Essay / Misc.

Old Joke Comes True

One good thing I can say about James Cameron’s Lost Tomb of Jesus media blitz: It pays Christianity a great compliment by accepting the religion’s claim to be about something real. The basic idea motivating Cameron’s project is that if somebody finds the body of Jesus Christ, the whole Christian thing is over, finished, based on a mistake. Christians claim Jesus came back from the dead with a new kind of life, and that’s a claim that’s either right or wrong. Bring me an ossuary filled with Jesus’ physical remains, and I’m looking for a new religion. (Aside from the theological blow, this would cause lots of family tension too: I’d probably become a Nietzschean humanist, but my wife would just worship the sun, and how on earth would we raise the children? As Coppertoned √úbermenschen?)

So even though this particular “bones of Jesus” thing will likely be over before it’s started because it overreaches so desperately on such a slender evidential basis, it’s nice to have truth claims taken so seriously. There are always wooly-minded folks out there who are capable of believing Christianity is true even with a permanently dead Savior. Yes, you read that right: some people have faith in a dead man to save them. You either have to be very dumb or very smart for that to make sense to you; those of us somewhere in the middle recognize it as nonsense.

As an example of a very smart person who talked himself into this, take the German theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who spent much of his life teaching in America.

A major goal of his theological project was to create a version of Christianity which no possible historical evidence could ever falsify. One of his admiring students reports that he said this sort of thing frequently in his classes:

“I do not wish the telephone in my office to ring and to hear from some New Testament colleague: ‘Paulus, our research has now finally removed the object of your ultimate concern; we cannot find your Jesus anywhere.'” (Langdon Gilkey, in Gilkey on Tillich (New York: Crossroad, 1990), p. 151.)

Tillich lived at a time when “the assured results of modern scholarship” in history and archaeology were advancing all the time, and he really seems to have worried that somebody would dig up the tell-tale bit of evidence that would discredit Christian beliefs. But instead of staying worried, he chose to remove from the core of his belief system anything that any historian might conceivably be able to get his dirty mitts on. The result was an unassailable religious commitment, not even theoretically open to falsification by little things like facts.

This theological position was widespread in the middle of the twentieth century, and led to a joke that took many forms but always went something like this:

An archaeological dig in the Holy Land unearthed the bones of Jesus Christ. The evidence was compelling, even irrefutable. After checking and double-checking his information, the head of the team of archaeologists became certain that he had found the corpse of Jesus Christ, who therefore could not have been resurrected as Christians had always believed.

Stunned, he called the only person he could think of who was the recognized head of world Christianity, the Pope. After much discussion, the Pope began to understand just how strong the evidence was, and decided that he would have to call together the leadership of all Christian denominations in order to come to terms with this astonishing discovery.

“Who,” he asked his advisors, “is the greatest Protestant theologian now living?” The answer came back: “Paul Tillich.” So the Pope telephoned Paul Tillich and carefully described the way the bones had been found and how convincing the archaeological evidence seemed to him.

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “Do you understand what I am saying?” asked the Pope.

“Ach,” said Tillich in his thick German accent. “Zo there really was a Jesus after all…”

The joke circulated with other theologians in it, most notably Rudolf Bultmann who usually thought of the resurrection as mythological way of saying that after the death of Jesus, a great faith arose in the disciples. Like most jokes, it’s not quite fair (either to Tillich or Bultmann), but the whole reason it’s funny is that anybody who’s worked through hundreds of pages of their theological acrobatics on the resurrection feels the force of the punch line.

So oddly, I’m with rez-sploitation movie-maker James Cameron on this one vs. the mid-century theologists: The un-resurrected body of Jesus would be a defeater for my Christian beliefs. We can expect the current crop of “No resurrection? No problem!” Christians to get their time on camera, but in the long run it just means that the old joke from the 1950s will be circulating again in the 2000s with new names: “So the Pope calls John Dominic Crossan…”

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