Archive for March, 2007

The Jesus Tomb and Christian Apocrypha

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

It has been several weeks now since the release of Jacobovici and Pellegrino’s The Jesus Family Tomb and the airing of the companion documentary. Several scholars have weighed in on the evidence and several bloggers have devoted much time and energy to challenging or supporting J & P’s claims (see particularly Mark Goodacre’s NT Gateway, Darrell Bock’s Bock’s Blog, James Tabor’s Jesus Dynasty Blog, and the inappropriately named Jesus Tomb Hoax).

My aim here is not to address the likelihood or unlikelihood that the Talpiot tomb is indeed the last resting place of Jesus and his family but to look specifically at how various CA texts (and related issues) have been used to make arguments for its authenticity. The topic was raised here in brief before the release of the book and the documentary; I have since had the opportunity to read the book and find it interesting how much apocryphal texts figure in the argument.

The book begins with a foreword by James Cameron. Cameron’s role in this investigation has been a source of criticism and mockery, and his comments in the foreword certainly indicate that his knowledge of the CA and Early Christianity has been unduly influenced by a certain Mr. Brown. Cameron writes: “The Gospels as we know them today have been retranscribed and rewritten many times and translated from one language to another—from Aramaic to Greek to Coptic to Latin to various forms of English—with corresponding losses in nuanced meaning. They have been edited by Church fathers, centuries after the original words were spoken, to conform to their subsequent vision of orthodoxy” (x). The statement is problematic in several ways. First, he implies that the gospels as we have them today have gone through several stages of translation; however, modern English Bibles translate the gospels directly from Greek. Second, text-criticism has helped to remove the influence of Proto-Orthodox scribes on the gospels. No doubt problems still exist—differences remain between the major witnesses to the gospels and an editor can be influenced by his/her theological interests when choosing between variants; translators also make choices, creating Bibles aimed at supporting the teachings of their particular denomination.

Cameron moves on to discuss the CA and the Nag Hammadi Library, both of which “show the rich diversity of early Christian thought and give clues to the historical story not available in the Big Four of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” (x). This statement assumes that the noncanonical texts offer historical information that has been excluded from the “Big Four.” Few scholars of the CA, however, feel that these texts offer historical information about Jesus. The infancy gospels, for example, do not relate real anecdotes from Jesus’ childhood; Passion gospels do not relate how Jesus’ trial and execution really happened. At best a few gospels may provide additional sayings of Jesus, but their evidence hardly provides information about events in Jesus’ life. Particularly objectionable about Cameron’s comment is that the authors of the NHL texts care about the earthly Jesus; like many others before him, Cameron seizes upon a few grains of titillating information (such as the role of Mary Magdalene in several Gnostic texts) and ignores all the weird and wacky cosmogogical material, thereby interpreting it out of its proper context. A choice is made to incorporate the information that is useful to the argument (Jesus was married to Mary) and omit the rest (Jesus as divine Gnostic Redeemer, the body as evil, etc.).

Among the claims made by J & P are that previously excavated tombs (and their ossuaries) may contain the remains of first-century Jewish Christians. The argument sounds reasonable but they make some odd assertions about how academics approach archeology of Jewish-Christianity: “Even the academics who specialize in Christian movements prior to the Emperor Constantine largely ignore the Judeo-Christians. For many people, Christianity was born in Rome in the fourth century. As a result, hardly anyone expects to find earlier archeological evidence. Since they didn’t exist, how could they have left material for archeologists to find?” (36) He goes on to say that before the fourth century, “Judeo-Christians are indistinguishable from other Jews. There can be no ‘material culture’—no hard evidence of their existence—to discover. According to the majority of historians and Middle East archaeologists, therefore, the archaeology of the early Christians begins with Constantine, or just prior to him at the beginning of the fourth century CE” (38). I’m not aware of any conspiracy to cover up the Jewish-Christian origins of Christianity; indeed, there is much recent scholarship aimed at learning more about Jewish-Christianity and Judaizers. The notion that Christian archeology begins at Constantine sounds, again, like a Brown-ism, though certainly Christian iconography becomes much more visible after the Edict of Toleration.

