Yesterday we noted some of the micro-problems with the latest story that was to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Well, tmatt alerted me to this column by historian Philip Jenkins that criticizes these stories from a macro approach. While we can discuss all the many little ways that media outlets have been duped over the years on these types of stories, it's important to do something to correct the larger problem of journalistic ignorance about the history of Christianity.
If you are a Godbeat professional, this "Alternative Christianities" is essential reading to avoid these embarrassing stories and inevitable walk-backs in the future. And while it's outside the scope of this blog for me to correct general ignorance, this short piece is something that anyone with an interest in religion should be familiar with. Here are just the first few paragraphs:
On average, the Biblical world sees a startling new discovery of allegedly cosmic significance every four or five years. Most recently, we had Jesus's Wife, with the Gospel of Judas not long before that, and no great powers of prophecy are needed to tell that other similar finds will shortly be upon us.
In themselves, the finds are usually interesting (if they happen to be authentic), but where the media always go wrong in reporting them is in vastly exaggerating just how novel and ground-breaking they are.
So powerful are such claims, and so consistent, that it sometimes seems as if nobody before the 1970s (say) could have known about the multiple alternative Christianities that flourished in the first centuries of Christianity. Surely, we think, earlier generations could never have imagined the world revealed by such ancient texts as the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gnostic documents that turned up at Nag Hammadi. Lacking such evidence, how could older scholars have dreamed what we know to be true today: the vision of Jesus as a Zen-like mystic teacher, or perhaps a Buddhist-style enlightener, who expounded secret doctrines to leading female disciples, and who may even have been sexually involved with one or more of them? Today, for the first time, we hear the heretics speaking in their own voices!
But here's the problem. Virtually nothing in that model would have surprised a reasonably well-informed reader in 1930, or even in 1900, never mind in later years. In order to make their finds more appealing, more marketable, scholars and journalists have to work systematically to obscure that earlier knowledge, to pretend that it never existed. In order to create the maximum impact, the media depend on a constructed amnesia, a wholly fictitious picture of the supposed ignorance of earlier decades.
Jenkins obliterates such an approach and with some fun details. He ends:
If you want to see just how much general readers knew about alternative early Christianities, then read Robert Graves's bizarre novel King Jesus, a book so floridly heretical it makes The Da Vinci Code look like a pious pamphlet from Our Sunday Visitor. King Jesus appeared in 1946, just as the Nag Hammadi documents were being unearthed, and even before the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet Graves already had full access to a panoply of lost gospels and Gnostic fragments, from which he concocted a mythology that includes virtually every radical view of Jesus that has surfaced in later years. We find Jesus as the secular revolutionary; the husband of the pagan Goddess of the land; the expounder of Oriental wisdom; the secret heir to the secular kingdom of Israel; the master of Hellenistic mysteries; participant in ancient tribal fertility rites; the esoteric teacher and numerologist; and (of course) the husband of the Magdalene.
Huh, Jesus's wife, what a revolutionary new theory...
Oddly, though, when a scholar wishes to present a new discovery or thesis to a publisher or a funding agency, they don't generally begin by saying, "Well, this really doesn't break any new ground in terms of what we know about the early church, but for specialists in Coptic linguistics, it's just heart-stopping." Rather, the aspiring author succumbs to the inevitable temptation to proclaim just how many boundaries he or she is shattering, and how, at long last, cutting edge research is breaking the irrational taboos set by the churches and their jaded orthodoxies. We are boldly going where no Jesus Quest scholar has gone before; and we will boldly ignore any evidence to the contrary.
People being what they are, I know that situation won't change any time soon. But can I at least make a minimum demand? If you are going to claim a new gospel fragment as a revolutionary scholarly breakthrough, can you at least demonstrate that it significantly advances the state of knowledge beyond what existed in the era of Herbert Hoover?
Is that too much to ask?
Not a bad question for journalists to ask next time they're pitched yet another story that will shake the foundations of Christianity.
Image of the earth shattering caused by the Jesus' wife story via Shutterstock.