Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Historical Jesus Missing Pieces Addendum: The Wrong Pose

In a recent post, Historical Jesus Missing Pieces III: Putting Pieces in the Wrong Place, I talked about the potential in Historical Jesus studies for taking the pieces we have and putting them in the wrong place.  The analogy I worked with was Gideon Mantell's initial reconstruction of the Iguanadon in which he put what turned out to be the animal's pointed thumb on its head, as a horn.   I began thinking about this problem after a recent visit to the natural history museum in Washington DC where the story was mentioned, briefly, in a dinosaur exhibit.  Then yesterday an interesting story appeared on the BBC News website:

Victoria Gill
Diplodocus's impressive neck sweeps along the main hall of London's Natural History museum, welcoming its visitors.

Now, findings suggest that 150 million years ago the giant may have held its head higher for much of the time.

By studying the skeletons of living vertebrates, Mike Taylor, from the University of Portsmouth, and his team, reshaped the dinosaur's resting pose . . . .
It's a story I enjoyed because it might help us further to develop analogies for the reconstructive process in Historical Jesus research. Even if we have a pretty good collection of data, just how good are we at arranging those data in the right way? In my next post in this series, I will provide a couple of examples of the kind of thing that I am referring to.


goulablogger said...

Science is self-correcting. It's a good thing, but also very annoying. As in the motto at my dinner table: "Eat this quick, while it's still good for you."

Hopefully religion doesn't spin around with changing opinions on things quite so fast as nutrionists.

Chuck Grantham

Frank McCoy said...

There is a photo of a reconstructed Diplodocus skeleton on p. 457 of Earth and Life Through Time (Steven M. Stanley, W.H. Freeman and Company). Its head is erect, held about twice as high as its back.
Its hind legs have thicker bones than its front legs. Also, the two main bones in each hind leg are almost in a straight line, but the two main bones in each front leg are at an acute angle, suggesting as much an elbow as a knee.
This suggests to me that, like a pair of Massopondylus sketched on p. 456, the Diplodocus was capable of using its two hind legs and tail as a tripod and then, using its two front feet to grasp a tree trunk, raise its head vertically to get at the crown leaves. Since Diplodus reached almost 30 meters in length, I can see why some question whether its heart could stand such a strain. But, judging by the giraffe, the most likely reason Diplodocus had such a long neck was to graze the crowns of trees.
To determine the plausibility of this idea, we need to know if the front legs of a Diplodocus were capable of grasping a tree trunk.
There is a painting of a pair of Diplodocus in the Riddle of the Dinasaur (John Noble Wilfore, Alfred A. Knopf) between p. 150 and p. 151. It portrays their necks as being held horizontally, as with the skeleton in the Natural History Museum.
Unfortunately, though, they are portrayed as being in a swampy area, so their feet are buried in mud. So, one cannot tell if, the sketcher understood, the front feet were capable of grasping.
But that's reality for you. The evidence needed to determine the plausibility of an idea more often than not is so muddied that it turns out to be worthless.