Is “Jesus Archaeology” Becoming Like Professional Wrestling?

That was the thought that hit me after reading “Scientists say Turin Shroud is Supernatural.” Now, you all know that I’m interested in the Shroud of Turin. (How could I not be when I write a blog like this?) Despite my ambivalence toward the object (I lean toward the skeptical end of the spectrum), occasionally something turns up that makes me think the Shroud warrants more study. This isn’t one of those occasions. The timing makes the motive seem pretty obvious.

If you’ll pardon my cynicism, this seems to be merely the “good guy Jesus archaeologist-wrestler” getting off the mat to drop-kick the Talpiot “villain” in a preliminary skirmish that will no doubt lead to a cage match, a lumberjack match, a scaffold match, or the ever-popular no-disqualification match. Yep, a good ol’ fashioned donnybrook is brewing. The soap opera script is getting some plot development just in time for Good Friday and Easter — in response of course to the Discovery Channel’s airing of Jacobovici’s latest “Christianity’s face goes into the turnbuckle” documentary. Are there any breath-taking barely-clad “managers” waiting in the wings to get involved? I did hear this week that Megan Fox wanted to do some archaeology, so give her a call, $imcha, it’s your turn to add to the drama.  I can hardly wait for the pay-per-view (until next time) finale! Spade-o-Mania time! (I guess you can all tell what I was watching during my junior high years by now).

Actually, none of this should be a surprise. One side will say this sort of archaeological chair-throwing is merited as a response to Jacobivici’s P. T. Barnum approach to archaeology. But is Vince McMahon the answer?



17 thoughts on “Is “Jesus Archaeology” Becoming Like Professional Wrestling?

  1. Skepticism is indeed warranted toward the Shroud of Turin, until it’s determined beyond a reasonable doubt that natural forces, including blatant counterfeiting, can’t be responsible to generating it. This is an issue I have with present science is its naturalistic bias against anything supernatural. I think the scientific method could easily be used to study and understand the supernatural, which the current skeptical world doesn’t like to think about or acknowledge. Perhaps the Shroud is genuine, and perhaps not. Further study is needed. Of course, doing things away from the holidays is even better, time wise. But PR doesn’t hurt for some folks, either.

  2. Concerning the authenticity of the Shroud, I have recently leaned on the believing end of the spectrum based on several interviews I have heard so far by the photographers, researchers and scientists/physicists (believers or not, Jewish, Christian, or Agnostic) who have directly dealt with the Shroud pre- and post- the declaration that it was a hoax in the 1980s. I just gotta get my hands on those peer-reviewed articles referenced by them to double check some things besides reading through the books that have been published about it. I am not overwhelmingly confident either, but the door is certainly wide-opened for me for its authenticity the more is learned about its composition.

  3. …And by the way, I think, like almost anything else, it is the Media/Journalists that lead to “The timing makes the motive seem pretty obvious”. Because it’s not so recent that many researchers and scientists have leaned toward a supernatural causation for the imagery on the Shroud, but since the timing (Passover) is directly related to the Shroud, you get Mediaspasms.

  4. The scientific method, almost by definition, can not directly address the supernatural. The scientific method is a process of observing natural phenomenon, and then trying to repeat said phenomenon under controlled circumstances in order to verify hypothesis about the causes of said phenomenon.

    Point #1 the supernatural can neither be controlled nor repeated at will. this alone disqualifies it from being subjected to the scientific method.

    Point #2 The scientific method can never prove something to be supernatural. At best scientific inquiry could say we don’t currently know of a natural mechanism that could have produced a given result.

    Point #3 Because the scope of the scientific method is limited to natural phenomenon, to even examine a phenomenon or object using the scientific method is essentially to assume that it is either a natural phenomenon, or the result of a natural phenomenon. This creates a natural bias because the scientist is always, by definition, looking for a natural cause. In most cases the scientist will find what he is looking for, simply because he is looking for it.

    Point #4 really an extension of the point #3, Even if an event is supernatural, it presumably yields natural results. For example if God supernaturally caused a storm, or an earth quake, how would we ever tell the difference between that supernaturally caused event and a simple naturally occurring event of the same kind? Even if an event is supernatural, the fact that it leaves a trail of natural evidence will in most cases lead to the conclusion that the event was merely natural.

