Jacobovici and Team Don’t Understand Religious Studies, Don’t Do Their Research

Categories: Biblical Studies

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Jason Staples Substack

Simcha Jacobovici and now two people from the production team behind the TV show about the Patio Tomb Ossuaries keep insinuating that the only reason scholars are not convinced by their conclusions is due to the various scholars’ theological biases or desires. For example, a few years ago, in his defense against critics of the so-called “Jesus Family Tomb” theory, Jacobovici called Bob Cargill “an ordained minister with a Ph.D,” insinuating that the reason for Cargill’s opposition was obviously his theological background. The problem: Cargill, although he indeed has a Ph.D., is not an ordained minister at all. Jacobovici’s statement was flat out false. (Of course, if anyone brought up Jacobovici’s religious background, that was off limits!)

Now, two members of Associate Producers, Ltd. (the production team that worked with Jacobovici on the Talpiot TV programs) have made similar statements in comments on a recent post on Cargill’s blog. First, Nicole Austin asserts that the “true scholars” have so far been kept from the fray by the “slander” (sic.) being disseminated by (apparently “fake scholars”) Cargill and Mark Goodacre (along with Jim West). Austin then makes the following statement (my emphasis):

According to this logic, anybody “associated with Simcha” is no longer independent. Does the same thing work in reverse? Is anyone associated with Cargill no longer independent? How about West or Goodacre? More to the point, how about anyone associated with a seminary or Christian college? It’s interesting that in your world associations with theological institutions do not disqualify you from being an “independent scholar”. But associating with an independent documentary production company that has been awarded some of the most prestigious prizes in journalism, makes you less “independent”. Sorry, Paul, in my world journalists are perceived to be far more “independent” than theologians.

Austin is mistaken in labeling Goodacre and Cargill “theologians,” as Goodacre is a New Testament scholar in the Religion Department (not the Divinity School) at Duke, while Cargill is at Iowa, a secular university. These are not seminary or “theological”posts but historical (or to use Austin’s term “independent”) ones.

Photo courtesy of John McGinley, the Publicity Graphics guy from the Talpiot TV show.

Then later in the thread, John McGinley, another employee of Associate Producers, Ltd., with a photo (see right) mocking Cargill’s prior posts about digital manipulation of the pictures from the Patio Tomb, including the following statement about the nameplate used in one of Cargill’s television appearances, which said “Dr. Robert Cargill, Archaeologist, UCLA,”

This name plate does not appear in any other photo on Cargill’s site. Was it “photoshopped” after the fact? Maybe it is a camera trick? Notice the changed lighting and the transparency. Perhaps it is a subliminal effect to make us think of his image as one with the word “archaeologist”. That way, viewers will forget that he is a “Master of Divinity.” [My emphasis]

Ah, now we see the real problem: as I had suspected when I first read Jacobovici’s mistaken claims about Cargill being an ordained minister, Jacobovici and his team apparently do not understand the field of religious studies, assuming that anyone with an M.Div. must be a Christian minister. But this is not in fact how things work. As it turns out, the field of Religious Studies is very competitive at the Ph.D. level, with very few spots for many potential applicants (and or even fewer jobs down the line), especially in fields related to the Bible. As a result, very few people are able to get into a Religious Studies program (again, especially in areas related to biblical studies) straight out of undergraduate work. In order to get into top institutions, most top students need to do a Master’s degree (preferably at a top institution), where they can learn the languages, meet and impress professors who can recommend them for Ph.D. programs, and grow as scholars before being able to get into (and successfully navigate) a good Ph.D. program in the field.

