Or that Mary Magdalene was a redeemer goddess.
Or that Christ was an invention by the aristocratic elite to sooth the masses.
Or that he never existed.
Or that anything is really factual on the page that Dan Brown titles “Fact” at the beginning of his art-religious conspiracy theory thrillers.
The easy answer might be that I don’t get my historical information primarily from the Discovery Channel or bestselling novelists—what I call the TMZ equivalents of scholarship. But let me elaborate a little.
Aaron Ells of The Wardrobe Door captures the most recent round of ridiculousness pretty well with his article, “Lost Gospel Gets Found (Again) Just In Time for Christmas)”:
Looks like Christmas came a little early this year, thanks, once again, to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and his latest project The Lost Gospel, which claims to demonstrate Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Yes, that does sound a lot like the plot of The Da Vinci Code.
Ells goes on to talk about how Simcha Jocobovici drank the Jesus Tomb Kool-Aid and now continues his stream of pseudo-academic biblical conspiracy theory films.
Not satisfied to invent archaeology, we are back with Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife with this “Lost Gospel,” summarized here by The Telegraph:
Simcha Jacobovici, co-author of The Lost Gospel, said that far from being a prostitute, Mary Magdalene was a woman “of stature” who was revered as a goddess.
“It goes way beyond marriage,” he said. “It describes (Mary Magdalene) as a co-messiah, co-deity, defender of humanity.
“This shows her as the leader of the Gentile (non Jewish) church. She is called the mother of virgins. This text is called the story of Mary Magdalene. It’s about her.”
This is much like Dr. Karen King’s “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment from 2012. In the Jacobovici claim, the text needs to be read allegorically or symbolically—or as secretly coded—for his interpretation to work. No wonder we never noticed before: it was a secret code.
For Prof. King, though, her discovery, a different Coptic (Egyptian) fragment says:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’ ”
“She will be able to be my disciple.”
There are a couple of key differences, not least that Prof. King is a mainstream Harvard-Duke scholar. She is part of the Jesus Seminar, meaning she is on the liberal side of the Historical Jesus question. For those on the inside, it means she will tilt toward a Greek context for Jesus over a Hebrew one, will favour words over deeds when thinking about Jesus of Nazareth, and will date the Gospel of Thomas earlier.
Ben Witherington reminds us that Dr. King will have her own biases, but I want to set that aside for a moment. I’ll go further and try to use scholars who have real problems with Christianity rather than those writing from the Christian tradition.
I also want to set aside some translation issues that might obscure Jesus-wife references in early Gnostic Christian texts. Those translations are not perfectly clear, but I’ll take them at face value. I’ll even grant Simcha Jocobovici’s “startling announcement” that this fragment says that Jesus had a wife, and leave aside his lack of credibility in the ridiculous claim that he has found the nails that crucified Christ. Others, including Aaron Ells, have demonstrated how goofy some of this is.
No, I’ll accept his claim that he has an authentic fragment. I am even going to go a step further. In both of these cases, the claim is that these Coptic fragments are translations of older Greek texts. They may be. You can tell when a text is a translation, though I would dispute that a fragment can tell us this. In the New Testament, for example, where we know they are using Old Testament passages, we can usually tell when they are using their own translation of Hebrew into Greek, or someone else’s. It isn’t perfect, and cannot apply to fragments, but it is a legitimate claim. They cannot tell us whether that translation is of a document 5 years earlier or 500 years earlier, as the filmmaker claims. So the claim that these translations are of 1st or 2nd century documents is either knowingly false or academic bumbling.
But… I’m feeling generous today. I’ll grant even that. I’ll grant that these fragments go back to our earliest Gospel fragments. Heck, let’s grant that they go back to the era of Gospel writing. Why not?
As much as I want to be a sarcasta-blogger on this point, we have a good moment here for reflection if we grant all these ridiculous claims.
So let’s do a thought experiment on history, something that requires very little technical ability.
Basically, these public conversations go like this:
- Document X is a Coptic/Syriac Jesus saying fragment from about 400 CE.
- Document X really goes back to a Greek or Aramaic Document A, written 50-200 CE (the range between the Gospels being written and being codified into the New Testament).
- Document X says that Jesus journeyed to the East, hired Sherpas with a knack for languages, and climbed Mt. Everest.
- Therefore, Jesus really did journey to the East, hire Sherpas with a knack for languages, and climb Mt. Everest.
- Therefore, the mainstream Gospels are wrong or deficient.
- Therefore, Christianity is for losers, fools, and itty bitty grandmothers with miniature dogs who watch Billy Graham 80s film reruns on cable TV.
Perhaps you haven’t seen it in exactly that form, but you can change the content and you will see that it fits all of these “startling discoveries” about Jesus’ life. Change mountain-climbing Jesus with baby-making Jesus and the logic still works.
Put in these bald terms, can you see the logical flaw? It could be #6. But, granted #4 and #5, Christianity does have some problems, or at least some missed Sherpa-type opportunities. If Jesus was really a mountain climber or secret society leader or Buddha reborn, then Christianity must be reconfigured or die.
The real problem, though, is the jump from #3 to #4. Because Document X wrote it down, it is therefore true.
Here’s the shocker: Not everyone tells the truth.
Prepare for it, shocker #2: Even the truthful can be wrong.
My thesis is simple and elegant: Just because someone believed something about Jesus (or any other historical figure) doesn’t make it true.
This is a knife that cuts both ways. As historians, we don’t accept the mainstream Gospels at their word, or at least not initially. People can accept them on faith, as the LDS will accept Mormon claims that Jesus evangelized America. The Book of Mormon is not significant in the discussion of the historical Jesus because it comes 1750 years later. And if Christians simply want to accept the Gospels as religious documents, they can do so on faith.