    Thus if you involve “science” in trying to verify a supernatural event, you will very likely come out with a ‘false positive’ in which scientific inquiry indicates the event to be natural, even if it wasn’t. The very best result you could ever get would essentially be a “we don’t know” answer.

  5. Hi Josh:
    Sorry…you’ll have to do a better job of explaining to me why the scientific method (i.e., observation, studying, hypothesizing, etc.) can’t be applied to anything supernatural. I don’t buy any “naturalistic only” definitions of science or the scientific method. Simply put, I “call BS” on anything, or anyone who declares anything not explicitly natural/naturalistic outside the scope of scientific observation and study. In my book, this gets the scientific observer “off the hook” of having to do real work, and investigate things outside their mental/emotional “comfort zone.” Actual study and observation means following the proof, *wherever* it leads. If, for example, something is *purely* naturalistic, then that’ll be very obvious. But, if there are loose threads, or causes/effects that defy a purely naturalistic explanation, supernatural possibilities should not be “pooh-pooh’ed” because someone is uncomfortable with where the evidence, or proof, leads. This becomes then illogical and irrational, and evidence of various anti- biases.
    The fact is that our current level of technology and understanding is still fairly insufficient for exploring, monitoring, and analyzing most of what is still “unknown.” In future decades and centuries, this will likely change, but only when real work is done to study what we are blind and deaf and ignorant of. If we continually make excuses that only natural things can be studied scientifically, then we limit ourselves to learning only about those visible to our immediate senses (the visible spectrum of light, audible sounds, etc). Why limit the scientific method to the boundaries of our ignorance?

  6. Hi Kennethos,

    My point is not so much that science shouldn’t go beyond its “comfort zone” as it is that “science” ceases to be reliable outside of certain parameters. Science is a very loaded word in the modern world because science has ceased simply meaning the pursuit of knowledge and has become essentially its own religion. When you say something is “scientific” in today’s world that is pronouncing upon it that it is authoritatively verified. To say something is “scientific” in the modern world is about like saying that it is canonical in the religious world. It caries an authority and a presumption of veracity. As a result we need to be careful how we use ‘science’.

    I have no problem at all with people using good methodology and even ‘scientific methodology’ to study anything. The problem is when you carry in all the baggage that is attached to the word science. The reality is there are some areas where the scientific method could be useful, but is ultimately not reliable and as such it shouldn’t be given the weight and authority that is attached to “science” in modern society.

    Francis Bacon (one of the fathers of modern science) wrote a book called the New Atlantis in which he imagined a society completely governed by science. In this book the scientists essentially replaced the prophets and the bishops becoming the wise men. The religion of the New Atlantis was based upon an event that the scientists declared to be a miracle. However, one of the key questions of the book, which is conspicuous for not being answered, or even directly addressed, is how did the scientists determine this thing to be a miracle?

    There are a lot of opinions about what Francis Bacon’s point was in the New Atlantis, but regardless the concepts he raised pose serious questions about the role of science and specifically both the authority that we attach to science, and scientists, and what really are the limitations of science.

    For further conversation, let me ask you a basic question,
    How would you prove something to be supernatural?

    • I am posting this on behalf of Brian Lopez, who informed me he has had difficulty posting a comment:


      Everything you stated about the scientific method is correct at a certain level, but short-sighted about our concern. First of all, there are real physicists working on the Shroud of Turin, believers or not. Second, this is a scientific field that involves not only forensics but other known sciences; this is not, however, Biology, or Geology. There are non-naturalistic scientific methods as well (science is the study of knowledge by observation) that can access the supernatural indirectly (or directly by witnesses), but, unfortunately and understandably, is not as controllable as a natural phenomenon that can be repeated in a Lab environment. To remain in an either/or box that questions “it must be natural” or “we don’t know” is internally fallacious reasoning, because (1) it’s not always the case that even in Molecular Biology or Astronomy such dichotomy takes place. Scientists tend to infer a lot for the unknown from the known, and (2) certain events such as repeated demonic phenomenon, abductions, spirit apparations almost at will, and near-death experiences / out-of-the-body experiences all point clearly to the non-natural domain. There are peer-reviewed journals in which researchers with credentials publish their material in all the areas of study aforementioned. To be a stiff neck naturalist and remain in the “I dont know” or “what natural phenomenon causes this?” is silly, especially when the naturalistic hypotheses have been exhausted. But, recall that this is not Biology; you cannot repeat those experiments in test tubes, but nor can you do that with the Origin of Life debate, and the origin of encoded Specified Prescriptive Information with Error Correcting Codes (ECC), for healing/repair purposes. When the supernatural is involved, a scientific method may infer from the naturalistic traces that a supernatural cause was involved, and rightly so, especially when the events are repetitive. But, that only leaves the interpreter to figure out the details of the supernatural causation and its naturalistic link, and to “connect the dots”. But, so it is in Molecular Biology, and so it is in Nutrition, and in Dentistry, and in Dermatology etc. You name it. For every field of study in theoretical or applied sciences, there are extremes, and debates, and disagreements among specialists. There are equally inferential hypotheses (rather than direct evidence), and they create controversies. So much for science.

