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[Addendum; 3/24 - some have noted that another passage in the article linked below other than the one I note does have Jesus shape-shifting. It doesn't. Change of appearance is not shape-shifting as those religious traditions who talk of such things have in mind - e.g., changing into animals. It's the wrong description, and is designed, in my view, only to generate traffic. In short, it's misleading. Maybe I'm just over-sensitized by all the weird stuff I read in alternative religions and stuff for this blog. MSH]
I’ve had a lot of people over the past couple of days send me links to articles such as this one: “1,200-year-old Egyptian text describes a shape-shifting Jesus.” Readers kind enough to send me the news thought it a good candidate for this blog. It is and isn’t.
On the one hand, the story (not the text) bears the marks of archaeo-porn we’ve come to love: sensationalism (“shape-shifting”) and timing (Easter is right around the corner – will Simcha Jacobovici find something to sell in time?). But on the other hand, the text is a genuine item and published by a respected scholar by a notable (and expensive) academic press, E. J. Brill. (Brill publishes wonderful stuff in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, but their prices force you to sell body parts.)
Let’s dispense with the silliness first. The text doesn’t describe Jesus changing shape, like some CGI morphing scene out of Twilight. Rather, the text says: “Pilate, then, looked at Jesus and, behold, he became incorporeal: He did not see him for a long time …” In other words, Jesus disappeared. Zowie Batman . . . you mean just like the New Testament has him doing in Luke 24:30-31 (the ending of the “Road to Emmaus” story)? Yep. The point? This isn’t new, and so it isn’t revelatory. But how how would the story have ranked on Google? How much talk would have been generated with a headline like “Recently deciphered text has Jesus disappearing like he did in the New Testament”? Ah, marketers and media.
While the text is newly-published, it has been known for some time. At least the article doesn’t obscure that:
About 1,200 years ago the New York text was in the library of the Monastery of St. Michael in the Egyptian desert near present-day al-Hamuli in the western part of the Faiyum. The text says, in translation, that it was a gift from “archpriest Father Paul,” who, “has provided for this book by his own labors.”
The monastery appears to have ceased operations around the early 10th century, and the text was rediscovered in the spring of 1910. In December 1911, it was purchased, along with other texts, by American financier J.P. Morgan. His collections would later be given to the public and are part of the present-day Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
What’s actually noteworthy about the text is that it has a scene where Pilate offers to swap his own son in Jesus’ place on the cross. And sorry, this isn’t some “lost” portion of the “real” story. The text is attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th century AD. As the publishing scholar notes (in the book the sensationalist article is hawking), these and other homilies (sermons) attributed to Cyril show no indication they were really authored by Cyril.”1 The text dates to roughly 800-900 AD, or nearly a millennium after the actual time of Jesus (note the “1200 year-old” part of the article title and do the math). That means that these texts are not like the Gnostic gospels, which are within a couple centuries (and perhaps earlier) of the NT era.
In short, this isn’t a Christianity-shattering find. And the publishing scholar never claims anything of the sort. In fact, if you want the professor’s own description of the material and his book (with a nice photograph of the manuscript), you can read this brief essay. I recommend it over the MSNBC piece.
I recommend readers have a look at this recent post by Dr. Larry Hurtado. It begins this way:
If you want to see a good example of what be-devils any scholarly analysis of practically anything to do with Jesus and early Christianity, have a read of the postings of the Canadian TV self-promoter, Simcha Jacobovici here. . . . [Jacobovici] trashes all the scholars and queries as “sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy”.
Sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy? Really? What’s next from Jacobovici? Producing another spell-binding documentary promoting his own heroism against this vast conspiracy? Will we see Fabio play the lead?
It doesn’t get much more inconsequential and insipid than this.
Looks like Harvard Theological Review (HTR), a respected academic journal for theology and religion, will not be publishing Karen King’s article on the new Coptic fragment that has Jesus say something to his wife. Their reticence comes amid growing suspicions that it’s a fake. The update comes from Craig Evans via the Near Emmaus blog.
Over at the Bible Places blog, Todd Bolen has posted a helpful list of online posts/essays on the new Coptic text that has Jesus addressing his wife. Have a look!
The New York Times published this article today about Professor Karen King’s apparent discovery of a fragment of an ancient text, likely composed a few centuries after the apostolic era, that in part reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” This would be the first ancient text in any language that has any reference to a wife for Jesus. The text is written in Coptic, the language in which the Gnostic Gospels from Nag Hammadi were written.
Now, to be clear, this discovery isn’t PaleoBabble — at least not yet. Karen King is a good scholar. She teaches on the history of early Christianity (which would include Gnostic sects) at Harvard. I don’t believe for a minute she’s faking anything. However, the text is unprovenanced, which is a problem. To quote the article:
The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.
So, while authenticity seems likely, people making manuscript “drops” to scholars from the shadows or on street corners doesn’t help. I personally know people who’ve had this happen to them in some form or another and it’s gone nowhere. However, the instance I’m thinking of involved a photo and a transcription. This appears to be an actual text. Still, I hope the owner comes forward to settle that part of this issue. I should also say it’s nice to see Dr. King disclose information the right way — at a conference of peers — as opposed to the P.T. Barnum (or maybe Chuck Barris) approach of Simcha Jacobovici.
The part of all this that moves toward PaleoBabble, though, is what’s being said about it, and what will continue to be said. As Dr. King herself says, the text does not prove Jesus was married; it proves only someone (the writer of this text) thought he was married, or wanted to cast him as married. The NYT article notes:
[Dr. King] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
James Tabor jumps the gun in this regard, but I guess I can give him a pass on being excited about the news. I’d agree that seeing stuff like this surface is pretty cool. But let’s not insert conclusions into the data, or cast the latter as the former. James writes:
I have written extensively on this subject on my blog, suggesting that my colleagues, from Ben Witherington to Bart Ehrman, who are so insistent that “there is not a shred of evidence that Jesus was married, reconsider the question. I have changed my own position since publishing The Jesus Dynasty in 2006 in which I too insisted the “Jesus was married” idea was long on speculation and short on evidence. The implications of the two Talpiot tombs are one factor in my own shift, but in fact I would consider that evidence secondary compared to the textual evidence, including the evidence from silence, that can be mounted.
James, this isn’t “textual evidence” that Jesus was actually married. It’s evidence someone thought he was married or wanted to cast him as such (assuming of course we won’t see months on wrangling over the translation, in which case, the text will join others consigned to academic limbo).
James recommends Birger Pearson’s latest essay on Mary Magdalene. I agree that it’s well worth the read. My own bottom line is that I tend to agree with James and others that the Church (read: the Catholic church and then all those Protestants who blindly followed that tradition) has manipulated the testimony of Mary Magdalene. Words like “bogus” and “willfully ignorant” only begin to capture this hermeneutical crime. However, we’re unwise to affirm the obvious and then extrapolate to the unnecessary (or to a dream).