But not many of the top secular Ph.D. programs have terminal MA degrees (though a few are starting to add them), meaning most of these prospective scholars wind up passing through a divinity school or seminary at some point. After all, many top scholars work in a divinity school or seminary, so this is usually a good start for those wanting to move into an academic career. (As it turns out, this is not the route I took, as I did my MA at Florida State before coming to UNC-Chapel Hill, but my situation is more the exception than the rule.) That a person has a M.Div. in no way suggests has a particular theological slant. For example, one of my undergraduate students—an agnostic—will be attending Yale Divinity School next year. My Ph.D. advisor, Bart Ehrman, is a well-known and open “happy agnostic,” as he likes to say. Bart has an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Does Bart’s M.Div. mean his opinion on the Talpiot tombs is tainted by his theological perspective. Is he a “theologian” because he got his Ph.D. from a theological seminary? (Then there’s the following quote from one of my friends in the field who himself attended an Evangelical seminary: “Evangelical seminaries are breeding grounds for agnostics and high-church converts,” so even a theological degree from a conservative institution—like, say, Pepperdine—may not indicate current theological beliefs.)

The distinction between a Ph.D. and a Th.D. is also an important one: the latter is indeed a “theological” degree for “theologians.” The former, at least at top-tier schools is in no way a theological degree but involves the academic study of religion. In the fields related to the Bible, this generally involves a good degree of historical, linguistic, and cultural expertise. These scholars can generally speak intelligently about topics related to theology (and some even may delve into theology themselves), but their formal training is in historical work, not theological studies. This is true even in places one might associate with their divinity programs like Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale (which has a Divinity School and a separate Religious Studies department), Duke (same as Yale), University of Chicago (same), etc.

I am presently in a top secular department of Religious Studies, and I can say with authority that the Ph.D. programs at Duke, Yale, etc. are effectively doing the same things we do. Yes, different faculty will have different emphases, but a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke does not have an inherently more theological perspective than one from UNC-CH. (This is not the case at places where you have to sign a doctrinal statement to get in and/or stay in the program, but none of the top-tier schools would ever require this, as it limits academic freedom and places bounds on what questions can be asked.)

Jacobovici and his team apparently do not understand how this system works and have consistently insinuated that the scholars who disagree with their conclusions are tainted by their affiliations (past or present) with “theological institutions.” One might think that James Tabor would have filled them in on how these things work. But at any rate, in my world, investigative journalists are supposed to do their homework and research their information. It hurts their credibility when they demonstrate that they have not done this, especially when they continually use their ignorance as a part of their argument.


Tags: academia, Bart Ehrman, Cargill, divinity school, Duke University, James Tabor, Jesus Family Tomb, Mark Goodacre, Master of Divinity, Religious studies, Simcha Jacobovici, Talpiot, Talpiot Tomb, UNC, Yale Divinity School

8 Comments. Leave new

  • sigh. i remember when i had hair… 🙁
    (good post!)

  • Jason, not sure why you think I have a theological degree, or any degree for that matter, from Duke? And in 1965 at that–how old would that make me? I would hate to damage Duke’s reputation by spreading such inaccurate reports or being classed as such a senior citizen 🙂 I don’t have any theological degrees (B.A. Greek, Abilene Christian University, M.A. Religion, Pepperdine University M.A., University of Chicago, M.A., Ph.D.). I am, however, like Bart and countless others, one who began in the field of biblical studies from an evangelical Christian background, and moved completely out of that perspective. I have not seen the posts you refer to on Cargill’s blog but I would like to make one point, however, that I think you have skirted over, whether purposely or not I don’t know. If one holds the view that Jesus’ corpse, flesh and bones, was resuscitated, transformed, and transported to heaven, no matter where one studies or teaches and what degree one has, would you not agree such a conviction puts one in a vastly different place when it comes to the Talpiot tomb, or any potential tomb of Jesus, than one who holds that Jesus, like any other human being returned to the dust–as Bart, Crossan, and many others, including me, would unhesitatingly hold as self-evident. It would indeed be deciding a case before it is heard and I think such a person would be unqualified to make any kind of objective academic assessment when it comes to this subject. So maybe that is the operative question in this regard, not what degree one has or from what background one comes? I don’t know your own views in this regard but I had the impassion, from your responses to me regarding the idea of resurrection, that you might be one of those who holds such a view–but maybe not, and apologies if I misunderstood.

    • Whoops! I had thought that seemed a bit odd and suggested you were amazingly well preserved. I was going off the first CV at jamestabor.com that came up through Google, which I’m just now seeing is Charlesworth’s. Sloppy work on my part—my apologies! At any rate, you know how the system works.

