Simcha Jacobovici Weighs in on the “Gospel of Jesus Wife” Forgery Controversy

Simcha Jacobovci has just posted a opinion piece that I think is worth reading on the swirl of blogs and new stories that have celebrated the past week and a half.  A second papyrus text, called the GJ (“Gospel of John”) has been declared the definitive “smoking gun” evidence that the controversial “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus is a very recent forgery. If you have not caught up on the latest here is a “roundup” of posts and news stories by Mark Goodacre.

Sleeper AgentYou can find Simcha’s post here. I find myself mostly in agreement with the substance of Simcha’s post though I think his characterization of the “naysayers’ as “sleeper agents of Christianity” is far off the mark. What is going on here in terms of the “will to disbelieve” is something much more complex–and for that matter more interesting. Defending Christian Orthodoxy, is surely become a bit outdated and boring–though there are such “agents” out there.

I was planning to write just one blog post on the forgery issues itself and post it on Friday. Now I think I will write two. One will deal with what I think is going on with reference to what Simcha thinks is “Pauline theology,” but I think something else much more general is at work–a phenomenon ubiquitous to the academy. The other will deal with the substantive issues raised by those now “celebrating” the exposure of a double forgery, giving one another “High Fives” across the biblioblogosphereas they talk of “ugly sisters” and “smoking guns.”

On the “Ugly Sister” issue don’t miss this perceptive piece by Eva Mroczek–maybe the most important thing I have seen in print on the subject this week: “”Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Less Durable Than Sexism Surrounding It, the totally off-base response of Jim West here, missing all her major points and basically demonstrating the case she makes, plus Deconick’s response to responses like West’s here.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: The Documentary and The Text

I just watched the Smithsonian program, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” I thought it was truly well done. Much of it was about an alternative image of Mary Magdalene, and thus implicitly of the role of women in earliest Christianity, as reflected in our recently discovered non-canonical gospels (Gospel of Mary, various Nag Hammadi texts). We carefully survey these sources in our book, The Jesus Discovery, based on the fine work pioneered by many scholars such as Jane Schaberg, Karen King, Elaine Pagels, Ann Graham Brock, and others. Much of the program’s emphasis was on the role of women in the earliest Jesus movement and whether the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (GJW) is a forgery or not, the main points stand up well. I am pleased to see such a quality presentation of this neglected side Christian origins put before the public as an alternative view.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 11.31.04 PMFor those who have not kept up with the plethora of “blogs” on the subject Mark Goodacre offers a nice summary of the main links and Laurie Goodstein wrote a very fine summary of the controversy in Sunday’s New York Times, see here.

I plan to weigh in on the “forgery” question later this week but for now I just wanted to say that the current triumphantly/sarcastic (Jesus’ ugly sister, et al) “pile on” mood on the part of some of the critics touting “forgery” is in my view greatly premature and quite a few very key issues have been skirted over (pun intended!). I am surprised that some of the most basic issues presented in the materials on this text that were released last month by HTR are not really being addressed by the critics. I also trust Roger Bagnall’s good eye and his experience and sense of judgment in these matters. I am also not convinced that the fragment of the Gospel of John that apparently is in the same hand, and done with the same ink, supports the forgery case. On the contrary, taken with the GJW fragment, and especially the faded ink on the reverse side–still in the same “hand,” but truly “aged,” I am more convinced than ever this papyrus text is ancient. There are still more than enough questions to go around but I think many of my colleagues have rushed to judgment on this one. More to come.

Why a “Spiritual” Resurrection is the Only Sensible Option

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all affirm the doctrine of “resurrection of the dead” as a central tenet of eschatology–that is, the understanding of the “last things” or how human history is to end. One common misunderstanding, especially among Christians, is that resurrection of the dead is equivalent to the idea of corpse revival, namely that in order to “make the dead live” (which is the literal Hebrew expression), God would somehow revive the physical bodies of those who have long since perished and turned to dust or ashes–or otherwise been completely absorbed into our planetary ecosystem. This view of resurrection of the dead is often given the label of “literal,” which is taken to mean “actual.”  In other words, in the case of Jesus, unless one believes Jesus’ corpse was “literally” raised to life–i.e., his dead and mutilated body was revivified–then his resurrection would not be “literally” true. The alternative idea, that the “old body” is left behind, like a worn out form of clothing, with the dead “returning to life” in a new transformed state or “mode of being,” is often seen as a threat to Christian apologetics–i.e. the faith that Jesus was truly raised from the dead.

