbled upon a sepulcher containing ten stone burial boxes. The ancient caskets bear the names of Jesus, an immediate family (possibly brothers and sisters), Mary (presumably, the "Magdalene" variety) and, most startling, what could be the offspring of Jesus. If any of these relics were to be proven legitimate, they would render the basic tenet of the Christian faith essentially null and void -- as well as leave open the possibility that Jesus's brother could very easily have been a guy named "Jeff of Nazareth" whose main claim to fame was his ability to turn water into wine coolers.
It goes without saying that religious "scholars" are now falling all over themselves to debunk the find and disparage its proponents.
And that's where things get interesting.
Christopher Hitchens may be a surly, drunk son-of-a-bitch, but there's a great quote from him that's worth keeping in mind right about now: "That which can be asserted without evidence can be disproved without evidence." When applied to this specific case, the suggestion is painfully obvious: whether or not the tomb of Jesus has truly been found is irrelevant; it's not needed to disprove a belief system that has no evidence backing it up. When it comes to disputing the spectacular convictions of the faithful, it's just as easy to say, "that's irrational nonsense" and be done with it, as it is to go digging for contradictory evidence. The other side of that coin, unfortunately, is that a belief buttressed by nothing but wishful thinking is immune to the typically persuasive powers of contradictory evidence anyway. You just can't argue with someone whose primary justification is "because the Bible says so."
So why aren't the faithful skeptics employing this bulletproof "argument" in their attempts to discredit the discovery in Jerusalem? The answer is not only simple -- it's a delicious tip of the cards from a group which portrays itself as ready, willing and able to consistently rely on faith and faith alone.
The truth? They know that faith isn't enough -- that at some point a concession to reason is imperative.
The solution? They attempt to apply logic to claims which have no basis in reality -- to argue their points as if they were backed by accepted and irrefutable evidence.
The result? Well, it's damn funny.
Case in point: the quote of the day. Father David O'Connell of the oxymoronically-named Catholic University voiced his considerable doubt as to the veracity of Cameron's claim with this simple bit of common sense:
"Jesus of history is often referred to as 'Jesus of Nazareth.' Joseph the father was from Nazareth. Why would they be buried in Jerusalem? It doesn't make sense."
In case you missed that home run of irony, let's recap: A man who believes that the son of a supreme being was born on earth of a virgin, rose from the dead three days after being executed and ascended into the firmament to be with the benevolent father who allowed him to be executed in the first place and who takes an interest in the day-to-day existence of every man, woman and child on the planet, so much so that he's keeping a personal tally to help him decide where we'll spend eternity after we die -- this guy says that being buried sixty miles away from your hometown doesn't make sense.
I've met people like Father O'Connell. They're the ones who sit through movies in which alien invaders spend two hours decimating the earth with giant spaceships, sucking human blood out of their victims and spreading it across the landscape -- and then feel compelled to comment incredulously, "Oh that's impossible!" at the fact that the aliens are finally done in by bacteria.
Jesus was known as "Jesus of Nazareth." Joseph was the father of Jesus. How do we know this? The Bible tells us. How do we know the Bible can be trusted? Because it says it can.
If there's a better example of perfectly circular reasoning I'm unaware of it.
Just as entertaining (as well as enlightening, if such a word can be used in this context) is a widely-circulated press release from the Christian Newswire entitled, "Bible Scholars: Ten Reasons Why Jesus Tomb Claim is Bogus." Among its supposedly unassailable points -- presented with a tone of arrogance and condescension typically (and falsely) attributed to those who advocate scientific fact over ancient superstition:
"There is no historical evidence that Jesus was ever married or had a child."
"The earliest followers of Jesus never called him 'Jesus, Son of Joseph.'" (as was inscribed on the stone casket)
"There is no DNA evidence that this is the historical Jesus of Nazareth."
And my personal favorite:
"The statistical analysis is untrustworthy."
I won't bother pointing out, once again, the laughable irony of that last statement. You do have to marvel though at the brilliant penultimate introduction of the DNA straw man -- it serves the purpose of hanging those know-it-all scientists with their own rope while cleverly tying it into one big Gordian knot of zero-sum argumentation: There will likely never be DNA samples of Jesus, which means it can never be proven that Jesus was merely human and not divine; which means that it can never be proven that Jesus existed at all. Each side gets to go about its merry way, safe in the knowledge that is has technically neither won nor lost the debate.
So, after taking the case into careful consideration and weighing all the relevant "evidence," what singular conclusion can be drawn, according to the enlightened authors of the ten-point plan?
"In light of all the incredible number of problems with the recent claim that Jesus' (sic) grave has been found, the time-honored, multi-faceted evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is more convincing than ever."
Well, of course it is. That just makes sense.
I'm reminded of something I saw years ago -- a hilarious and thoroughly disturbing cult documentary called Mondo Elvis. For two hours, it chronicled a brand of delusional lunacy that was unlike anything I had seen before (but unfortunately have witnessed in person since). Its central focus: the small but ferocious segment of the American population that remains obsessed with Elvis Presley. It takes no insight or ingenuity to recognize the analogous relationship between the single-minded insanity on display in Mondo Elvis, and the occasionally ludicrous behavior of those adhering to the demands of a faith-based religion. Each has a central figure of worship who's been afforded mythic, sometimes supernatural qualities. Each requires unquestioning loyalty. Each casts the utterly irrational as commonly accepted fact. Each has a cadre of acolytes who honestly think that they're sane, reasonable people -- in spite of an overriding belief system which is on par with that of your average schizophrenic.
The most memorable, unnerving moment in the movie comes about half-way through. A middle-aged, skeletal nightmare with bleach-blond hair, Appalachian bridge-work and a cigarette that's been smoked down to solid ash twists and twitches uncomfortably in a decrepit recliner which sits against a paneled wall inside her trailer. With menacing intensity, she pushes her focus directly into the camera and proclaims her own personal mystery of faith. Although to her, there's no faith; there's only fact. And the "mystery" is nothing less than the identity of the man who gave her life.
Her belief: Elvis is her father.
Her rationale for this seemingly dubious deduction: Her mother never told her that Elvis wasn't her father.
She has no proof, but she has plenty of faith -- and a technically bulletproof argument -- and that's enough for her to continue her fantasy.
"That which can be asserted without evidence can be disproved without evidence."
I doubt we'll see any proof that James Cameron, or anyone else, has found the actual tomb of Jesus Christ. Then again, I doubt we'll see any proof that Jesus Christ as described in the Bible ever existed in the first place.
But as long as no one can prove he didn't exist, that will be enough for the faithful to continue their fantasy.