I Want to Believe

I Want to Believe May 4, 2015

Last year, Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson published an impressively dreadful book called The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’s Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. The Lost Gospel made much of an ancient novel called Joseph and Aseneth, claiming (on no vaguely convincing grounds) that the characters in it were coded or disguised references to Jesus and the Magdalene, and that on the basis of the text, you could reconstruct the “true” history of Jesus and his time. Most scholars ignored the work, and the few who deigned to comment on it treated it as a joke or a publicity stunt. (You can see my parody of the underlying ideas here). By the way, Barrie Wilson himself is a respected academic with a lengthy track record, and it is odd to see him involved in this project.

I have no wish to waste any more time on the book itself, but the whole phenomenon does raise some important points about the nature of fringe and controversial scholarship, and its relationship to the mainstream, or the scholarly consensus. Even as I write the words, I know that “mainstream” and “consensus” are both words to raise hackles, and many lay readers have a natural preference for those they see as courageous entrepreneurs, as scholarly heretics. The problem, though, is that most non-specialists simply do not understand the assumptions from which scholars work. In my next few columns, I want to suggest just why that scholarly consensus matters, whether we are dealing with alternative scriptures, bizarre historical claims, or pseudo-archaeology. I’ll also try to explain how we can tell the difference between real scholarship and fringe speculations.

To begin with the book itself. Nothing really marks Lost Gospel from the herd of similar books that appear on a regular basis. It takes a well-known ancient source, while claiming that in fact the text in question is somehow forgotten or little known to scholars. Also, allegedly, it is “really” about Jesus. There is no reason to believe this, or that Joseph and Aseneth is using coded or allegorical language. If you look hard enough at any source, including the Cleveland Yellow Pages, you can find Biblical stories retold there if you really want to find them. (My own parody discussed The Bourne Identity as a coded Jesus text). No Christian source in antiquity cited Joseph and Aseneth in this way.

Nor, crucially, have any of the many, many, modern scholars who have discussed it, and that is a vital fact. At any given moment, there are tens of thousands of trained and credentialed scholars working on the Bible, New Testament and Early Christianity, and they stand on the shoulders of generations of equally determined and learned predecessors. All these fields are thoroughly explored and picked over, and any new source is leapt upon avidly as people seek new areas to explore.

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

But if scholars mocked (or ignored) Lost Gospel, the media took it seriously enough to report widely on its supposedly exciting findings. Moreover, many ordinary readers loved the book. Although I certainly don’t claim this source offers in any way a representative sample of opinion, it’s interesting to look at the quite numerous reviews that Amazon readers have supplied for The Lost Gospel. Overwhelmingly, the lay reviewers were favorable, giving the book four stars on a five point scale, and that despite its panning by scholars. What did people like about it?

Reading those comments, the overwhelming impression is that such ordinary readers (and media people) have not the slightest idea of what historical sources are, of how we determine their relative value, and above all, how scholars approach and interpret them. Rather, they come from the position of “Is the underlying idea plausible?,” and also, very commonly “Do I like that idea?” In the case of Lost Gospel, the commonest theme was that the book presented thoughts that people wanted to believe, above all about sexuality, the role of women, and the fact that Jesus should have been married. “Finally, a gospel that presents a positive view of marriage and sexuality. That’s missing from the pages of the New Testament with its denial of family values.”

By the way, if I criticize that approach, that is not because I regard the thought of a married Jesus as horrendous or blasphemous, and have written on this topic. I just think that any discussion of the topic has to be rooted in sources that are believable and authoritative.

Also, reviewers repeatedly praised the book for its innovative qualities – it was “groundbreaking,” had “a new perspective.” “This is one of those books where they present new, bold ideas based on historical evidence and make it interesting for the reader.” New, of its nature, must be good. Those who want to believe also find the book “carefully documented,” and “well-researched,” although as I have said, scholars who paid any attention to the book scorned its use of evidence. Some praised the book for its willingness to defy the religious/academic consensus: “It will be severely criticized by those who have something to lose.”

Well, read the comments yourself, but I think I am summarizing the main themes accurately. I also think that similar comments can be made about other fringe works that achieve widespread popularity.

Many non-specialists work from the assumption that for whatever reason, academics try to conceal explosive or startling discoveries, which must therefore be brought to light by adventurers willing to scorn consensus and mainstream, in the relentless search for inconvenient truths.

In my next columns, I’ll explain why this approach is so radically wrong.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Just Sayin’

    I look forward to reading your subsequent columns on this topic.

  • stefanstackhouse

    At at time when maternal mortality was very high, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Jesus had already married (around the customary time for Jewish males of the period, more or less) and had seen His wife die in childbirth. It would be quite understandable that this might not be something He cared to talk about, and it is quite possible that none of the disciples knew Him or His wife when she was still alive. Jesus is fully God, but He is also fully human, and none of this – even if just hypothetical – should pose any real theological problem.