      The Biologist, to use as an example, who knows nothing about the preternatural/supernatural, will be oblivious about the serious areas of research I have mentioned above. Anyone who has not bothered yet to look into those areas of study would do well not to ignorantly attempt to blindly rebuff the legitimate labor of researchers/scientists/scholars who execute this serious kind of work. Mankind (Microsoft) has engineered software to work on computing devices. No need to dispute its origins and how it works. But, the study of anything we have not directly created is subject to enormous debates and opened considerations. Kinda fun, but far from obvious.


  7. Hello kennethos,

    What is your definition of “supernatural”?

    Kind regards,


  8. Gerben, Josh:

    Good question. I’d define “supernatural” as anything above and beyond “natural”, keeping in mind the sci-fi maxims that anything sufficiently advanced is often mistaken for magic/supernatural. Miracles I’d define (typically) as supernatural.
    We just celebrated Easter. Assuming that Jesus was well and truly dead, deceased, no pulse/heartbeat, no brain activity, soul/spirit vacated the body, etc., within the tomb…and then, a couple or so days later, he got up and was alive again, walking, talking, eating, as witnessed by many folks….I would term this a supernatural miracle (up until it’s discovered that 1st century Palestine regularly practiced resusitation techniques for dead people). This is one example.
    As for “proving” something supernatural, excellent question, for which I don’t have the best answers. My guess? Exhaust all possible natural (non-supernatural) options. If there is simply no way possible that an event has a natural/naturalistic cause, then do not be opposed to the possibility (I’m not saying inevitability) of there being a supernatural causation.
    This is all hypothetical, of course, since I’m not trained in the “hard” sciences. It’s my two cents’ worth. Your thoughts, gentlemen?

  9. Hi Kennethos,

    Ultimately I don’t think it is possible to “prove” that something is supernatural in a scientific sense. I think the best you could ever do is to arrive at the conclusion that you don’t know how it was accomplished, or that there are currently no known possible explanations. However, as you mentioned the sci-fi maxim, the same idea applies that just because we don’t have an explanation for something now, doesn’t mean we will never discover one. Trying to prove something to be supernatural is essentially trying to prove a universal negative, because the only way to prove it would be to prove that there is no possible natural cause (which is essentially proving a universal negative). We can never truly know that since there is always the possibility that as our understanding grows we might discover a cause.

    In this regard subjecting miracles to scientific scrutiny is much like taking a lie detector test. Any lawyer worth his salt would counsel his clients not to take lie detector tests, for the simple reason that if a person passes a lie detector test, the test was simply inconclusive, but if you don’t pass it you are condemned, even if the test gave wrong results.

    That leads into what I consider to be the real crux of the issue. Even more important than the question “how do you prove something to be supernatural?” is the question “how do you prove something to be natural?”

    This seems counter intuitive I’m sure, because most would assume it would be easy to prove if something is natural. If there is a natural explanation, then its natural right?

    If something like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah happened today, would it be deemed a miracle of divine wrath? or a natural disaster?

    Granted we don’t know for sure what happened other than that the cities were destroyed by fire and brimstone raining from the sky.

    What would the scientific community conclude if a modern city were suddenly destroyed by an unexpected hail of fire and stones from the sky?

    I would bet that there would be lots of confusion, there would be lots of talk about how we don’t know whats going on etc.. but in the end I have no doubt whatsoever that the final conclusion would be that it was a natural event and they’d have come up with a natural phenomenon like meteors or some such that would explain it.

