Monday, April 20, 2009

The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers II: A Change in Tone

In my previous post, I looked at a success story in the blogging of the Talpiot "Jesus family tomb" affair, where accurate and knowledgeable blogging led to changes in several of the claims made on the Discovery Channel website.  It could be argued that that early success was symptomatic of a larger trend according to which the early, bold and far-reaching statements gave way to something much more cautious.  Many of us felt that we could see Discovery progressively distancing themselves from claims that at first they had embraced.  To go back now and to watch the Press Conference on Monday 26 February 2009 (still available online at the Discovery Jesus Tomb website, direct link here), at which the case was first made, is to see a remarkable degree of confidence in the importance of the alleged discovery, as the president and general manager of the Discovery Channel begins:
You are joining us here for what might be one of the most important archaeological finds in human history.  In the hills of Jerusalem, archaeologists have discovered a tomb, a two thousand year old tomb, which contains significant forensic evidence, and some potentially historic consequences . . . . I would like to briefly discuss how this momentous find came about and how it comes to be before you today.
And James Cameron, who comes to the microphone next, tells the story of his involvement with the documentary, which he went on to produce, and speaks of it as "literally this is the biggest archaeology story of the century".  And so it goes on.  But this robust beginning  gave way,  quite quickly, to a more cautious tone. 

The reaction in the blogosphere, as well as in other media outlets, demonstrated very quickly that the vast majority of scholars assessing the case were not finding it convincing.  Unilke Cameron, who said that as a layman he had found the case "pretty darn compelling", the experts were finding the case unpersuasive.  The statistical case began to crumble as experts cast doubt on elements in the identification of the ossuary inscriptions, and especially its "Ringo Starr", the supposed presence of Mary Magdalene.  The claim that "Mariamenenou Mara" was a unique way of identifying Mary Magdalene appeared to be based on a misreading of Francois Bovon's analysis of the Acts of Philip. I called attention to this before the documentary aired (with a follow up on 11 March), and others made similar points, including Tony Chartrand Burke and Richard Bauckham.  Now Bauckham himself is not himself a blogger, but was guesting on his St Andrews' colleague Jim Davila's Paleojudaica blog before producing a revised version of his thoughts also on Paleojudaica.  Once again the bloggers were adding guest posts from experts to enhance their own efforts, and the effect was pretty dramatic.

When the documentary aired on Sunday 4 March, Discovery added an extra programme that followed on immediately afterwards -- a studio discussion, hosted by Ted Koppel, The Lost Tomb of Jesus -- A Critical Look. It was this programme that launched Jonathan Reed's now famous charge of "archaeoporn".  Some at the time saw the scheduling of this programme as an opportunity for Discovery to imply some critical distancing from the claims made in the documentary, claims that they had been heartily endorsing only a week earlier.  When the first repeat of The Lost Tomb of Jesus was dropped from Discovery's schedules, it began to look like they were indeed feeling less confident about the documentary than they had at first.

I should add that it was not only the bloggers who played a role in holding the programme makers to account.  One key event was the appearance of Eric Meyers with Simcha Jacobovici on the Diane Rehm show on 5 March, the morning after the documentary aired.  But in only the recent past, radio appearances and newspaper op-eds would have been the only major public venues for providing critiques of programmes like this.  Now the blogging revolution had changed all that and the reactions were thorough, detailed, varied and fast.

The Talpiot Tomb provided the first major test for the bloggers in our area, and it is a test that they passed with flying colours.  The contrast with the earlier and similar story, the James Ossuary, only a few years earlier, in 2002,  is significant.  Then blogging was only in its infancy, and in our area it was non-existent.  (Jim Davila's Paleojudaica, the pioneer, began in March 2003;  this blog began six months later in September 2003).  The James Ossuary story took some time to unravel and although furiously debated on the then more popular e-lists, the latter did not attract the same degree of expertise or the same degree of publicity now reached by the blogs.  Indeed, two occasional bloggers were themselves involved directly with the project, Darrell Bock, who was highly critical of the the documentary's claims, and James Tabor, who remained sympathetic, and provided a sane if lonely voice speaking up for Jacobovici.

At this point, perhaps you will be thinking that there is far too much by way of celebrating blogging success, so in the next part I will look at an example of a complete failure to achieve any change at all, and the failure was mine.

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