The use of the Acts of Philip to identify Mary Magdalene as the Mariamne of one of the ossuaries has been discussed already in this forum. It was a pleasure to see Francois Bovon appear in the documentary (finally, an expert is consulted!) though the nature of the documentary makes it appear that he supports J & P’s argument (likely he was not told anything about the tomb; the interview was probably conducted only to learn more about the Mary of the Acts). Neither the book nor the documentary mentions that the Marys of Christian literature are often confused; indeed, the same can be said of the Philips (the apostle who is prominent in John vs. the Hellenist Jewish-Christian of the canonical Acts). I assume also that Bovon would resist the notion that the Acts tell us anything about the historical Mary, though Jacobovici certainly thinks so. After running through the contents of all three texts he says, “It seems that the Acts of Philip are a window on early Christian belief, and on the meaning of the IAA 80/500-509 inscriptions” (100). And, echoing Cameron’s words on Jesus, he states: “The Acts of Philip provides us with a much more complete version of Mary Magdalene than the Gospels” (96).

The Gospel of Mary is also invoked in the discussion of Mary Magdalene. According to J & P: “When [Mary] said that the Apocalypse would not occur in their lifetime but in the distant future, she confounded and angered the apostles” (99). Again, the esotericism of the text is ignored and the focus is placed on the information that helps the argument. Mary comes across as anti-apocalyptic though the apocalypse is not discussed in the text (the argument with the apostles is over the ascension of the soul, not the timing of the apocalypse). The Gospel of Philip is noted as a source on the relationship between Jesus and Mary. J & P mention the passage about Jesus kissing Mary on the mouth but, unlike Brown, they admit that “mouth” is a conjecture (99).

Finally, the Gospel of Thomas is brought into the discussion to aid in identifying the occupant of the “Judas Son of Jesus” ossuary. J & P claim Jesus’ son is mentioned in the NT gospels and GT but only in code so that Judas would be protected from the authorities: “…a code was bound to arise: ‘Have you seen Jesus’s “brother”?’ Or, ‘Have you seen the little “twin” today?’” (107). They look at Mark 12:1-12 (The Parable of the Wicked Tenants) and its parallel in GT, which “appears to be a more ancient form,” and see in it a veiled reference to Jesus’ son: “It could be referring to the fate that would have awaited any surviving son sent into the world by Jesus, an interpretation bolstered by the fact that the chronicler of the parable is none other than Didymos Judas Thomas (‘Twin Judas Twin’)” (109). This would mean that the parable was transmitted first by GT, a view that most liberal scholars of GT would find problematic (at best GT and Mark draw upon a common pool of Jesus traditions). J & P then speculate that GT 13 (the Confession at Caesarea parallel in which Thomas is given privileged information about Jesus’ identity) contains evidence that Thomas would be executed by the authorities if it was revealed that he was Jesus’ son.

While it is welcome to see the CA figure in high-profile, even controversial, debate about Christian origins, it is unfortunate that the texts are used so carelessly. Writers like Brown and J & P take advantage of their audience’s fragmentary knowledge of these texts and the air of mystery and taboo that surrounds them to claim that they contain authentic, historical information about Jesus but ignore the esoteric elements in the text which tend to mitigate against this (e.g., the asceticism advocated in the Gospel of Philip would render unlikely the notion that the gospel’s author was claiming Jesus was intimate with Mary Magdalene). Of course these writers do the same with the canonical gospels, though the tendency is to suggest that the “Big Four” contain gaps that can be filled in by the CA; the “Big Four” thus become inferior (as witnesses to the historical Jesus) to the CA. It is not impossible that some CA contain early traditions but the majority of scholars who work closely with these texts prefer to hold such claims at arm’s length, looking instead at what the texts say about the beliefs of the Christian groups who transmitted them rather than what they may or may not say about the historical Jesus and his contemporaries.

When I was a graduate student I often joked that my work on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas would get more attention (and more funding) if I claimed that the text presented real, historical events from the childhood of Jesus. The claim may have attracted some attention, perhaps I could have written a book, and appeared on television (Colbert: call me). But, I have been trained, and we encourage our students, to be more cautious in our assessments of the evidence. I may not be famous, I may not be wealthy, but I have my integrity.

New Apocrypha Collection

Friday, March 9th, 2007

Andrew Bernhard, administrator of the site Jesus of Nazareth in Early Christian Gospels, has moved into print publishing with Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts. A short review of the book is available HERE (subscription required). The publisher’s description reads:

Other Early Christian Gospels is a sourcebook containing new editions and translations of all the extant Greek manuscripts of extracanonical gospels written during the first hundred years of the Christian movement (ca. 30-130 C.E.) The completely new translations are in contemporary idiomatic English so that readers will not have to struggle with antiquated language, as they must with many of the English editions presently available.

The collection focuses on texts describing Jesus' adult exploits (so no Infancy Gospel of Thomas or James) and avoids the vast majority of the Nag Hammadi texts. The texts are presented in Greek and English.