    The point being, miracles, and supernatural events happen in the natural world. They affect natural materials, and as such, they leave natural evidence and it is more likely than not that a person looking at such natural evidence is going to believe it was naturally caused. This is especially true when given the fact that many are materialists to begin with and start from the assumption that there is no supernatural.

    For another example, consider the origin of life. (not evolution in general but rather just the origin of life itself. Where did life come from?)
    There is no known mechanism by which life can spontaneously arise from non-living matter. Yet a high percentage of the biological community are still convinced that life did spontaneously come from non-living matter and they are still intently trying to prove that it is possible by discovering a way to create life in a lab.

    That’s a case where science has never found a possible explanation other than a supernatural event and yet the scientific community in general still rejects the idea of a supernatural event and is intent on discovering a natural cause. In fact they are so intent on it that many have already adopted a view on how it happened and what the cause was, even though that view has repeatedly failed even under laboratory conditions to replicate the event.

    The point being that if a person already believes in supernatural events, they might find reason to believe something to be supernatural, but even if they have good reason it doesn’t really approach the level of proof that ‘science’ is supposed to require. If, on the other hand, a person doesn’t believe in supernatural events already, the chance that they will find evidence or reason to support one is very very small.

    this derives from a basic logical truth that “assumptions determine conclusions”. What you assume to be true before hand determines how you interpret evidence and will ultimately determine your conclusion.

  10. Josh:
    Thanks for giving me some more “naturalistic” food for thought; I appreciate the opportunity to expand my horizons. That said, I’m hoping you’ll be able to do the same thing. Brian Lopez, courtesy of MSH, shared some good bits of thinking as well.
    So my question to you, Gergen, and others, is: are those philosophically committed to naturalism, possibly including methodological naturalism, able to overcome their potentially anti-supernatural biases, and actually follow any evidence?
    There is much that is not explained out there. I suspect that in 100, 200, 300 years, there will still be much left to learn… and there may still be committed anti-supernaturalists unwilling to expand *their* horizons.

  11. @Brian Lopez

    Hi Brian,

    I don’t really disagree with anything you said, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
    I should probably clarify where I’m coming from. I have spent a lot of time talking with skeptics over the years. I also spend a lot of time thinking about and responding to what I would call the philosophy of modernism (of which I would include post-modernism as a reactionary subset)

    I’m probably a bit reactionary by nature to begin with, but added to that is the fact that almost all the ‘rationalists’ and ‘advocates of science’ that I end up talking to, or who’s arguements I am confronted with, are all materialists and a fair number are atheists. As a result I was actually surprised that you would even consider such things as abductions, demonic/spiritual phenomenon, etc as legitimate scientific areas of research.

    I have no problem with people pursuing systematic study of supernatural phenomenon, or the use of organized rigorous methodology etc.

    My primary point is that the level of authority, or veracity that the majority of people are prone to attach to anything dubbed as “scientific” should not be given to study involving things with so many unknowns and perhaps so many unknowables.
    However, to clarify my position more, I basically think the same thing regarding a significant portion of what is “accepted science”.

    In my opinion modern philosophy essentially does a bait and switch using practical, verifiable science in order to justify things that really delve more into the realms of speculation and guesswork.

    For example, because we can use our practical knowledge of how gravity works to do cool things, proving that we know a lot about how it works, therefore you must also believe that we know why gravity exists and also that we know that gravity can cause the universe to create itself. (perhaps I’m being a bit obtuse there but oh well :) )

    Anyway, I like your comment about it being silly to remain a stiff necked naturalist, and I agree completely. However, the fact remains that a lot of the scientific community are in that stiff necked camp and that the naturalist/materialist view point, even though it is not the majority view point by far, is still portrayed as the “rationalist” “scientific” view point. It still attempts to claim the intellectual high ground of being “scientific” even though when it comes down to it they are just being silly.

    There are a couple of things that come to mind in regards to researching the supernatural. Both relate to the fact that it is, in effect, a minefield to the unwary, even the intelligent unwary.

