There are a lot of good responses to this breaking story, see Ben Witherington and James White for some good posts and information. I want to take a different tack in this post, addressing how we respond in general to stories like this and more specifically how we should “think” about these issues.
This particular claim is not a strong one. But let’s postulate. What if the claim were stronger, and was harder to disprove? How should we handle apparently credible information that if true would be damaging to our faith?
First, our priority is truth. Knowing what is true is knowing what God wants us to know. When it comes to contrary information, our first response should be a measured one. I like what Aristotle said:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
I would say that 95% of Christianity was unaware of the existence of this particular cave even though it was discovered all the way back in 1980. It is probably the same amount of Christians who responded before ever gathering information. As far as they know, these could be the bones of Christ. The knee jerk initial response of the believer is “tell me how to respond to this blasphemy”, when a much better response would be “what are the facts so that we can examine the evidence.”
There are many possible explanations for any given set of phenomena. Starting with your conclusion is what we call bias. Recognizing our bias is important.
In this instance, the Christian starts out with a bias. We believe in the resurrection. We have staked our faith on it, and many of us have made large sacrifices in life as a result. We have a bias toward information that confirms our belief in the resurrection.
The critic also starts out with a bias, and his bias tends to influence him to look for information that affirms his bias or his motivation. Let’s take James Cameron for instance. He is behind the film coming out on the Jesus tomb. He could be an unbeliever bent on disproving the claims of Christianity. He is a documentary film maker and an explorer who enjoys discovery. Discovering the bones of Jesus is quite a bit different than discovering the bones of an everyday Jew who happened to share the name “Jesus.” His motive might be recognition.
None of the above proves or disproves the claim. James Cameron could have sordid motives and could still be right. The Christian could have pure motives and yet be wrong. Our quest is for truth, and the source or the motives behind the particular information is close to irrelevant. The truth seeker attempts to weed this out in search of information. But all information is then subject to interpretation. The honest truth seeker acknowledges his own presuppositions, assumptions, desires, beliefs and biases.
Let’s change some details to create a hypothetical situation. Let’s say instead of a tomb and bones purported to be the bones of Jesus, we found some other artifact with the names Jesus, son of Joseph; Mary, etc. The responses may be reversed. Christians would respond with glee, unbelievers with skepticism. This again would tell us more about the bias of the response than the truth of the claim.
All of these sorts of claims need healthy, rigorous examination. The Christian faith is not threatened by examination, even by some healthy doubt. Rather, time and again these kinds of events strengthen rather than weaken the truth claims of Christianity.
If Jesus’ bones are out there, we certainly want to know. The problem is that it would be close to impossible to prove that claim beyond a shadow of a doubt. Asking hard questions, holding evidence in abeyance before drawing a conclusion is ok for Christians. We don’t have to have an answer for every challenge, we examine or contemplate claims before we dismiss them, or paint them with our preconceived Christian brush. We have been wrong before. We have changed parts of our paradigm based on evidence. We once supported a geocentric view of the universe, remember?
We don’t know everything. We don’t know everything about God, the universe, even the earth and sea. So why are we so quick to reject contrary claims? It boils down to insecurity.