“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses. Fa la la la la, la la la la,” says that old carol. The journalism angle in that?
During the Christmas and Easter seasons, journalists have come to expect -- and perhaps to hail -- new, sensationalized and commercialized bids to debunk the New Testament Gospels, the earliest and best source we have about Jesus’ life. The Religion Guy himself has played that game, hopefully with some balance and accuracy.
The most lucrative example by far was “The Da Vinci Code,” an odd novel issued for Holy Week of 2003. In 2014 that fictional tale about Jesus marrying his disciple Mary Magdalene has been supplanted by alleged non-fiction. Before Easter, a Harvard University press release announced: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.” To the contrary, the testing showed this fragment wasn’t “ancient” but dates from the 7th or 8th Century A.D., and as for the “wife” business, see below.
Then, timed for Christmas the media have publicized a book entitled “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.” The authors, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and religion professor Barrie Wilson, are unlikely to win many converts beyond the newsrooms. Reason: They require a massive leap of faith in supposed coded messages from a manuscript six centuries after Jesus’ time -- that never mentions Jesus!
Among the unimpressed academic bloggers is University of Iowa archaeologist Robert Cargill (who’s an agnostic). He thinks this “silly” book continues Jacobovici’s reputation for “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation,” all to boost book sales and a related pre-Christmas TV show.
The Harvard theory has more scholarly cachet but huge holes that The Guy analyzed previously. Note that chief proponent Karen L. King never said Jesus really married Mary or someone else, just that the problematic text indicates some unknown group centuries later thought he did.
But is that so? The Atlantic magazine’s Yuletide edition thoroughly debunks the debunkers, in “The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife.” (LINK TO http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-curious-case-of-jesuss-wife/382227) With this sort of story, magazine journalism has great advantages over daily newspapering thanks to bigger word counts and longer-term perspective. Television? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Joel Baden of Yale University and Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote The Atlantic article. The Religion Guy will avoid getting into all the technical problems with this text, but Baden and Moss say here’s the bottom line: “Even though King herself has refused to declare the case closed, for all practical purposes, judgment has been passed on the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’; it’s a fake.”
Turning to media criticism, Baden and Moss complain that the Smithsonian Channel’s show about this text last Easter “mentioned none of the objections” to authenticity. The magazine’s re-examination amounts to a rebuke of print media sensationalism, TV superficiality, the Harvard Divinity School, scholarly faddism in general, and a gullible public’s itch for novelty.
The Religion Guy has a few quibbles with The Atlantic, however.
This whole business depends on one Coptic word in a broken text line that proponents translate as Jesus’ mention of his “wife,” while we’re never told an equally feasible translation is “woman,” something quite different. The piece says 1 Timothy “is in fact a second-century work” but the best scholarship is mixed on that. And it states that the New Testament “was assembled long after Jesus’ death.”
True, it took a long time for the Testament as we know it to be “assembled.” But liberal and conservative experts agree the 1st Century Gospels were not written “long after” Jesus’ time but a mere 3 to 6 decades later when some of his contemporaries would still have been living.