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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