Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Commentary on Time's St. Paul coverage

Appearing on Time.com is an article which my friend Tim (who runs a fun blog here.) pointed out to me in the comments section. The article is dripping with disdain for the Church and hides behind the ruse of objective reporting while never missing a chance to take a potshot.

Now let's look at their article.

From Time.com (Full article can be found here) Emphasis mine.

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006
How seriously should we take the Vatican's announcement that it has found the sarcophagus of St. Paul underneath Rome's second-largest basilica?

For Catholics, the answer might be, pretty seriously. But for others, especially archaelogists, more skepticism may be in order. [How about the skepticism coming from the Vatican? You know they have that too right?]

In truth, the eight-foot white marble sarcophagus that Vatican archaelogists uncovered beneath the basilica St. Paul Outside the Walls is more a question of lost-and-found than a brand new find. The Church has known that a relic believed to be the first-century saint, who wrote the earliest books of the New Testament and was Christianity's first great evangelist, was somewhere beneath the current basilica. [For about 2000 years, give or take, with everyone in agreement.] But around 1823, the year that a previous, ancient church on the location burned down, they lost track of it. Interest was rekindled four years ago when many Catholics streamed into Rome for Christianity's millennium and were disappointed to find no relic of the Saint. Two years later the archaelogists began digging, and this year they uncovered the sarcophagus and a protective slab inscribed in latin saying "To Paul, Apostle and Martyr." They were heartened by the presence of three holes in it (now stopped up with plaster) through which ancient pilgrims would have put cloths to come in contact with an object of veneration.

Ok, got that? This is where the article should stop, because thats where the actual objectivity ends. What follows is mere opinion and conjecture about why this is not Paul, and how silly we are to think that it might be.

Whether you believe that they were actually venerating Paul's remains may depend on how you feel about the authority of the Church. [No, it does not. If the remains are Paul's then they were venerating his remains. If they weren't then they were just venerating his memory. It has nothing to do with Church authority because Church authority cannot cover this.] The white marble, says Professor James Strange, an archaelogist at the University of South Florida "immediately tells you that this was a self-conscious, elaborate ritual burial" of a sort that the church at Paul's time would not have been capable. [Dumb comment. He could have been re-interred later on when the Church came of age. Especially since they knew where he was buried.] The Latin inscription, says Bard College's Bruce Chilton, author of a book about Paul, does not reflect Paul's Roman Christian community, which would have written it in Greek. [Unless he was re-interred later on in a Latin speaking world...or maybe because they were in Rome anyway, where they spoke Latin.]
Neither fact rules out the possibility that the sarcophagus might be Paul's; his bones could have been recovered and reburied in the earlier church, which was built in about AD 390. [Ah, yes.] But not even church representatives, who say that there is "incontrovertible evidence" [Nice quotes.] that Paul was buried at the site, are willing to guarantee that this sarcophagus will contain him. [Its not about being willing to guarantee anything. How patronizing can we get here Mr. Time? Rome is doing what it always does...investigate...before it opens its mouth.] X-ray tests on it have already failed because of a layering of concrete and plaster that still surrounds most of it. And the more than 300- year gap between Paul's reported death by order of of the Roman emperor Nero in AD 68 and the construction of the old church leaves considerable room for doubt. [reported death? Nice jab. Language is either a useful tool or a blunt weapon.]

I'm going to stop here and comment on the last bit there. Let's be intellectually honest about this one. When I went to London I visited Westminster Abbey, which is host to many many famous people who have been buried there. This includes people such as Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and Sir Isaac Newton (just to name a few). We know they were buried there. But in 600 years will someone come along and say "we have no proof that these are actually the real people." I bet Time would if it could, but I doubt it'll still be around then.

The Basilica was built some 300 years after Nero's reign, so he was not interred there specifically. However, we know because 2000 years of continual agreement among anyone who cared or does care says that the church was built over the spot where St. Paul was martyred. That is the "incontrovertable evidence" the Cardinal is talking about. He is NOT talking about it being a guarantee that this is definitely St. Paul buried in that coffin, which Time pokes at him for anyway.

The Church has said that it may try to open the sarcophagus, but hasn't set a date, [<--- this is a jab, trust me, it is.] which is consistent with the preferred speed of both the Vatican and careful archaelogists. If they do, and they discover the bones of a single man whose skull appears to have been forcefully separated from his body (Paul was beheaded) then the scholars will be much more receptive. Carbon dating might at least attest to a first-century provenance.

Until then, the sarcophagus is a little like your great great great grandmother's precious pearls, which the family knew were somewhere in the attic, and finally turned up when someone went digging. You knew they were there; you found them again. The family is free to believe that they are worth millions; but an objective gem assessor might apply a tougher set of criteria.

This isn't Antiques Roadshow my friends. Anyone who has any kind of intellectual honestly will agree that those who report or investigate historical claims should not enter into a question outright believing the negative first. Negativity is not objectivity. Negativity is negativity. The Church has a 2000 year old history of thoroughly investigating things before they put a stamp on it. It has managed to infuriate thousands because it denies miracles attributed to Saints, has crushed the dreams of those who adamantly believe certain archaeological finds are true, and has such slow and deliberate processes that many times the promoters of miracles or historical finds are long dead before any sort of visible movement.

So yeah, I trust the Church on this one. Right now the Church says: We don't know. Please be patient. Thats fine by me. If the thing is Paul's they'll tell us. If the thing doesn't have Paul in it, they'll tell us. If it does, expect a ceremony and a relic to head its way East. Expect Time to move on and poke at another aspect of orthodox Christianity.

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"The whole truth is generally the ally of virtue; a half-truth is always the ally of some vice." - G.K. Chesterton