The Tomb and Wife of Jesus: Handling Sensationalist Claims that Crop Up around Easter

My doctoral supervisor at Edinburgh, Prof. Larry Hurtado, would remark that sensationalist archaeological discoveries about Jesus frequently become public just in time for Easter. His point: Easter is the most profitable time to sell headlines and promote documentaries, books, and other media related to Jesus.

Often, the “discoveries” are presented in ways sensationally to undercut orthodox Christianity, Da Vinci Code style.

So the publication of the Gospel of Judas in 2006 came with the fanfare of having discovered the lost, real story of Jesus’s betrayal, complete with a National Geographic documentary.

GJudas

The Talpiot tomb came to public attention (again!) in 2007 with a documentary by Canadian filmmaker James Cameron (yes, of Avatar and Titanic fame) and Canadian-Israeli journalist Simcha Jacobovici, Jacobovici ready with books to sell. The tomb, they claim, contained the body of Jesus, along with bodies of his wife, Mary, his son, Jude, and Mary and Joseph, his parents.

Talpiot

In time for this Easter, Harvard has released scholarly assessment on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, a 3-inch fragment of papyrus written in Coptic that includes the sensational phrase: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” There’s a documentary here, too, but to date it’s only aired in Europe and in French. The documentary had been primed for release in 2012 when the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment was first announced, but the Smithsonian Channel (wisely) withheld airing it when scholarly voices globally opined that the fragment may be a fake and called for time to study it first before presenting conclusions about it. (See the French documentary on Mark Goodacre’s site, here.)

GJW

For Easter at my own college, last week we followed a suggestion of adjunct professor Adam Wright and hosted a seminar on Jesus-related themes. So Adam presented on Roman-era Judean burial practices, Dr. Andrew Gabriel reflected on theological implications if Jesus did have a wife (see his blog, here), and I presented on how to react to the sorts of sensationalist claims about Jesus I’ve mentioned above.

My advice is as follows:

1. Keep Calm and Don’t Believe the Hype

Don’t panic over headlines. Headlines are meant to sell news, whether or not something actually is newsworthy. Christianity is built on solid, historical foundations that have survived years of scrutiny, both sincere and sinister. There simply won’t ever be a single find that will deliver the knock-down death-blow to historic Christianity. Don’t panic!

2. Consider the Qualifications of the Claimant

Especially in the internet age, anybody can say anything they want with an air of authority. But what is the authority of anyone presenting a particular position? Are they qualified with the necessary archaeological, linguistic, historical training to speak authoritatively on their subject? Or – as is often the case in the most sensationalist claims – are they self-taught “experts” who have foregone formal training, spouting conspiracy theories of the Academy or the Religious Elite, and supporting their claims by quoting snippets from trained scholars who often subsequently complain that they were taken out of context or were only given partial information to remark upon. (This is certainly the case in the Talpiot Tomb episode.)

3. Consider the Motivation(s) of the Claimant: Religious? Ideological? Financial?

In other words, who gains what from a given claim? Sometimes, we can detect religious or ideological motivations: A claim either supports or undercuts established Christianity. Thus on the one hand the Talpiot tomb provides skeptics archaeological “proof” that Jesus did not rise from the dead. On the other hand, the ossuary (container for the bones of the dead) discovered with “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” inscribed upon it gives Christians the first archaeological “proof” that Jesus of Nazareth really existed. In neither case are most qualified scholars persuaded by the truthfulness of these finds. In both cases, the publicity generates cash to papers, magazines, documentary-makers, book-sellers, etc.

4. Consider the Claim(s) of the Claimant: The Devil Is in (Ignoring) the Details

Along with not panicking over headlines is that the headlines very often do not reflect the reality even of their own articles. Take the recent so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Reporting on Harvard’s scholarly assessment of the fragment, most headlines proclaimed that the fragment is “real” or “authentic” or “ancient” or “not a forgery”. From the headlines, we wouldn’t blame readers for believing that scholars confirm we’ve now uncovered an historical text validating the claim that Jesus was, indeed, married. In fact, however, no scholar suggests this fragment tells us anything at all about the historical Jesus. Instead, some scholars suggest it tells us what certain groups may have believed about Jesus or women at some point in the 4th-8th centuries, whereas others continue to maintain that the fragment may be or definitely is a modern forgery. All to say: headlines rarely reflect reality. For accuracy, we need to read the actual details of whatever claim is being made.