Spiritual BodiesWhat such a view misses is two important things. First, our earliest source for Christian faith in resurrection are the letters of Paul–who clearly affirms a “literal” but spiritual resurrection–for both Jesus and those at the end of history. The dead are raised in an embodied form–but their bodies are no longer “flesh and blood,” but transformed into what he calls a “pneumatikos” body–that is a non-physical “spiritual” mode of being. As Paul puts it–as Adam was “dust of the earth,” so Christ, as a “new Adam,” is a transformed “life-giving Spirit.” Second, the early Christian view of resurrection for the most part developed along similar lines. For most sophisticated Christian thinkers the resurrection of the dead, though seen as “bodily,” was no longer “flesh and blood” and did not necessitate any revival of the literal bones or perished remains of the deceased. After all, only a tiny fraction of human beings who have ever lived on this planet have identifiable “tombs” or graves, from which they might be raised. Clearly the idea of the dead “coming forth from their graves” might be viewed as “actual” but surely not “literal.” Using metaphors to express concepts beyond our physical experience is not robbing the concepts that lie within the metaphor of reality.

I realize that some of the latest gospel accounts of the “sightings” of Jesus present us with Jesus’ physical body–eating meals and displaying his wounds as “proof” that he is no “ghost,” but these have to be laid out chronologically alongside the complex of “appearance” traditions. I have written rather extensively on these subject in both my books (The Jesus Discovery and Paul and Jesus), as well as on this blog, see here. When all our accounts are taken together I am persuaded that Paul’s view of “leaving the old clothing behind” was the earliest–and was shared by the first witnesses he names in 1 Corinthians 15–namely Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “500″ brothers.

The discussion of the important differences between the Greek affirmation of the “immortality of the soul,” and the Jewish concept of “resurrection of the dead,” is an essential part of this discussion. Most students of Christian Origins are introduced at some point to Oscar Cullmann’s classic Ingersoll lecture at Harvard in 1955, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?: The Witness of the New Testament,” subsequently published with other essays in an edited volume, Immortality and Resurrection (Macmillan) by Krister Stendahl, now out of print. Fortunately, there is a version of the substance of lecture on the Web. What Cullmann showed so clearly is that one must not gloss over the important differences in these two classic Western ways of viewing death and afterlife. However, a half century of research subsequently has shown that the theological differences Cullmann pinpoints are not as airtight as they might appear, when viewed through the lens of the critical historian of ideas. The magisterial study of Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion changes the entire landscape of the discussion in this regard. Its rich content and analysis is essential to any informed discussion.

If anything one finds that there is a blurring between the sharp distinctions that Cullmann posited, with Jews affirming “resurrection of the dead,” or even “resurrection of the body,” in complex and nuanced ways, often parallel to so-called “Greek” views of immortality. One result is that the literal physical remains of the dead play little to no part, other than in a metaphorical way, in the more sophisticated affirmations that the “dead” experience ongoing existence either in another realm, or in an age to come. Thus in the book of Revelation (20:11-13), the “sea gave up the dead that were in it,” and those resurrected dead “stand” before the throne of God in judgment, but the writer obviously has no interest in affirming a literal recovery of “bones and flesh,” or reanimated corpses, long ago “returned to dust.”
Jews and early Christians were quite aware of the complex nuances of their affirmation of “resurrection of the dead,” and that a literal view of restored “bones and flesh” was not their central concern nor their most fundamental challenge. There was something much more profound at stake that had to do with an “anthropological” view of the whole human person–thus Paul’s category of a “new body,” but a spiritual one, not one of flesh and blood. This was in contrast to the “naked” state of death, before the spirit is “reclothed.” We are essentially dealing with metaphors here but the clothing analogy seems to be a good one, as Paul develops it in 2 Corinthians 5. He apparently likens the body of flesh and bones to old clothing, and one’s immediate “death” as a naked state of the disembodied “spirit,” (i.e., Greek “immortal soul”). Accordingly, putting on a “new spiritual body” is akin to putting on new clothing, with the old shed or left behind. In that system of understanding resurrection literal “tombs” are irrelevant, whether literally in the ground, or symbolically “in the sea.”