      As for the latter question, first I can state with authority that the assumption that those who haven’t bought the Jesus Family Tomb theory or the newest Patio Tomb conclusions aren’t buying it because they are committed to Jesus’ bodily resurrection is fallacious. Secondly, I don’t think all of those scholars who are coming to this question believing in such a resurrection are so compromised by such a conflict of interest that they would not be convinced by strong evidence to the contrary any more than those who are coming to the question believing that such a thing didn’t happen are compromised by that particular starting point. The “you only think that because you’re a ____________” argument really only works once the question of whether one is right or wrong has been established on other grounds. The bigger question is whether the people involved in the discussion are truly engaging in objective analysis of the data. From what I have seen, the stronger critics of the theories have done so on the basis of the evidence, not on the basis of faith claims.

      That said, the one place faith claims keep coming up is from Jacobovici’s camp (you’ve insinuated similar things a few times, but only in passing), as if those scholars who disagree all do so because of “paradigm collapse trauma” or some other poppycock. That would be a fine response were the criticisms of the interpretation of the data incorporating faith claims about Jesus, but so far, the bigger critics of the theories aren’t doing that. We’re addressing the objective data, e.g. that the probability calculations based on the names on the ossuaries cherry-pick the data by ignoring contrary names (Judah, son of Jesus) and putting a heavy weight on things like “Mariamene” (which has nothing to do with Magdala or Mary from Magdala in any early source) and “Yose,” which seems to have been a common abbreviation of one of the most common names from the period, that “Jonah’s” supposed “arms and legs” have changed, that the supposed “fish” appears to be a vessel of some kind, complete with handles and decorative etchings, etc. These are substantive and very damaging critiques that have nothing to do with whether the scholars pointing them out believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

      • Jason, just getting back to you here, busy week with last of classes and finals, end of the year meetings.

        I think you missed my point. It is a simple one and I think self-evident: One who holds the view, however based, that Jesus’ body can not be found on this earth because it was taken up to heaven obviously would not entertain even the possibility of the tomb of Jesus, bones and all, being found, whether Talpiot or another. This would mean that any case made for a “Jesus tomb” would be prejudged to be flawed. That does not mean that those who have critical input into my arguments on the Talpiot tombs have so prejudged the case I make, but it would mean that anyone who thinks Jesus’ body went to heaven, which no competent historian would consider a possibility, is not functioning as an historian in terms of the question of what happened to Jesus’ corpse. In other words, “it went to heaven” might be your belief but it is outside the realm in which historians operate and it is not considered as an evidential possibility by any historian I can think of.

        Also, in your final paragraph you show clearly, in ticking off these “weakness” of the case we have made, have not exposed yourself to the very “objective data” that you cite. All of these issues are dealt with extensively in various posts at bibleinterp.com, in our book, and on my blog (search “Talpiot” at jamestabor.com or bibleinterp.com), by me and other scholars. If we ever cross paths I would look forward to discussing some of this with you face to face. Maybe we can get Mark G., Bart, and a few others together for a session. It sounds like it might be fun, and CH is in the middle in terms of distance.

  • ah- i see james beat me to it, jason. 1965??? he’s not THAT old!

  • No, I am pretty old…finished the B.A. in 1966, but never darkened the door of Duke, for theology or any other purpose in those days. I was happily studying my Bible down at Abilene Christian University with the likes of Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson.

  • Mark Letteney
    May 1, 2012 7:31 am

    Dr . Tabor – would you not agree that it is academically irresponsible to disregard a contention on the basis of the scholar’s background and not the evidence which they garner? If theological tendenz can be demonstrated on the basis of their argument, then do so. Otherwise, dismissing a vast majority of scholars a priori merely because they don’t hold your particular theological skepticism makes you look worse than arrogant, it makes you look undiscerning.

    Agnostics do not have a monopoly on truth. Don’t pretend we do.

    The aforementioned agnostic attending Yale Divinity

  • Dear Professor Obvious,
    you defend Dr. Cargill as “not being an ordained minister” but I am disappointed you left out the obvious follow-up, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


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