    In the early days of the scientific revolution there was a lot of mixing of scientific method with spiritual ideas and delving into spiritual topics etc. This wasn’t really new, there had always been a lot of cross over between spiritual/occult philosophy and natural philosophy, but the scientific methods and ideas spreading across europe were new. It created a kind of mishmash of pseudo-scientific spiritism that in turn gave birth to much of the spiritist and occult ideas that dominated down to victorian times and even into our own day.

    A lot of those early guys fell for the kind of trickery that later one would eventually convince most people to view spiritism as parlour games and nonsense. Stuff like automatic writing, mediums, talking with angels, channeling etc. I should clarify that I personally don’t regard all such things as necessarily human frauds. I think there is plenty of spiritual trickery involved in such things as well. but the point is that though those guys may look silly to us because they fell into those traps which we can see in hindsight, they were often very intelligent guys. The problem was that to a certain degree obtaining true knowledge requires a solid frame of reference. There have to be fixed points of reference that allow you to determine what you are actually observing. Without those fixed reference points you can never be sure that the knowledge you are gaining is true.

    When dealing with purely physical things that we can easily observe and control, like electricity, this is very easy as compared to trying to find trust-worthy points of reference when you delve into supernatural and spiritual things.

    This can bite you in numerous ways. One example that comes to mind is carbon dating the shroud of Turin. There is all sorts of controversy about the methodology of the sampling etc. But what about the basic question… “how would a resurrection actually affect/change the material of the shroud?” Does anyone know? CAN anyone know?
    I’m not saying that it is impossible, I’m also not saying that it shouldn’t be research, I’m just saying that when dealing with things like that you can’t assume that normal parameters, normal points of reference will actually yield correct conclusions.

    I suppose I have rambled enough. Sorry I’m so long winded :) Good conversation though

  12. @Kennethos

    Hi :)

    I agree Brian made very good points. I didn’t find anything to particularly disagree with. I probably over-stated my original case, or at least wasn’t clear enough. I don’t mean to object to systematic study and research. I’m trying to caution about putting too much stock in the conclusions that even researchers draw about the supernatural.

    Regarding those with naturalistic bias, I believe anyone can change. However, I also believe that the majority of people ultimately believe what they want to believe. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years and I have met relatively few who are committed to subjecting themselves and their own beliefs to the same scrutiny and the same standards that they apply to others. (this is the real definition of hypocrisy by the way. Being undercritical of yourself).

    In my experience most people do not conform their beliefs to reasons, they go looking for reasons to justify their beliefs. Even if a person changes their belief system drastically it is frequently not ultimately the result of reasons or logic that convinced them or compelled them. It is often the result of some emotional or other personal issue that made them dissatisfied with their original belief and as a result they sought out something to replace it with, including the reasons to justify changing.

    I don’t know if you go in for philosophy or not but this is kind of one of the core questions of Socrates life. Socrates was rumored to consider himself the wisest man in Greece, and eventually he was put on trial for his life because he so angered and irritated his fellow citizens. He did this by showing them the holes and contradictions in their own beliefs.

    When asked if he was the wisest man in Greece (as part of the trial) he essentially responded that he was actually NOT wise. He did not know the things he most needed to know. He went on to say that he was only wiser than everyone else in Greece because he was the only one who knew that he was not wise. He was the only one who recognized that he did not know the truth. Everyone else believed a untruths and were unaware of it.

    Of course in the end he was put to death and the resounding lesson was that the majority of people would rather kill you than put up with you poking holes in their deeply held beliefs. :)

    I don’t think its that bad (at least not currently), but it is very true that people generally do not like to be forced to question their beliefs.

    It is also true that you can never change in the pursuit of truth, until you come to the realization that you don’t already know it. Only those who examine themselves will ever truly change.

    In my opinion I think that in a world without divine grace, no one would ever really get to that point. Luckily there is divine grace :)

  13. Well, the naturalistic examples that Josh gave above that would prompt one’s presumptions or assumptions to be raised (could it be a supernatural event from God that left naturalistic traces or was it purely naturalistic, which some people will ascribe to God?), are very valid and I do not disagree with them. But they are incomparable to the case of the Shroud of Turin by far. That’s what I meant by short-shighted. The examples given to support his comments don’t do any justice to our concern here. They were unintentionally Red Herrings.

  14. @ Josh

    Ok, agreed. As I used to say when I was learning English at 14 back in 2001 “Very good, very well”.

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