September 21, 2012

The Jesus Conspiracy

September 21, 2012
Ross Douthat
(Read original for links to attached articles associated with text.)

It’s been six years since National Geographic revealed, amid much fanfare and discussion, the existence of a heretofore-unknown document that seemed to retell the New Testament narrative from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. That experience should have been a cautionary tale about the intersection of Biblical archaeology and media sensationalism: The first wave of coverage suggested that the document painted Judas as a misunderstood hero who was “only obeying his master’s wishes when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss,” but the evidence soon mounted that this sensationalistic claim relied on dubious translation decisions, and that the Judas in the fragmentary gospel might well actually be the embodiment of a Gnostic “king of demons” rather than Jesus’s most loyal friend.

It’s possible that a similar reassessment may be in store for this month’s entry in the “lost gospel” genre, a fragment of a fourth-century transcription of a late-second century Gnostic text that contains a line in which Jesus seems to refer to Mary Magdalene as his wife. Indeed, the document may ultimately prove to be an outright forgery or fraud, as some scholars are already suggesting. But from the point of view of Christian faith and the quest for the Jesus of history, it actually doesn’t matter all that much either way. Even if this scrap of text has been authentically identified and interpreted, it still tells us much more about the religious preoccupations of our own era, and particularly the very American desire to refashion Jesus of Nazareth in our own image rather than letting go of him altogether, than it does about the Jesus who actually lived and preached in Palestine in the early decades A.D.

This passage from the Smithsonian Magazine story on the discovery puts it well:

[Harvard's Karen] King makes no claim for its usefulness as biography. The text was probably composed in Greek a century or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, then copied into Coptic some two centuries later. As evidence that the real-life Jesus was married, the fragment is scarcely more dispositive than Brown’s controversial 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Precisely. And what’s true of the new text has been true of nearly every alternative gospel, “lost” or otherwise, that ended up excluded from the Christian canon. Apart from the Gospel of Thomas, whose collection of gnostic-tinged sayings are sometimes claimed to have a first century provenance, none of the endless apocryphal documents can compete with the actual New Testament – and particularly the synoptic gospels and the Pauline epistles – when it comes to historical proximity to the events of Jesus’s life. They’re useful windows into the religious trends of subsequent centuries, but they tell us next to nothing about what Jesus and his earliest followers thought and did and said.

This reality doesn’t make the New Testament narratives historically dispositive by any stretch: They are, after all, works of religious persuasion that make extraordinary claims about their subject. But the absence of credible alternative sources severely limits the options for claiming that the “real Jesus” was significantly different from the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To make that claim, you have to make the move that Professor King makes, further down in the Smithsonian piece, and assume that the evidence we conspicuously don’t have is somehow more telling than the sources that actually survived:

The question the discovery raises, King told me, is, “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?”

Note the two options here for why we don’t have any direct evidence of a Mrs. Jesus: “Happenstance” on the one hand, or a kind of historical rewrite job by the church fathers on the other. Randomness or cover-up; accident or conspiracy. The third possibility, that “only the literature that said he was celibate survived” because Jesus actually was celibate and all the early witnesses agreed on this is ruled out as somehow too straightforward, too easy, a possibility that the simpleminded entertain but the initiated necessarily reject.

This is a move that’s characteristic of much of the writing on the historical Jesus, both popular and academic. I wrote a great deal about this temptation toward conspiracy theorizing in my recent book, from which I’ll take the liberty of quoting:

Like Elizabethan buffs in search of the “real” Shakespeare, the questers for the historical Jesus turn out to be masters of detection and geniuses at codebreaking, capable of seeing through every cover-up and unpacking every con. Is there a dearth of evidence for alternative Christianities in the earliest history of the church? Why, then that very absence is itself evidence that these Christianities existed—and then were cruelly suppressed. Indeed, the whole of the New Testament represents a pure propaganda campaign against these lost communities—and, happily, we can recover their teachings and beliefs through the simple expedient of taking every claim made in the canonical texts and treating it as a polemic against a group, or groups, that held roughly the opposite beliefs.

Alternatively, if New Testament books aren’t read as straightforward propaganda, they’re treated as palimpsests and pastiches, in whose complexities and inconsistencies the adept reader can discern earlier traditions and older, purer ways of being Christian, obscured by the propaganda mills of the early Church but visible in the stitchwork and legible between the lines. This licenses scholars to pore over centuries’ worth of early Christian texts, yanking out bits and pieces that fit a particular thesis and moving them forward or backward in time to prove whatever point they want. 

As for factual and theological consistencies within the earliest Christian texts—why, that’s just evidence that the various writers were all in on the conspiracy, all agents of the cover-up. The theological commonalities between Paul’s epistles and Matthew or John only proves that the gospel writers did violence to the facts in order to vindicate a Pauline theology. The consistency of the Passion narratives across the four gospels is invoked as proof that their authors colluded in a triumphalist fantasy.

And so it continues with today’s discovery. On the question, “was Jesus married?,” all the evidence still points toward an absolute negative – and yet this obvious answer is ruled out a priori, in favor of more elaborate hypotheses about how a later “ideal of celibacy” drove the Christian churches to purge every reference the Jesus- Magdalene relationships from their texts and gospels and traditions. Which, not coincidentally, happens to be roughly Dan Brown’s explanation for how and why the truth about Jesus’s marriage was covered up.

The analogy to “The Da Vinci Code” rankles academics, of course. “Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the code or its author,” my colleague Laurie Goodstein notes in her story on the newly discovered text, and quotes King saying: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.” But if they don’t want people to make the analogy, they shouldn’t imitate his arguments.