That is why finding the decayed bones of Jesus in an ossuary, as might well be the case Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, as I have argued here on this blog and extensively in our book, The Jesus Discovery, does not contradict the earliest faith in Jesus’ resurrection by his first followers. What has happened is that people have conflated the later accounts in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, where Jesus clearly appears as a “revived corpse” and even asks for food to eat–declaring himself to be “flesh and blood,” with the much earlier views the gospel of Mark (with no appearances of Jesus), the fragment ending of the Gospel of Peter, and Matthew–that are much more compatible with Paul’s earlier view (50s CE) of “seeing” Jesus’ spiritual body. The idea those who “sleep in the dust” awakening, or the sea “giving up” the dead that are in it, makes it crystal clear that resurrection of the dead has to do with a transformed “heavenly” existence, not a revival of the scant remains of those long ago turned to “dust and ashes” as the phrase goes (Daniel 12:2-3; Revelation 20:13). One might also recall that, according to Jesus, those who experience the “age to come” and the resurrection of the dead, are transformed into an “angelic” state, no longer male or female with physical bodies (Luke 20:34-38).

Keith Akers, author of The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity, has a thoughtful post from a few years back titled “Implications of the Jesus Family Tomb at Talpiot” at his Website which is as relevant today as when he first wrote it. I really appreciated Akers’s book on Jesus and learned a lot from him. I have found anything he writes to be well thought through and valuable to read. In his essay on the Talpiot Tomb he raises the issue of how diverse groups of early Christians began to formulate their understanding of what was essentially affirmed in the teaching of “resurrection of the dead,” whether that of Jesus, or the raising of the dead more generally at the end of the age.

Emile Puech Confirms “Resurrection” Inscription Reading in Talpiot Tomb

As most of my readers know one of the truly amazing things discovered in our robotic arm camera probe of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb (Talpiot Tomb B), that is less than 100 meters from the “Jesus family tomb,” in East Talpiot, was a four-line Greek inscription that we interpreted as a reference to “resurrection of the dead”–either as a cry for, or a celebration of, God/Jehovah lifting up the dead! Nothing like this has ever been found on an ossuary from this period. You can read a full account in our book, The Jesus Discovery.

The day after we discovered it we asked Princeton University professor James Charlesworth to visit the tomb and offer his preliminary reading of the inscription. Keep in mind he had never seen it before. He read it without hesitation as “God, Jehovah, raises up…” but was not sure of the last word which he said could either be Alpha, Pi, Beta or Alpha, Gamma, Beta. His reading was precisely the same as mine–done the day before. After further study, analysis, and consultation with half a dozen epigraphers I ended up translating it:

O Divine Jehovah Raise up! Raise up!
I, Divine Jehovah, Raise up! Raise Up!

Subsequently various interpretations were offered, including that of noted epigrapher, Christopher Rollston, who disagreed with our readings, see here. I offered a summary of all the interpretations in my ASOR paper in March 2012 which you can read here.

We now have renowned epigrapher and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Émile Puech weighing in on the inscription. I am quite pleased to report that he reads the four Greek words without hesitation in the same way we had done–and declares this to be an unprecedented “resurrection” statement–whether a cry or a declaration. Simcha Jacobovici has just posted an interview with Prof. Puech in which he offers his reading and his analysis. If you have been confused by all the academic give-and-take on this inscription Prof. Puech’s clear and confident “sight reading” helps to really clear the air:

Jerusalem Discoveries in the Time of Jesus

The Biblical Archaeology Society has just announced a significantly discounted DVD set of four of my lectures titled “Jerusalem Discoveries in the Time of Jesus.” Click anywhere on the image below for full information on contents. I should add here, lest anyone think posting this on my blog is shameless commercial promotion, that those of us who do lectures for BAS receive no royalties for sales but do these programs as a public service.