Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why the interest? ‘Tomb of Jesus’ latest of ‘the threats’ to Christianity

By James Penrice
Our Sunday Visitor

HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – The news was meant to be earthshaking. Award-winning filmmakers unveil a documentary claiming scientific evidence that Jesus Christ had brothers, a wife and a child, and did not physically ascend into heaven.

Yet, as biblical scholars and archaeologists lined up to refute their claims – including the man who first documented the evidence in question 27 years ago – this new blockbuster was already starting to resemble some other recent busts.

The book and film of “The DaVinci Code,” claims about the Gnostic “Gospel of Judas” and the alleged ossuary of “James, brother of Jesus,” were all once potentially explosive bombshells to Christianity that were easily defused by scholars. With such predecessors quickly disappearing from the radar, discredited after their 15 minutes of fame, there remains a recurring fascination for developments such as “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” a documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel on March 4. What does our abiding interest in such readily dismissible theories say about us as God’s people? What can we learn from it?

Natural curiosity

University of Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham suggests the attraction lies in a combination of two factors: a burning curiosity to know everything about arguably the most fascinating man who ever lived, and centuries of efforts by those looking to debunk his claim of divinity.

Of the former, Cunningham said, “Everything in the New Testament is foreground, there is not much background on the kind of details people naturally have an interest in, such as what did Jesus look like. There is a natural human curiosity and interest in depicting him.” Cunningham said this curiosity was a contributing factor to the development of Christian art, apocryphal gospels and eventually works of fiction such as “Quo Vadis” and “Ben Hur.”

“Jesus is just very interesting, first of all, as a compelling historical figure. He becomes even more fascinating because Christians make transcendental claims about him, which render him more intriguing than other figures,” the theologian said. Cunningham adds to the mix the resulting attempts by esoteric groups during the last few centuries to portray Jesus merely as some great guru of human wisdom, not a divine person, to explain how a story such as “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” is ripe for the picking. It combines elements of all these fascinations.

What to make of it?

Cunningham’s observations beg some soul-searching questions for Christians not certain what to make of the “lost tomb” hype. While it is true the gospels do not fill our appetites to know more superficial details about Jesus, the reason for that absence bears reflection.

The evangelists’ primary aim was not to write a biography of Jesus, but to proclaim his truths of salvation, interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, rather than being more physically descriptive. Christians risk getting lost in the details if they bypass the gospels’ true message in the pursuit of such knowledge.

The evangelists themselves disagreed on certain details about Easter morning: who came to the tomb, what they found there, what they did immediately afterward. But they were solidly united on the meaning of that morning, that Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death so we can have eternal life. The apostles certainly would not have gone to their deaths defending the number of disciples who came to the tomb on the third day, but they did give their lives defending the meaning of it all.

Scholars say modern-day disciples would be well advised to focus on the true gospel message instead of getting sidetracked by interesting but ultimately irrelevant details.

Allure of history

Mike Aquilina, vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, cites a fascination with history in general as a contributing factor of interest in these stories.

“People have always been interested in antiquity. This is not a new development,” Aquilina said. “Pagans who drew closer to Judaism did so because of its great antiquity and its appeal to history. The appeal was still stronger in Christianity, which drew from the same historical treasury, now enriched by more recent events.”

While maintaining there is a natural curiosity about history, Aquilina said that Catholics by and large are not well versed in church history and so become susceptible to false claims.

“This should be a wakeup call for Catholics to learn about church history,” he said. “People need to find out the truth about history, not what is momentarily capturing the attention of the channel-surfing public.”

That wakeup call should lead also to a deeper awareness of church dogma and doctrine. Each of the recent debunking attempts, from “The DaVinci Code” to the “lost tomb,” have also called into question foundational church teachings. Aquilina encourages the faithful to take advantage of the bountiful supply of resources available to deeply explore the truth of the faith.

“There is so much available,” he said, “it would be impossible to keep up with it. There are so many good resources.”

The positive side

It is cause for concern that Christianity has been pinpointed as a prime target of the “cultural elite” during the last two decades, said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a press release issued before the premiere of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on the Discovery Channel, Donohue wrote, “Keep in mind that no other religion is subjected to such intense scrutiny as Christianity.”

He added, “Prior to 1990, there is no evidence that Christianity was microexamined the way it is today. To be sure, the ‘Jesus Seminar’ was founded in 1985, and its contributors are partly responsible for the current practice of sowing seeds of doubt about Christianity during Lent. Three years later, Martin Scorsese gave us ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ but it wasn’t until the ’90s that Christianity was routinely put on the firing line.”

Recognizing this same recent phenomenon, Cunningham finds a positive slant.

“These debunking tendencies are actually a left-handed compliment to Christianity,” he said, “since nobody pays this kind of attention to any other historical or religious figure.”

His point is that Christianity only comes under such intense scrutiny because it is universally recognized as a powerful force in the world. Jesus gets so much attention because of his critical importance to the human race.

As we lay this latest controversy in its tomb, and await the arrival of the next, we can take comfort in Jesus’ eternal truth. As St. Paul taught us in Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (13:8-9).

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James Penrice writes from Michigan for Our Sunday Visitor.

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