Thursday, April 14, 2011

How should scholars react when ludicrous claims are made?

Jim West draws attention to some extraordinary comments made by Simcha Jacobovici in the Jewish Chronicle Online, My Nails Were From Jesus' Cross, in which he responds to the derision with which his claim has been met:
Mr Jacobovici reacted by telling the JC: "The minute someone says anything significant about the New Testament, the immediate response is to scoff, not to study it." He believes experts prefer to avoid making bold claims relating to the New Testament because it brings them under such intense scrutiny - and they resent it when others do so.
Perhaps, then, I should illustrate our difficulty. In 2007, Jacobovici made a documentary in which he claimed to have located the lost tomb of Jesus, in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Many of us spent a great deal of time patiently, carefully and calmly researching the claims and explaining why they were found wanting. As one element in that enterprise, I perhaps stupidly took it on myself to try expose a series of errors, inaccuracies, false statements, sensationalist claims and nonsense on the Jesus Family Tomb Website.  I labelled the post Jesus Family Tomb Website: Errors and Inaccuracies and listed seventeen of these, with explanations of where the problems lay.  There was no scoffing, no ridicule, no derision, just a calm and patient explanation of errors and inaccuracies.

It is now over four years since that post appeared and to this day every single one of those errors and inaccuracies remains on the Jesus Family tomb website.  Two years ago, I again drew attention to the post and the errors, with some reflection on our failure to make an impact.

What I think this illustrates is that it is outrageous for Simcha Jacobovici to suggest that scholars immediately scoff at his ideas without examining them.  On the contrary.  If anything, our mistake is that we spend far too much of our valuable time attempting to react in a scholarly fashion to material that would be lucky to get a passing grade if it were submitted to us by one of our students.

Since the careful, detailed and patient attempts at engaging appear to make no impact whatsoever, I think it is entirely reasonable that this time we react with the ridicule that the claims deserve.