Making ‘Jesus’ out of whole cloth

An ad in a newspaper offers me an easy way to “work from home and make $$$$$.” The television commercial shows a handy little “shake weight” that can make me look like professional bodybuilder in a matter of weeks. A tattered piece of 4th century papyrus, smaller than a business card and written in Coptic, claims that Jesus Christ had a wife.

Yep, there’s a sucker born every minute.

There are so many books, movies, and articles that posit such bizarre scenarios about the life and person of Jesus Christ. It’s simply not enough to examine the extent writings and teachings left after His 30-odd years on earth. Every couple years it seems some “new” discovery about His life or nature seems to come from a fringe “scholar” or popular author.

A few years ago the DaVinci Code book/movie was all the rage. Hey, what if the whole New Testament narrative was really just a regional power play, and Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had some kids? Hey, what if a line of European royalty was the result, and a shadowy society was entrusted with this knowledge? Hey, what if a dashing Harvard professor discovered this ancient secret that stood the last millennium of church history on its ear?

No doubt a highly entertaining fiction but, in matters of history and philosophy, I find the “reference” section to be more helpful.

Anyone remember the so-called “James ossuary” that prompted a flurry of news articles and Discovery Channel specials? It made a lot of noise in the media but was soon then revealed to be a fraud.

What about the purported “Gospel of Judas” that captured the public’s attention for about 15 minutes? “Hey, what if Judas didn’t betray Jesus!” I don’t suppose you’ve tried to read it, have you? It’s filled with so much vague Gnostic metaphor that even a close reading leaves you wondering whether it portrays Judas as a hero or a villain.

In this latest theological boondoggle, a professor from Harvard Divinity School has presented a papyrus fragment about the size of a grocery receipt, containing about 30 words in incomplete sentences. One excerpt reads: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” and the other states, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

Despite the fact that no one even knows where this fragment came from or exactly how authentic to the 4th Century it actually is, it still only remains, at best an apocryphal text. There are many. Presupposing that testing confirms it as being authored within 300 years of the life of Christ (which, at this point, is a HUGE assumption), its significance is more historical than theological. Further, it prompts more questions than it answers.

Just how exactly did this tiny piece of parchment manage to “slip through the cracks” for centuries? Sure, let’s assume that some religious authority managed to excise this teaching from an early manuscript. Why is it just now appearing? A mysterious “anonymous German collector of antiquities” provided this to a Harvard professor. A professor who ten years ago published a rather shoddy work suggesting Mary Magdalene was the 13th apostle. Awful convenient if you ask me.

Something else bothers me. This wasn’t discovered as a result of a legitimate archaeological dig or a close study of manuscripts, but just appears fully formed out of the ether, and seems to justify the anachronistic cultural reinterpretations of a self-professed heretic? I think some healthy skepticism is more than a little bit warranted.

But does it change anything? No, not really.

I’ll be very generous here. Let’s say that this excerpt proves to be genuine. Let’s say it turns out to be part of a complete and intact 3rd or 4th century book that claims Jesus had a wife. Still, it doesn’t prove anything more than that the early Christians were talking about the issue. Scholars are uniform in agreement that the earliest and most historically reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status.

As someone who’s done quite a lot of research into the historical Jesus and the transfer of the Scriptures down through the years, I think the most damning (pun intended) aspect to all this is how much attention is drawn to such a small and singular piece of unconfirmed evidence.

There is more documented, credible evidence for the existence of Jesus than of Socrates or Julius Caesar. There are piles upon piles of legitimate historical documents that corroborate that the Holy Bible, as it exists now, has remained substantially the same in content over centuries and despite countless translations.

Don’t be fooled, this sort of thing is never about scholarship and it’s certainly not about finding the truth of who Jesus was and what He taught. It’s the same old song and dance since the beginning of time, and another effort to fashion a messiah in one’s own image.

Finding a new, different, and “improved” Jesus in the smudges of a dubious piece of papyrus is just another way of creating a savior out of whole cloth.

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3 thoughts on “Making ‘Jesus’ out of whole cloth

  1. Well, if we wanted to recreate Jesus, it’d be more of a Frankenstein experiment with body parts than cutting cloth. Just saying.

    On the document in question, it’s 300+ years from Jesus’s time. That’s not a primary source document by any stretch of the imagination. It would be like using a kindergarten play on the first thanksgiving as a source document.

  2. I’ll just add that the scholar did NOT say this shows Jesus had a wife, stating clearly it was the beginning of a saying about marriage. The news media turned this into the circus.
    And may I also say that the differences in the Biblical manuscripts (I was trained in Biblical scholarship) reveal 2 important things about God: 1. the Bible was entrusted to humans to preserve, disseminate, study and plain read. 2. “The letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6), so if God helped people preserve the text in undisturbed form we would worship the text instead of the Author, we’d claim that the text, rather than the Author, gives life, and we’d make the text holier than the Author. Also, there would be little need for textual criticism (like none) and the scholar’s curiosity would divert to something else, and I have been in translation committee and discussions about manuscript value, and while it probably wouldn’t save a soul, it is really energizing!
    God makes no mistakes; humans just screw up too easily! (Isaiah 53:6).

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