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.
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.