The “wife” of Jesus tempest in a teacup has hopefully now come and gone, but the damage has been done. Few reported the follow-up story as leading scholars in ancient Coptic manuscripts declared it a modern forgery. Missed the entire news cycle? Don’t worry; another ridiculous assertion will surely appear around Christmas or, at the very least, Easter.
Ancient manuscripts seem to be the sweet spot, a la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, for sensationalism. Anything “old” that surfaces that even hints at a variant account of the biblical materials is thrown into the news cycle with breathless drama. If it suggests Jesus was less than single, or less than heterosexual, so much the better. (We’re past discounting His miracles. That’s so 1960’s.)
So let’s be proactive and talk about ancient manuscripts in light of the ones surely to come. It may not be sexy, but it’s absolutely essential in light of the way the modern conversation continues to evolve.
Go back in time with me for a moment for a case study.
A document that began to be circulated during the mid-second century claimed to be the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The author wrote that Mary was loved by Jesus above all women, was a leader among the apostles, and that Peter was threatened by her.
Another writing that surfaced at the time suggested that she was the companion of Jesus, intimating a sexual relationship – perhaps even marriage.
These writings have since been dated no earlier than the middle of the second century – some even later than that – so they were removed from the actual life and ministry of Christ, the apostles, and the formation of the church by decades.
They were also forgeries.
That they surfaced during the second century is accurate; that they were written by Mary is not. This was no “lost” gospel, or “lost” book of the Bible. It may have been new to us, but only because we did not find many of these manuscripts until an archaeological dig began outside of Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1940’s.
The Gospel of Mary was also found in Egypt, but a few years earlier. It actually showed up in a Cairo antiquities market in 1896, was then purchased by a German scholar, and first published in 1955. We now have two Greek fragments from the third century, and a Coptic manuscript from the fifth century.
It is critical to note that people knew about this manuscript when it first came out, and the Gospel of Mary, along with such writings as the gospel of Thomas, was rejected as a false document. And it is still rejected by the overwhelming majority of scholars today as a falsified Gnostic document forged to try and challenge the growing Christian faith.
It’s important to know about the Gnostics; they were a group that arose during the early Christian centuries that claimed secret knowledge that would challenge orthodox Christianity. Decisively non-Christian, and decried by all the church fathers as a heretical movement, the writings they claimed were genuine never took hold.
And for good reason.
What the Gnostics claimed went against everything the early church stood for, and what the witnesses to the early Christian movement knew to be true. For example, the Gospel of Mary denies the resurrection, argues against a second coming of Christ, and rejects the suffering and death of Jesus as a path to eternal life.
The manuscript even says that there is no such thing as sin.
People at the time knew this was diametrically opposed to what Jesus actually said, as they were present when He said it, so it was never taken seriously. The fact that such a document surfaces again in our day through archaeology does not mean we should give it credence it never deserved to begin with.
This is decisive to impress upon our thinking.
Let’s say that I wrote a book about the 2012 Super Bowl.
But instead of writing that the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots by a score of 21-17, let’s imagine that I claim that my beloved Carolina Panthers stormed their way to the big game and beat the Patriots 34-3 (despite the rather embarrassing loss to the Giants this past Thursday which I don’t want to talk about until the wound is less raw).
In my book I cite all kinds of statistics, play-by-play analysis, and then self-publish it as an actual record of what took place.
What would happen?
Would anybody buy it, unless as a joke book for a fan of the Panthers? Would anybody actually believe it?
If intended to be a credible account of Super Bowl XLVI, it would be laughed off the stands.
Because more than 100 million people watched the game in the United States alone. Nearly 200 million worldwide.
That is why the early gospels on the life and teaching and ministry of Jesus, written by those who were eyewitnesses to his life and teaching, took hold.
When the accounts written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came out, as early as 25 to 50 years after the time of Christ (which some have dated the Magdalen papyrus of Matthew at Oxford), people were still around who knew whether what they purported to have happened did, or did not, actually occur.
And they weren’t laughed out of the bookstores.
Not so with the Gnostic writings that came out decades later. They were never suppressed, as some have suggested; they were ridiculed. Simply because we uncover one or more of them today, such as we did in 1945, doesn’t mean they held any weight when originally circulated.
That is why they were left out of the New Testament canon.
They didn’t belong there.
I once read an interview of film director Oliver Stone when he was facing criticism for the distortions and factual errors in his films, particularly the faux documentary expose on the Kennedy assassination JFK.
In a lecture at American University, he said that films shouldn't be the end-all for what is true.
“[People] have a responsibility to read a book,” he said, and then added that “[Nobody] is going to sit through a three-hour movie and say, 'That's that.'"
Sadly, he’s wrong. That is exactly what countless numbers of people do.
And they do it for a three-day news cycle as well.
So the next time around, and there will be a “next time around,” give the gospels the benefit of the doubt.
They deserve it.
James Emery White
On the many news stories surrounding the fragment, see “Latest News” at www.ChurchandCulture.org.
James Emery White, The Da Vinci Question.
Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.