About that Jesus’ wife thing (Part 2)

Yesterday we noted some of the micro-problems with the latest story that was to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Well, tmatt alerted me to this column by historian Philip Jenkins that criticizes these stories from a macro approach.

While we can discuss all the many little ways that media outlets have been duped over the years on these types of stories, it’s important to do something to correct the larger problem of journalistic ignorance about the history of Christianity.

If you are a Godbeat professional, this “Alternative Christianities” is essential reading to avoid these embarrassing stories and inevitable walk-backs in the future. And while it’s outside the scope of this blog for me to correct general ignorance, this short piece is something that anyone with an interest in religion should be familiar with. Here are just the first few paragraphs:

On average, the Biblical world sees a startling new discovery of allegedly cosmic significance every four or five years. Most recently, we had Jesus’s Wife, with the Gospel of Judas not long before that, and no great powers of prophecy are needed to tell that other similar finds will shortly be upon us.

In themselves, the finds are usually interesting (if they happen to be authentic), but where the media always go wrong in reporting them is in vastly exaggerating just how novel and ground-breaking they are.

So powerful are such claims, and so consistent, that it sometimes seems as if nobody before the 1970s (say) could have known about the multiple alternative Christianities that flourished in the first centuries of Christianity. Surely, we think, earlier generations could never have imagined the world revealed by such ancient texts as the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gnostic documents that turned up at Nag Hammadi. Lacking such evidence, how could older scholars have dreamed what we know to be true today: the vision of Jesus as a Zen-like mystic teacher, or perhaps a Buddhist-style enlightener, who expounded secret doctrines to leading female disciples, and who may even have been sexually involved with one or more of them? Today, for the first time, we hear the heretics speaking in their own voices!

But here’s the problem. Virtually nothing in that model would have surprised a reasonably well-informed reader in 1930, or even in 1900, never mind in later years. In order to make their finds more appealing, more marketable, scholars and journalists have to work systematically to obscure that earlier knowledge, to pretend that it never existed. In order to create the maximum impact, the media depend on a constructed amnesia, a wholly fictitious picture of the supposed ignorance of earlier decades.

Jenkins obliterates such an approach and with some fun details. He ends:

If you want to see just how much general readers knew about alternative early Christianities, then read Robert Graves’s bizarre novel King Jesus, a book so floridly heretical it makes The Da Vinci Code look like a pious pamphlet from Our Sunday Visitor. King Jesus appeared in 1946, just as the Nag Hammadi documents were being unearthed, and even before the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet Graves already had full access to a panoply of lost gospels and Gnostic fragments, from which he concocted a mythology that includes virtually every radical view of Jesus that has surfaced in later years. We find Jesus as the secular revolutionary; the husband of the pagan Goddess of the land; the expounder of Oriental wisdom; the secret heir to the secular kingdom of Israel; the master of Hellenistic mysteries; participant in ancient tribal fertility rites; the esoteric teacher and numerologist; and (of course) the husband of the Magdalene.

Huh, Jesus’s wife, what a revolutionary new theory…

Oddly, though, when a scholar wishes to present a new discovery or thesis to a publisher or a funding agency, they don’t generally begin by saying, “Well, this really doesn’t break any new ground in terms of what we know about the early church, but for specialists in Coptic linguistics, it’s just heart-stopping.” Rather, the aspiring author succumbs to the inevitable temptation to proclaim just how many boundaries he or she is shattering, and how, at long last, cutting edge research is breaking the irrational taboos set by the churches and their jaded orthodoxies. We are boldly going where no Jesus Quest scholar has gone before; and we will boldly ignore any evidence to the contrary.

People being what they are, I know that situation won’t change any time soon. But can I at least make a minimum demand? If you are going to claim a new gospel fragment as a revolutionary scholarly breakthrough, can you at least demonstrate that it significantly advances the state of knowledge beyond what existed in the era of Herbert Hoover?

Is that too much to ask?

Not a bad question for journalists to ask next time they’re pitched yet another story that will shake the foundations of Christianity.

Image of the earth shattering caused by the Jesus’ wife story via Shutterstock.

About the whole Jesus’ wife thing (Part 1)

Remember that front page New York Times story about Jesus’ wife? Yeah, about that …

Well, earlier this month we learned from WBRZ:

The Smithsonian Channel says the premiere of its documentary on a papyrus fragment that purports to show Jesus referring to his wife is being delayed until further tests can be done.

And another scholar has noted that the fragment that was the basis for the story somehow managed to replicate a typo from an internet site related to the Gospel of Thomas. Many folks had noted that the fragment seemed to borrow from the Gospel of Thomas but Michael Grondin noted the similarities a typo in his Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

In the first and third paragraphs of that New York Times story, we learned about the scholar who was making the claim about the Jesus’ fragment:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

So after the front-page treatment about Jesus’ wife, have you seen much coverage of the rest of the story? Of course not.

And yet all of the fallout has been more than a bit embarrassing for such an august scholar.

The Chronicle of Higher Education decided to ask her about it. That is a great idea for a story:

I talked to King recently about the reaction to the fragment. She said that while she was braced for some vigorous discussion, the avalanche of attention and criticism was much more than she expected. It has included angry, hateful e-mails (“pretty ugly and unprintable,” she says). The reaction from scholars has influenced her thinking, and she plans to incorporate some of their analyses into her paper on the fragment, which is slated to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January, assuming that the ink test now being performed doesn’t reveal the fragment to be a modern forgery.

Sometimes I wish I could show people the contents of my email inbox. Anyway, he asks her why she didn’t wait for the ink test to be done. She gives a response. The article ends:

But how do you roll out a potential blockbuster discovery like this? King said she’s been asking colleagues how they would have handled it differently, and they’ve reassured her that they would have done what she did. And while she’s been dinged by some for jumping the gun, others would have attacked her for keeping it to herself. “The longer I held back, the more criticism there would have been,” she said.

One thing she would change? The title of the fragment. Calling it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” seemed natural. And for scholars like King, one of the authors of a book about The Gospel of Judas, alternative accounts of the Jesus story are not shocking. She misjudged just how inflammatory that title would turn out to be. She’s been asking around for ideas on a new, less exciting name.

Great idea for a follow-up but why rely on just King here? So a Harvard prof asked her Harvard colleagues and they all told her she was just fine? Is that really that interesting? And we’re not able to find any critics to add insight into how she messed up her big, splashy, New York Times, Smithsonian Channel reveal based around the title she chose? Really?

I mean, these regular “shake the foundations of Christianity” stories in the media are getting embarrassing. You’d think that there would be some much tougher questions of the scholars who were relied on, no? And on that note, come back later for a devastating look at what those early stories about this fragment missed.