13 July 2009

suggestions for a pope . . .

Posted by at 6:03 PM Read our previous post

The radiocarbon tests performed on some bone fragments from the recently excavated sarcophagus traditionally held to be the apostle Paul's burial site have dated them to the first or the second century of the common era. Based on these results, Pope Benedict XVI declared the remains to be indeed those of the apostle. Although I think he's being premature (and a bit presumptuous) in his announcement, I have no special reason for doubting that they may be the famed apostle's bones. In fact, for what it's worth, I hope they are Paul's.

The problem that I have with all of this at the moment is that the span of time in the dating result is not narrow enough. If (and that's a bigger 'if' than Benedict allows for) these are indeed the bones of the notorious Paul, we need a narrower scope of time than this two-century side-of-a-barn time span in order for the discovery to be of any real help.

How to narrow the gap?

During the excavations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many radiocarbon tests were performed on many artifacts. In an attempt to narrow the wide range of time which the artifacts can be dated to, an archaeologist named Magen Broshi came up with an idea. In one particular cave—the Cave of Letters—archaeologists (led by Yigael Yadin) discovered some correspondence between Simon Bar Kochba and one Yohanan, probably an officer under him. The most fortuitous thing about these letters is that they are dated; we know when Bar Kochba was active in his campaign against the Romans (132–136 C.E.). Broshi thought to submit these letters to radiocarbon dating as well, to see which date in the wide (often more than two century) span of possible dating for them. It turns out that in the cave of letters, a general rule of thumb applies for carbon 14 dating: in short, the actual date usually coincided with the older extreme of the dating carbon 14 time range. Now, This rule was later called Broshi's Law and was useful in chronologically or stratigraphically studying the treasures of the Cave.

Now, Broshi's Law only technically applies to the Cave of Letters, but I wonder if there might be a possibility of doing a similar test in the case of Paul's sarcophagus. I anticipate that a detailed report concerning the radiocarbon is forthcoming (it would be a real shame if it is not).
Some questions I have:
What exactly is the range of dates that resulted? (20–220 C.E? . . . . 70—180 C.E.? The precise range would be good to know)
The pope's report said that there were articles of clothing nearby. Were there any texts nearby? Any letters, especially?

Knowing the precise dating could settle many questions regarding Christian origins. If the bones date to around 64 or so, then the traditions about Paul are confirmed and the theories of the Tübingen and Dutch Radical schools can be tossed out the window as anachronic.

But, what if the bones turn out to date to the second century? Wouldn't this fact require us to throw the traditional story out?

(Of course, in that case, I have no doubt that the church would simply concede that it's probably not Paul after all)



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