Wednesday, September 19, 2012

From the "Compounding ignorance" department—UPDATED

Get ready, this extract from NBC News' Cosmic Log needs to be quoted and fisked at length:

Reality check on Jesus and his 'wife'

By Alan Boyle

 A fourth-century fragment of papyrus that quotes Jesus telling his disciples about "my wife" has set off a buzz among scriptural scholars — but this is no "Da Vinci Code" come true.  Rather, the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife"  [a bit of an exaggeration; more like the "Fragment of Jesus' Wife"] is just the latest discovery to suggest how the early Christian church took shape.  [You always start the spin right with the lede.] 
Fans of the Dan Brown thriller are already familiar with the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a husband-and-wife relationship.  The basis for such speculation lies in Gnostic gospels that came out in the second and third centuries, but were left out of the standardized scriptures — texts such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary and the recently reconstructed Gospel of Judas[Poorly written; none of these books were "standardized scriptures".  Boyle should have inserted this appositive phrase right after "Gnostic gospels" rather than at the end of the sentence.]
Even though only a few phrases can be read on the papyrus fragment that's just come to light, those phrases are consistent with the Gnostic view of early Christianity [error: the Gnostics weren't Christians (more below)] — which tended to give a more prominent role to women, and particularly to Mary Magdalene.  The text, written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect, includes the phrase "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" as well as references to a woman named Mary being "worthy of it," and to a woman who "will be able to be my disciple."  
Karen L. King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who received the fragment from an anonymous owner, emphasized that the discovery does not serve as evidence that Jesus was married.  Rather, it suggests that there was a debate within the early Christian church on the status of women, and that Jesus' relationship with women figured into the discussion [actually, no, it doesn't]. Revisiting that debate may be unsettling to some believers, but to scriptural scholars, it just comes with the territory.
"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said in a news release from Harvard Divinity School.  "This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage.  From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus' death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions."  [No, there wasn't a debate among Christians.]
Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at the Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that the latest find fits King's perspective on scriptural scholarship.  "She does have a dog in this hunt," [as we say down here in Texas] he told me.  "She's an advocate for the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, telling us of early Christian experiences of various kinds, particularly of the Gnostic kind."
The fragment that King calls the Gospel of Jesus' Wife could well contribute to the study of Gnosticism in the second or fourth century, but Witherington said it's not a game-changer for our view of the first-century Jesus.  "While this fragment is interesting, if you are interested in the historical Jesus, this is much ado about not very much," Witherington said via email.
Witherington noted that experts who have gotten a close look at the papyrus say it's genuine,  but he cautioned that "we cannot be absolutely sure of its authenticity or origins" as long as scholars can't track down the details surrounding how, when and where it was discovered.
This is all nice, Prof. Witherington, but it doesn't tell us why the fragment isn't a game-changer.  While King is right in that there's no Scriptural evidence to tell us Jesus was celibate, the opposite is also true:  Nothing in Scripture tells us he was married, either.  Celibacy was rare but not unknown among Jews at the time, nor were men or women married against their will, though most women submitted to marriage arrangements as a matter of duty.  Arguments from silence are two-edged swords; too often, they become ad ignorantiam fallacies.
Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [and author of Misquoting Jesus, a very dubious work of Biblical criticism], voiced similar caution.  However, if the document proves authentic, it would represent an important advance in scriptural scholarship, he said. 
"It's certainly not reliable for saying anything about the historical Jesus," Ehrman told me.  "But what it is important for is that this would be the first time we have any Christian authority or Christian group indicating that, in their opinion, Jesus was married."  [And the error is repeated!]  Like King, Ehrman suggested that such claims might have figured into early Christian debates over the comparative merits of marriage vs. celibacy. [But, more likely, they did not.] ...
Gnostic works proliferated in Egypt's Christian monasteries [Really?] until Athanasius of Alexandria drew up what became the "official" list of books in the New Testament and condemned the rest in the year 367.  Scholars believe that the best-known collection of Gnostic texts, the Nag Hammadi library, was bundled up and buried in the desert as a result.

 The problem is that scholars like Profs. King, Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan attempt to import Gnosticism into the story as an "alternative" or "dissident" side of Christianity.  It was not; Gnosticism was a syncresis of several different philosophical and religious ideas with some elements in common but never taking a single coherent shape.  Arising roughly contemporaneously with Christianity (St. Paul alludes to certain Gnostic concepts in Colossians 2:8-23), some Gnostics absorbed some of the language, symbols and even figures of Judaism and Christianity, forcing them into a non-Jewish cosmology.

The attraction of importing the Gnostic gospels into the Christian story, as Boyle tells us, is that it offers a seemingly plausible out from the presumed misogynism of the accepted Scriptures by ringing another change on the story of how the nasty, corrupt "Catholics" took over the Christian Church and forced out the "real" Christians (who were much more loving and tolerant, don'cha know).  Alas, the Christian Gospels had already been written for the most part long before the Apostolic Age ended; indeed, the fact that none of the Gospels mentions the prophesied-by-Jesus fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 as an accomplished fact gives us powerful presumptive evidence that they had all been composed by the time Ss. Peter and Paul were executed (about AD 67).[*]  By contrast, the earliest we can place the Gnostic gospels is the middle of the second century.  Gnostic efforts were never serious contenders for inclusion in the canons of Scripture; the closest approach was the Gospel of Thomas.

The big howler comes at the end.  While there were pagan cenobitic communities and proto-monastic movements here and there, the earliest recognized Christian monastic community was organized by St. Antony around the year 315, followed not long after by one founded by St. Pachomius in 325.  But even these earliest efforts weren't monasteries in the modern sense.  The Gnostic gospels may indeed have proliferated — but, as I say, not in Christian communities, far less in Christian monasteries.

Everyone knows the Bl. John Newman line, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant."  Something else he ought to have said:  You can't do good theology if your knowledge of Church history is poor.  Conflating Gnostics with Christians is just bad history in the service of trendy theology — that's the top and bottom of it.


[*] This is especially the case with the Gospel of Matthew, given its constant reference to prophecies fulfilled; had Jerusalem fallen before that work was composed, the author/redactor would have spared no pains to tell us that it had happened just as Jesus had spoken it (Mt 24:1-22; cf. Mk 13:14-20, Lk 21:5-24).  For further reading on this point, see J. A. T. Robinson's classic work Redating the New Testament; also check out Jean Carmignac's The Birth of the Synoptics and Claude Tresmontant's The Hebrew Christ.

UPDATE—Later, same night
Jimmy Akin does an excellent takedown of the manuscript.
Thomas L. McDonald continues to muddle Christians and Gnostics, but his piece is worth reading: "[Oh] please, just make the stupid stop."
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at GetReligion.org ranks it among the regular Christmas and Easter "mainstream media holiday tradition of releasing news stories that are supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity."
Marcel LeJeune continues the "Christian heresy" trope, but otherwise does a fine job.

Oh, this just gets better and better ....
Carl E. Olsen goes through the New York Times article like a red-hot knife through butter.  It's his article, though, that pointed out something I didn't know: the author of the Hell's Bible fluff piece was none other than my favorite journalist, Laurie Goodstein!  You remember ... ambulance chaser Jeff Anderson's sock puppet?  The one that claimed to reveal evidence that Pope Benedict had interfered in the laicization of a Wisconsin priest (and it turned out that the "smoking gun" was more of a water pistol"?)  If Laurie Goodstein says it reopens the discussion of whether Jesus was married, it's gotta be true!
Okay ... dialing the snark to "off".