Monday, April 20, 2009

The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers III: When bloggers apparently fail to make an impact

In the previous two posts on this topic, I have celebrated some of the blogging successes in their critiques of the Discovery Channel documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus.  This was an occasion when several expert voices spoke up quickly and accurately and created a strong wall of opinion that had the effect of seriously undermining the claims made by the film makers.  But it is not always so straightforward.  Indeed, the kind of successes on this occasion are the exception rather than the rule.  It is much more common for academic bloggers to be ignored by the media, even when they are pointing out errors and inaccuracies that are actually embarrassing those making the claims.   A clear example of the kind of thing I am talking about was the following post which I will be discussing in this third and final post on The Talpiot Tomb and the bloggers:


I published the post on 11 March 2007, a week after the documentary aired.  It took me ages to write.  It was one of those posts with which other bloggers will be familiar, the post that keeps on expanding, requiring lots of research, and which makes you ask repeatedly, "Is this really worth the effort?".   It relates to the "official" website on the "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" at www.jesusfamilytomb.com.  That website, more slick, more snazzy, more detailed than Discovery's site, had gone online at the same time, the end of February, but unlike that site, it was riddled with errors and inaccuracies.

Some of the errors were simply careless, sloppy mistakes, the Acts of Philip for the Gospel of Philip, AC for AD, Jesus 13 with Galilean rabbis rather than 12 at the Jerusalem temple, and so on.  Others, though, were more substantial.  Several claims about the Talpiot Tomb discoveries were so badly stated that they amounted to misleading information, like the claim that one of the ossuaries actually read "Mary Magdalene", alongside other familiar difficulties like the misreading of Francois Bovon's analysis of Mary in the Acts of Philip.

The most remarkable elements on this site, though, were not so much statements that were misguided or inaccurate, but entire sections that were nonsense, the Gospel of Thomas as "suppressed by Christian authorities due to the status allotted to Mary of Magadala (sic) as master", or "the Essene Gospel of Peace" as "one ancient manuscript discovered in the Secret Archives of the Vatican" or the following page on "The Gospels Nazarene: The Gospel of the Holy Twelve", which is nonsense from beginning to end:
The Gospel of the Nazarenes or the Gospel of the Holy Twelve is considered to be the original Gospel or one of the first complete written manuscripts of the original word of Jesus.

The term "Nazarene" is used by some to refer to early Jewish followers of Christianity in connection with the ancient Essene sect of Judaism which Jesus is often associated with. The original Gospels of Nazarene are said to have been written by St. John, who passed the manuscript along to a trusted friend in 70 AD following his arrest.

In the nineteenth century, the Gospel of the Holy Twelve was rediscovered by a friar. However, since its exposure to Church Authorities in Rome, it has remained hidden in the Vatican archive, which some say is due to newly discovered content that would discredit the Church and the Council of Nicea.
There is, of course, no reliable historical information contained on this page.

So what happened next?  I documented each of the errors and inaccuracies that I could find, while suspecting that a still more careful reading would reveal many more, and I hoped that the authors of the site would take the list seriously and amend their site accordingly.  Each one still remains on the site to this day.  

To his credit, James Tabor told me that he had reported this list to those responsible for the site but no adjustments were made, either then or in the subsequent two years.

What does this example teach us?  Well, if I were feeling cynical, I would say that it has taught me to waste less time on sites that are driven by commercial concerns and which are uninterested in honest intellectual concerns.  I would note that I am inclined to fall into that na├»ve academic belief that people will want to set the record straight, that they will want to eliminate disreputable and ignorant statements, and that accuracy, precision and nuance matter.  One of my favourite comments on the post here discussed remarked that while the link to the Gospel of Philip was inaccurate, the links to "Buy the DVD" and "Buy the book" worked fine.

If I were feeling less cynical, though, I would note that even where a glitzy site like this retains misinformation on a large scale, there is value in the academic bloggers publicly setting out the errors and inaccuracies involved.  If googleization democratize the process of attaining knowledge, one of the values of that process is that any researcher looking for material on "the Jesus family tomb" will quickly come into contact not only with the glitzy, commercial, error-ridden official site but also the mundane, non-commercial, accurate academic blogs.  

As in other areas, politics, religion, journalism, the blogs have empowered experts who have something intelligent, well researched and cogent to say.  When we are using the medium thoughtfully, they can place us in a surprisingly influential position, even when those with the money, the staff, the time and the publicity might at first appear seem like formidable opponents.  In spite of our failures, it is a responsibility worth taking seriously.    

1 comment:

TJW said...

Three fantastic posts Dr. Goodacre. I wish that I could hear your presentation today.

Also, I studied under Dr. Tabor for my undergraduate work and got to hear a lot about the Talpoit Tomb from his side, but very much appreciate the healthy skepticism that you and other experts in the field have. I think I will have to go now and read Francois Bovon's analysis of the Acts of Philip, since I have not read it and have only heard the Mariamne argument from Dr. Tabor's viewpoint.