Here we go again: So was Jesus married or what?

JANET ASKS:

What is your opinion on the historicity of the ancient text mentioning Jesus’ wife? What are the implications for the Christian faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

To decide what to make of this text, which has one word that apparently says Jesus was married, it’s all-important to know when it was written. So the wits at www.christianitytoday.com take the prize for funniest religious pun of the month, if not the year, with their headline:

“How to Date Jesus’ Wife”

The quick journalistic summary for Janet is that experts think the text is either a modern fraud, even possibly a joke, or if genuine gives a glimpse of some unknown cult 6 centuries or more after the fact. So it gives us no reliable information about the actual Jesus. But the hubbub reveals both modern scholars’ revisionist itch and the hunger of many people to learn more about history’s single most intriguing personality. If solid proof that Jesus took a wife were ever to turn up someday, yes, that would presumably scramble concepts of his divinity, especially if we also learn that the Son of God had a son or a daughter. However, such finds seem unlikely in the extreme.

The background in more detail:

In 2003, the goofy “Da Vinci Code” novel toyed with the old tales about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. The Mrs. Jesus chatter seemed to shift from fiction to fact in 2012 when Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School told a confab at the Vatican about this scrap of papyrus, a bit smaller than a credit card, with writing in Egypt’s Coptic language. King figured it came from a lost document she grandly titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ (or “GJW”), much to the distress of scholars like Larry Hurtado at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. King originally thought the fragment was “ancient,” probably from the 4th Century A.D., and carried on a belief she said could reach back to the 2d Century.

The 33 words that survived included this partial line: “… Jesus said to them, my wife …”

King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was. As the furor died down, 10 experts went to work studying GJW. Their conclusions are reported in the current Harvard Theological Review. Skipping technicalities, here are the basics:

Date: Radioactive carbon dating puts the papyrus between A.D. 659 and 859, with a mean date of 741, far beyond King’s original hunch. It is not “ancient,” which generally signifies times before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476. (Since GJW mentions Jesus, it’s amusing that the first radiocarbon test dated it “Before Christ,” apparently because the sample studied was too small for accuracy.) Experts who maintain that this is all a hoax (see below) propose that a modern forger simply obtained an old piece of blank papyrus to write on.

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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

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The final days march past: Was there any news in Lent 2014?

Let’s face it folks. There is a very real possibility that this posts exists as a rather flimsy excuse to post this wonderfully ironic Baton Rouge, La., photograph sent by a witty priest to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Now Lent is almost over, so it’s now or never.

Actually, this photo does symbolize a question — a journalistic question, actually — that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Great Lent this year: Do mainstream journalists realize that there is more to Lent than food?

I mean, the U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years put quite a bit of effort into a public campaign to promote — following ages and ages of tradition — the importance of believers going to Confession during the season of Lent. I kind of expected that this the “light is still on” effort might get more press attention this time around, especially after the media-storm called Pope Francis did a daring thing the other day by choosing to go to Confession in clear view of the world.

So take a look at a Google News search for “Catholics,” “Lent,” “Confession” and “light on.”

Not much, right?

So we’re back to food.

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

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Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

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Pentecostal gap in that LATimes immigration reform story

There was an important interfaith gathering the other day in Los Angeles that allowed some highly symbolic religious leaders to make a faith-based appeal for immigration reform. As you would expect, The Los Angeles Times produced a short news story that focused on the basic facts.

The double-decker headline pronounced:

Local religious leaders unite for change in immigration law

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Southern California hold vigil calling for a revamp in federal immigration laws.

As noted in the lede, the service attracted several of “Southern California’s most prominent religious leaders,” led by the local Catholic archbishop. The presence of a Catholic leader was par for the course, especially in this case:

Immigrants who are in the United States illegally “need mercy and they need justice,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, welcoming an array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to the gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Gomez, who has made changing immigration laws a hallmark of his three-year tenure leading the L.A. Archdiocese, described the current system as “totally broken,” adding that federal laws punished families and children unfairly.

“These are human souls, not statistics,” the archbishop said. “These are children of God. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering.”

I appreciated the fact that the Times team candidly reported that hardly anyone was in the cathedral’s pews during this event. The actual phrase was “only a few dozen in attendance.”

The story also noted that it was important that leaders from “each of the three main Abrahamic traditions” were in attendance, instead the usually rally for Christians, alone. That is certainly a newsworthy point.

So what is missing in this short report?

Read the following material from the story quite closely and tell me who is missing. What is the major hole in this coalition, especially if the goal is to make a faith-based case for immigration reform in the context of modern-day Southern California and the lands to the South of the United States?

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World Vision, donors, scripture and ‘online speculation’

It took a few days, but the newspaper of record has now produced a solid story on the World Vision U.S. firestorm. The piece includes several interesting facts and observations, including a rare sighting of the term “liberal evangelicals.”

The key to the story, at this point, is the emerging reality that there is no way for nondenominational groups to find a safe, compromise position on the redefinition of marriage or on attempts to edit thousands of years of doctrine stating that sex outside of marriage is sin. Here is a key chunk of that New York Times report:

From the start, World Vision’s decision to open its staff to married gay men and women was a test in tightrope walking. Richard Stearns, the charity’s president, called it a “very narrow policy change” and “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage” in an interview announcing the change in Christianity Today — like World Vision, one of the bedrock institutions of American evangelicalism.

Mr. Stearns explained that World Vision’s staff members belong to more than 50 denominations, and since some Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregational churches are now marrying same-sex couples, the charity’s board had decided to be “neutral.” He said this was no different from World Vision’s practice of deferring to churches on other doctrinal matters, such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership and evolution.

The story contains relevant quotes from articulate, qualified people on both sides of the debate and it’s clear that the Times did everything it could to talk to World Vision leaders who are now avoiding telephone calls. All well and good.

At one point Stearns said the board’s action was rooted in its desire to “avoid divisive debates.”

Good luck with that. If board members ever respond to calls from journalists, that’s a key statement that must be clarified. A majority of the board felt that this action would not be controversial? Stearns added this:

“What happened is we ended up creating a great deal more division than unity,” he said. “Our closest partners” told the board that “we had veered from our core values in a way that created a lot of dissonance in our own community.”

He said that despite online conjecture, World Vision had not been pressured by the government to hire married gay employees. World Vision’s annual budget is $1 billion, and the government provides 18 percent of its revenues, while 61 percent is from private cash contributions, a spokesman said. But the decision to make a U-turn was made after donors canceled “several thousand” child sponsorships in two days, Mr. Stearns said.

So, is it safe to say that I can be listed among the people gathered under that “online speculation” umbrella?

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