Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sensationalism and Christianity

On an almost yearly basis there is a discovery that the media claims "will change Christianity." Usually those claims fall into two categories, both over the top. The first is the "this will rock the foundations of Christianity" discovery. The translation and publication of the Gospel of Judas a few years ago is a text book example of this type of discovery.

The publication of the Gospel of Judas was feted with a coming out party in National Geographic Magazine, in several books, and on the Nat Geo cable TV channel. It was picked up all over the internet and was featured in all kinds of news broadcasts. The truth about the Gospel of Judas was that it wasn't all that interesting. Sure, it's always fascinating to discover a lost tangent of one of the many early Christianities, but the Gospel of Judas was a late-comer. Most likely written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus it really wasn't all that earth shattering.

The idea that Judas wasn't a betrayer and was simply doing his job struct many Christians as blasphemous, but the idea had been proposed before. If someone could think of it in the 1970's as a plausible explanation for the behavior of Judas, it's not unreasonable to think someone else might have thought about it in 200 CE. Depending on your view of the crucifixion, Judas could be looked upon as the "Good Guy." Jesus can't die for your sins if he doesn't die. If I was starting a church in the year 200 and was looking for apostolic authority to do so, Judas would seem an unlikely choice, but if he was the only choice left . . . . . you could certainly rationalize it to make sense.

Students of early Christianity know that there were probably hundreds of gospels, and while we don't have all of those gospels today, we have many of them. The Gospel of Judas was no more revolutionary than the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and we don't talk about that last one very much these days. The Gospel of Judas was new though, and in these days of internet hype and the latest flavor it made a lot of people curious. That curiosity was of course short lived, and despite media warnings to the contrary, the Gospel of Judas did not have any significant impact on modern Christianity.

A few years before the Gospel of Judas hysteria the other type of "Christian discovery" was picked up by the media. This was one of those discoveries that "proved Christianity was real by proving Jesus was a real person." The "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" ossuary (Jewish Bone Box) was a sensation. There were several scholars who defended its authenticity, and when it went on display in Toronto there were standing room only crowds around it.

The ossuary was undoubtedly real. It was a two thousand year old stone box, dating to the time of Jesus, and its use was common at that time. The only problem with the ossuary was the inscription, "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus." Even if that inscription is 100% authentic it's not earth shattering. James, Josephus, and even Jesus were extremely common names. If you came across something that said "Jason son of Michael brother of William" you wouldn't find it all that interesting, because those are pretty average names.

The Israel Antiquities Authority determined the inscription on the ossuary to be a hoax, specifically the "brother of Jesus" line. To me, even if the inscription were 100% authentic it wouldn't change anything. I'm already reasonably sure that Jesus was a real person, and even more so James (he's mentioned in Paul's letters). I'm also pretty sure that they were brothers. The existence of the ossuary doesn't prove that Jesus rose from the dead, and to me is more confirmation that he was simply who scholars think he was: A prophet of peasants and an inspiring figure.

This all leads me to the latest and newest greatest find in the field of Christian scholarship "the biggest find since the Dead Sea Scrolls" and according to one scholar "the major discovery of Christian history." The discovery in question, seventy tiny books with lead pages bound together with wire, has launched all sorts of speculation. Since some of the books are sealed people are already saying they could be the "lost codices described in the Book of Revelation." Other claims have these books as the first Christian texts, possibly dating from the time of Christ himself. I wish journalists would downplay the sensational and that people would concentrate more on the facts when dealing with these things.

First of all the books are said to come from one of the caves Jews and Christians used to hide in as the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. According to the scholars who haven't dismissed this "major discovery of Christian history" as a hoax, the oxidation on the books dates them to this period of history. So if we can reasonably date them to 70 CE, that's still forty years after the death of Jesus and a little over twenty years after Paul's first letter. Writings from the "time of Jesus" these are not, at best they are second generation and post-Pauline.

Since these writings obviously came from Jerusalem, they would be from the Jewish Christians who had set up shop in Jerusalem after the death of Christ. Those Jewish Christians were later marginalized as the Christian Church began to be appeal almost exclusively to gentiles and became more Pauline. (The break between Paul and the Church in Jerusalem was strained during Paul's lifetime.) As a result, the philosophies contained in those tiny books might be rather different from those found in modern Christianity.

The idea that some of these sealed volumes might somehow relate to the Book of Revelation is fascinating, but not surprising. It's not surprising because Revelation is such a source of fascination to so many Christians that people constantly look to link to it. Since Revelation is so ambiguous that's easy to do. Secondly, if Revelation was written in response to persecution by the Emperor Nero the date of composition theorized for these small books aligns almost perfectly.

As a student of history and religion the revelations possibly contained in these books will not be about the authenticity of Jesus. Instead, I see them as a light towards better understanding the evolution of Christian thought and liturgy. If they came from the Jerusalem Church, even better. I'm curious as to what Jewish Christians thought as they saw the Temple destroyed.

Discoveries in the Holy Land and of ancient texts do little to dim or spark belief amongst the skeptics and the believers. They might possibly kindle interest in things historical for short periods of time, but nothing unearthed or translated will ever prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. While I don't think faith should blind us from reality, there are some things science will never prove or disprove, the reality of deity is one of them, and that's an article of faith.

(More on those little tiny iron books:

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