    The rightful place of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels is an important one. She is not numbered among the 12 Apostles, yet it has been sometimes said that she is “the Apostle to the Apostles” because it was she who first saw and believed in the risen Christ and proclaimed the good news to the Apostles. That is reason enough for her to be mentioned prominently in the Gospels, and no further speculation is required to account for that.

  • philipjenkins

    As I say in the column, you might check out my earlier post on the idea of Jesus having had a wife.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2012/09/jesuss-wife/

  • steve burdan

    looking forward to more columns! I wonder if the Gnostic Gospels and other extra-Biblical narratives are in a direct line to today’s media attempts to film the Bible and create a separate narrative, e.g. Noah, A.D., Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ten Commandments, King of Kings, etc. a mix of clay and iron… Plus are not Simcha et al’s approach Gnostic in itself – secret knowledge that is real and better, but suppressed…

  • philipjenkins

    edited

  • MesKalamDug

    It is possible to play with a little speculation now and again provided one doesn’t
    take it too seriously. But religious speculation is a dangerous toy because somebody might take you seriously. I could provide examples from Christian
    literature but rather I would like to point to an example in the western literature
    about Islam. About fifty years go John Wansborough, a genuine scholar, advanced a radically new idea about the origin of Islam. It has, so far as I know, been unanimously rejected by Muslim scholars and by a majority of western scholars.
    But enough scholars have agreed with Wansborough that it is fair to say there is
    consensus on a number of fundamental questions about the origin of Islam. Now
    this lack of consensus is a very new thing – the similar question about the origins
    of Christianity hit the fan about 1800. Perhaps there is really still as much stark
    contradiction in the Christian tradition as with Islam but the contradictions have
    been smoothed over. For example, is there really a consensus about who wrote
    Colossians?

  • philipjenkins

    You are so right.
    Please follow my columns over the next couple of weeks! Absolutely, people are going to have many and various conflicting opinions about things, and that is how knowledge advances. Those debates over the origins of Islam have been immensely valuable for shaping debate and furthering knowledge, whether or not the original hypotheses proved to be true. Sometimes the fringe becomes the mainstream, sometimes not – but people propose and develop those theories through the proper means, through scholarly publications, in journals and books.

  • Danny

    The book is no more or less supportable than the bible I would imagine. Methinks the scholar doth protest too much.

  • Plugger

    Many non-specialists work from the assumption that for whatever reason, academics try to conceal

    It’s not an assumption; rather, the dishonest practices of “biblical scholarship” are well documented.

    In effect, he accuses his profession of being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account of its own
    findings to the general public and faith communities.

    The End of Biblical Studies
    By Hector Avalos
    http://www.prometheusbooks.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=52

  • philipjenkins

    An argument intuitively obvious to anyone who knows nothing about the field.

  • Plugger

    Are you suggesting that Hector Avalos, a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, “knows nothing about the field?” Did you check with your lawyer first about slandering people?

  • philipjenkins

    Tut tut. I said “intuitively”. Did you check with your dictionary? The remark was directed at you, not him. Avalos’s work is not “intuitive,” as he assembles what he believes to be solid evidence, although I disagree with it. I actually like Avalos’s work generally. That was not one of his better efforts, though.

  • philipjenkins

    edited

  • Just Sayin’

    You’re still not getting the point. And ad hominems don’t improve your case.

  • Ian Carmichael

    I do look forward to the future columns – although I think the answer to the question is an obvious one. People are attracted to the fringe novels because they are effortlessly accessible. Turn on my TV and the ‘latest’ will be being pushed at me. I’d have to get out of my chair and check out a Christian bookshop for some solid reflection (and there’s still rubbish to avoid there!) I may have to take some time to do some active research on the ‘net rather than follow the current fad around all its repeaters.
    I may even need to do some thinking and reflecting of my own, or engage with the mainstream.
    On the other hand, having been titillated a little by the current ‘scoop’, there’s new reality TV to watch, and cat videos on social media. And I can wait for the next scoop.

  • philipjenkins

    I hear what you are saying, but there is also something more, in that there is a deep and general interest in religious matters, and a thirst for something new that appears to speak to current needs and concerns.

  • Ian Carmichael

    I do indeed hope so. It was true that Da Vinci certainly opened up some classroom discussions – and gave some authors excellent apologetic inroads (One of the best, indeed, being from Bart Ehrman!)
    I do try to keep a light presence amongst my itching ear atheist friends in the hope of making fresh contact. And, I AM looking forward to your next columns. I’ve certainly enjoyed the few books of yours I’ve read.

  • Samuel Lawson

    I just saw a slide show called “7 Reasons the Lost Gospel isn’t true,” and as a result I’m now thinking it might be true.