With the Gospels, though, they exist in the historical moment, they are part of the world they are addressing. With the Gospels we have a series of books from the generation after the Jesus generation. Three of those books are dependent upon one another; one sits outside of that tradition. There are also some sayings Gospels like Thomas that may add to the history.
Moreover, we have letters of Paul that push the conversation back 20 years. These letters don’t say much about Jesus; they speak to people who already believe Jesus was a person of history and the risen Christ. They may be wrong, or untruthful, but they are historical evidence.
Finally, we have a few other pieces of evidence. Reza Aslan, a fairly prominent social critic and religious studies expert, rocketed to public fame with the notorious Fox interview. Instead of reading the book and critiquing it, the Fox commentator decided to attack Aslan because he was a Muslim, and therefore too biased to be a historian. If you haven’t seen it, it is a brilliant example of how not to think about history:
He and I disagree about how to read the history of Jesus, but we agree on the basic method. Watch this 2 minutes of Reza Aslan on Huffington Post. Reza Aslan over-speaks here. If no one cared about Jesus, why was he assassinated? But note the great use of logic to establish Jesus as a historical figure. He doesn’t think that the mainstream Gospels give a view of Jesus we can trust historically—a spiritual leader, born again. Aslan spends his time digging through the surface layer for a deeper meaning of the history. I think he misses it, but I think he method works as a good starting point.
Even in Aslan’s digging, though, he isn’t looking for super-secret coded messages. He is weighing motivations against the messages to try to discern history. His process is not unlike how we weigh the truth claim of advertising or a politician or a professor with an agenda.
So, even if we put the Jesus-wife claims in historical context, the people who claim that Jesus had a wife have to put their claim against a fairly strong stream of early writers who disagree with their view. The early Gospels are not arguing against the idea that Jesus had a wife. Sometimes they argue against things, like the rumour of John’s immortality at the end of the Fourth Gospel. But the Gospels are not even arguing against the idea. It’s not on the radar. No one even thought of it.
And good scholars don’t take later fragments and then reinvent earlier scenarios. I’m not certain that Dr. King’s Jesus’ Wife fragment is authentic (I suspect it is), or that it is interpreted correctly, but note the difference in approach here. Dr. Karen King says the following in the movie about the Jesus’ Wife fragment;
“The question on many people’s minds is whether this fragment should lead us to re-think whether Jesus was married. I think however, what it leads us to do, is not to answer that question one way or the other, it should lead us to re-think how Christianity understood sexuality and marriage in a very positive way, and to recapture the pleasures of sexuality, the joyfulness and the beauties of human intimate relations.”
Note that she doesn’t change what we know about Jesus by an obscure piece of evidence. Instead, she says that it may show more about a stream of followers we didn’t know much about. It tells us about Christian history, but not about Jesus.
I know that I can’t convince the conspiracy theorists here. Using liberal scholars—Reza Aslan, Karen King, and even add anti-theist Bart Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus Exist?, which shows that Jesus was a real historical figure—and we strip aside a lot of the ridiculousness away.
I have, I hope, tackled a couple of silly pop culture fallacies:
- If someone said it, it must be true. Not everyone tells the truth, and not all truth-tellers are correct.
- If someone outside the mainstream said it, it must be true (or false). This fallacy plays on the idea of bias. Everyone, though, has bias. I have granted all the claims on the fragments, regardless of their source. And still the conspiracy falls on basic logic. It is good to consider one’s sources, but bias alone does not confirm or deny one’s argument. There are no un-biased sources.
I would like to wipe away a third fallacy. No one says it aloud, but people think it.
- If it is old, it is more likely to be true.
We see this in Michel Faber’s book, The Fire Gospel. This clever little novella may be satire and I have missed it, but it captures a cultural moment well. A scholar, sort of a loser who plays on the margins, steals some historical documents from Iraq. As it turns out, they are an early, 1st century, Aramaic conversation suggesting that the resurrection of Jesus is false testimony. While the story is really about the protagonist, as he goes on book tour, no one says the obvious: How do we know that this Aramaic chap is telling the truth? No one brings it up. They just jump on the “everything you’ve ever heard is wrong” bandwagon.
It is an enjoyable, maddening read, and I encourage you to pick it up. But let’s call the bluff: Just because it is old (going back to Aramaic or Greek), doesn’t make it any more true. It just puts it into the conversation. That’s all.
Now, I know this path using logic isn’t very sexy. But it works for all historical figures, from Jesus to Muhammad to Shakespeare. And it will work for Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden and Kermit the Frog when we all pass into dust and memory.
So I don’t think Jesus was a father, or a husband, or a Sherpa-hiring mountain climber, or anything much unexpected at all. All historians agree that Jesus was an inversive, problematic, paradigm-twisting Jewish rabbi who was executed as a terrorist. The rest is for readers to discern.
Let me finish with a clip from The Da Vinci Code film. It is a painful piece of writing. The lovely Audrey Tautau becomes a dumb interlocutor. Tom Hanks is the scornful skeptic–a change from the book–and Sir Ian McKellen is an old crank. Painful to watch. One of the worst 5 minutes in a blockbuster film ever.
But a change from the book is intriguing. In the film they add the point that just because Leonardo Da Vinci painted a Jesus-wife conspiracy into his work (which is doubtful), doesn’t make it historically true. That part is missing from the book. And still no one in the film asks whether The Gospel of Philip is a good source or not. Fuddled, muddy thinking.
Enjoy, and cringe.