The public fascination with the "Gospel of Judas," the supposed tomb of Jesus and even a work of pure fiction like The Da Vinci Code demonstrates the widespread hunger for new insights into the Jewish and Christian faiths. However, Schiffman argued, the supposed "revelations" offered by these discoveries are not what they've been made out to be, especially when they're held under the stark lens of scholarship.
On March 5, the Jewish-Catholic Institute of Saint Joseph's University presented "Ancient Manuscripts, Modern Discoveries and the Quest for Religious Truth," a lecture by Schiffman, who is the chair of NYU's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and the author of 10 books and more than 200 scholarly articles.
He noted that archaeology has shifted in the public's mind, from a mechanical, painstaking science to "archaeology as religious revelation." Some fortune-hunters do not subject their findings to slow and careful analysis, he said, but throw them slipshod and half-formed into the world, declaring them to be revelations that, in the final tally, fail to hold up to close scrutiny. Still, once they're out there, the media — being the media — has a field day with them.
There's a "preference for revelatory simplicity" in contemporary culture, argued Schiffman, something television and other press feed on, but it is the exact opposite of the long, hard struggle for truth that's endemic to scholarship and learning.
Before the media became so pervasive, he went on, such explorations of texts and archaeological finds were navigated along the deliberate path of intense academic scrutiny: It was discovery, not a sudden revelation.
The problem, he continued, with some of these recently discovered works is that they've been around for centuries, have been examined and assessed by scholars, and been shown to have values that directly oppose fundamental tenets of both Christianity and Judaism, such as the existence of more than one God and the idea that Jesus was married. More simply, the scholar stated, they just do not sound like they belong to either faith.
"Most of these revelatory ideas are set up [by sham artists] to uproot a traditional belief," said Schiffman. "People who seek revelation are people who are seeking an interruption in the natural order."
He took particular note of Brown's wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code, which he did not fault as fiction. But he did criticize its author for proclaiming his fabrications to be truth.
"The guy has taken every single conspiracy theory that exists," he said, and combined them into a single work. The crux of the book, he noted, is based on the Gnostic Gospels, a set of texts created by certain early Christian sects that were eventually discredited by the Catholic Church.
"The reception of the Dan Brown book feeds this inversion," he said, that real truth is supposedly being suppressed, and has to be revealed in a venue outside of the academy — a view that conveniently frees the discovery from any sort of intense scrutiny.
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The newest example of this inversion is the "discovery" of the tomb of Jesus.
"It's got all the same ingredients," said the scholar, who has written about a truly resonant discovery — the Dead Sea Scrolls. "It seeks to uproot all the standard religious beliefs," he said, to instead provide a "new narrative" where the revealers are the heroes and the traditionalists the suppressors.
One of the problems with the supposed tomb is that the names marked on the stone structures — which are the names of the main figures who populate the New Testament — were also the most common of that time period, he explained. The number of people who had them was considerable.
And while these new viewpoints and theses about age-old ideas may be popular for television, book and movie consumption, in the end, they do not represent any significant addition to the faith communities.
"It may go well in the press, but it's not necessarily scholarship," pointed out Schiffman.
He argued that society is increasingly looking for quick fixes, even to major issues facing the world, as opposed to the slow grind of perseverance.
"People," he said, "have lost patience with the difficult struggle."