Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Bare Bones of Contention

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Bare Bones of Contention

Article excerpt


THE Japanese for "no" is a silent smile, so I'm told, but in this country a refusal is usually indicated by sullen indifference. Ken Livingstone never responded to my letter proposing a Punch a Traffic Cop for Jesus campaign, nor did the Vatican Press return the manuscript of my latest book (101 Original Sins and How to Commit Them), and I never got a reply from the late Roy Castle when I wrote to him as a schoolboy. "Dear Record Breakers," I began, "I have discovered numerous sporting references in the Bible, including Formula One racing ('all of Israel heard the roar of his Triumph'), soccer ('Jesus going up for the cross'), and tennis ('Joseph served on Pharaoh's court'). Is this a record?" The man ignored me, but I got my revenge many years later by turning up at the famous anti-smoker's funeral, breathing in deeply during the cremation, then suing his family for secondary inhalation of his fumes.

The case continues.

Two thousand years ago, early Christians were sometimes cremated alive by the Romans (hence the expression Braise the Lord), but most simply died of natural causes, and had their bones preserved in one of countless ossuaries, located outside the walls of Jerusalem. Last year, one of these ancient limestone caskets came to light, complete with an Aramaic inscription that read "James, son of Joseph, brother of James," and it was immediately hailed by some as "the greatest archaeological find of all time".

On Good Friday, the newspapers were full of reports that this ossuary had now been declared genuine by scientists, thereby giving us proof positive of the existence of Jesus, and it briefly seemed that my lifelong atheism had been crucified dead. But lo, my religious scepticismwas miraculously resurrected on Sunday night, when I watched The Brother of Jesus (the Discovery channel documentary on which those newspaper stories had been based), and found a level of " scientific proof" so feeble that I soon began turning my eyes heavenwards and intoning the words "Jesus Christ".

Why believers need to bolster their faith with dubious relics like the Turin Shroud or a box of bones has always been a mystery to me, but the televisual quest to authenticate this ossuary took us on a chase so meandering that even a wild goose would have considered it pointless.

While pretending to be impartial, the editorial line was clearly intended to convince us that the find was genuine, and conjecture was, therefore, allowed to masquerade as fact, while all doubts and inconsistencies were blithely glossed over. Never mind that the words "brother of Jesus" had been carved in a different hand from the rest of the inscription, or that the owner of the box said that he could not remember where he had acquired it, such technicalities were surely no reason to raise an eyebrow or two as to its provenance. …

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