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.
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.
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.)
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 Oxyrynchus, Nag 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.