5. Be Open to New Possibilities

Finally, we need to be aware that legitimate discoveries about Christian origins continue to be found. Whereas the James ossuary or the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark may be frauds, the discoveries at OxyrynchusNag Hamadi and Qumran have contributed to our historical knowledge. Discovering a stone and then coins with Pontius Pilate’s inscription ended the theory that Pilate was himself a figment of Christian, literary imagination. Even the Gospel of Judas and, if it’s real, the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife are historically valuable artifacts that legitimately tell us about how various groups developed in the centuries after Christ.

Future discoveries may both corroborate and correct our historical understanding of Christian origins, and we need to be open to either. That said, I repeat: Christianity is historically well founded, and we have nothing to fear from future discoveries.

Happy Easter!

On Generosity

Last week I shared a mini-sermon with our students on the topic of generosity. The context was to announce an invitation to the college’s upcoming fundraising banquets – see here, and please feel likewise invited to attend!

The announcement prompted an opportunity to share briefly on a too often neglected area of discipleship: generosity.

Generosity and the topic of money generally have become choppy waters to navigate for today’s pastors. Today’s pastors are frequently nervous to talk about money lest they – and the church – be associated with the self-promoting antics of flashy TV or “health, wealth, and prosperity” preachers who hijack Scripture’s rich teaching on wealth, twisting it to suit their personal gain.

That’s a shame, because right thinking about wealth and, in particular, generosity is essential for a discipled life.

Multiple studies show that Christians in the western world have steadily grown wealthier and, in the past 15 years in particular, have steadily shared less and less of that wealth. In fact, US figures for 2009 put giving barely above 2% – almost as low as statistics for giving recorded during the Depression and the post-World War II eras (cited in Craig L. Blomberg, Christians in an Age of Wealth [Zondervan, 2013], p. 24).

I believe Jesus means it when he says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21; Luke 12.34).

En masse, western Christians today demonstrably DO NOT deposit our “treasure” primarily in the Kingdom. Demonstrably, our treasure goes to our personal security (homes, vehicles, careers, RRSPs, RESPs, etc.) and our personal pleasure (gadgets, movies, holidays, activities – including activities for our kids!).

How we spend our money today indicates measurably that we are in a crisis of discipleship. And I do not believe I’m overstating it when I say that until we get our hearts in the right place – as demonstrated by getting our money in the right places! – the church will be ill-equipped to deal adequately with any other social issue that comes our way.

For some excellent resources on generosity, see:

Craig L. Blomberg, Christians in an Age of Wealth (Zondervan, 2013);

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Rev. ed. (Thomas Nelson, 2005);

Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2007);

Further, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada has also issued a small booklet that’s both worthwhile and, at only $4, inexpensive:

David Hazzard, ed., Generosity Changes Everything…Even Us (PAOC, 2014).

 

 

“What Time Is the 3:00 Parade?” What the Church Can Learn from Disney

Last May I led our staff through a customer service seminar.

We listened to an episode of one of my favourite radio broadcasts: Under the Influence with Terry O’Reilly. CBC has just replayed that episode, so it’s available for free download for another week or so here; manuscript version here.

The episode offers loads of fantastic advice for improving customer service using examples from places like Macy’s, Zappos and Disney. The examples from Disney most resonated with our staff.

Disney staff are taught to value their customers as people,with the understanding that people remember people, not products.

Consequently, Disney staff are coached to answer the question: “What time is the 3:00 parade?” by offering customers optional places to view the event and giving assistance in directing them there. In other words, staff are coached to respond in ways that retain the customer’s dignity as a person, by-passing what may be a natural impulse to answer a stupid question with a sarcastic or belittling answer (“The 3:00 parade is at 3:00, moron!”).

“What time is the 3:00 parade?” has become a shorthand among our staff that reminds us to treat our students as people, even when they ask questions with self-evident answers. (Having just spent 30 min. going over a course syllabus, drawing attention to the clearly displayed assignments and due dates: “So, when is this paper due?”)

When it comes to church, I don’t think we’re too bad for addressing newcomers with sarcasm. Typically, we’ll greet them with a smile and a handshake and a bulletin and, if opportunity presents itself, indicate our available programs and services.

On the other hand, however, I wonder if we always possess Disney’s underlying value: to value people as people and not just as prospective additions to our club.

As Christians, this is a value I think we all know we should have since it’s one Jesus modeled throughout his entire ministry. But sometimes we just need a little reminder. And maybe a trip to Disney.