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Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Real! It's Fake!

It's real! It's fake! No, it's... etc. The heated academic discussion grinds on about whether the papyrus fragment which makes mention of Jesus' wife is a forgery or not. The fragment (below) has Jesus referring to his wife who also is his disciple, mentioning a ‘Mary’ who presumably is Mary Magdalene, and is written in [1]Coptic on Papyrus which has been dated to the 7th-8th-centuries.

Validation of the source of the fragment, and the dating of the text itself, has been contentious since the fragment surfaced two years ago, and the debate about its authenticity rumbles on. I think I’ll let it. For me, the issue is not so much whether or not this particular fragment is authentic, but about what actually constitutes 'real' or 'fake' in the first place.

Paul as portrayed by Rembrandt. But which 'Paul' is the real one? Seven of the thirteen letters which carry his name in scripture are now known to be later forgeries.
Is a text 'real' because it is canonical, because it contains orthodox-approved ideas? Hardly. The seven 'pastoral' letters of Paul which appear in his name in the New Testament are now known to have been written decades later by an unknown hand with the intent to put an anti-Gnostic, pro-orthodox spin on a man who, as we now know, actually held Gnostic views, and might well have been Gnostic himself. In its rise to power, the orthodox Church sought to re-create Paul in its own [2]image, as a model of all the religious values which the historical Paul in his life abjured. And so, several decades after his death, these seven letters, which contain anti-female, anti-Gnostic statements, were written and signed in his name. These letters are as fake as the papyrus fragment might yet turn out to be - but I don't see anyone rushing to drop them from the canon.

A fragment from the Gospel of Judas. Considered heretical by the orthodox Church, it was excluded from the canon. From an orthodox point of view it turns the story of Jesus' betrayal on its head, making it clear that Jesus considered Judas to be the most selfless and courageous of his disciples for ensuring that his destiny would be fulfilled, knowing that this act would damn Judas' reputation forever. 
Are the Gospels of Thomas, or Judas, or Mary 'fake' because they appear nowhere in scripture? Of course they are not. The actual texts have been authenticated, as have many such ex-scriptural texts. Whether a text makes it into scripture or not has not depended upon whether it is ‘real' or ‘fake’, but often-enough upon the capricious personal opinion of a single individual. I can only conclude that those who consider scriptural texts to be the revealed word of God simply have not investigated the history of how those texts ended up between the covers of the Bible, and just how alarmingly arbitrary such keep-it-in, leave-it-out choices have at times been. But even all these fake-or-real criteria fade into moderate insignificance beside one sobering fact.

A section of the Dead Sea scroll which describes the building of the temple in Jerusalem. These ancient texts, whether they are canonical or whether they are excluded from scripture, come to us as fragments rescued from obscurity. It is only after-the-fact decisions which have determined that one text should be approved for inclusion in scripture and another rejected. But all such texts were once considered as sacred by one belief or another. 
Not a single scriptural text is known to be original. Instead what we have either are copies of copies, or translations from one language into another, with all the built-in hazards which such translating involves - as anyone who has [3]tried their hand at this will know. But even this is not just what is at issue. In almost all cases, we simply do not know who wrote these texts. A name is tagged onto a text, or a compilation of texts, at times long after the text was written, and we become familiar with such a text as [4]'The Gospel According to St. Mark', or 'The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah’.

But the reality on the ground is that we simply do not know, and have no way of conclusively confirming, who actually wrote these and other texts, or even the circumstances under which they were written. The term used for such texts is [5]pseudepigrapha – the assigning of authorship to a text when the true author is unknown or cannot be confirmed. In this sense, the whole of scripture (with the exception of the six authenticated letters of Paul) consists solely of pseudepigraphic writings.

The above text describes the building of the Jerusalem temple, and here Rembrandt depicts the prophet Jeremiah lamenting its later destruction. 
This is not to say that ascribing such authorship would necessarily have been a deliberate subterfuge. It is more that the mindset of those distant times, and the literary forms which that mindset produced, would not have thought it untoward to attach the name of some big-gun prophet or apostle to a text which one might have written oneself, perhaps with the intention of granting such a text an aura of authority or even of authenticity. Copyright laws, plagiarism and spurious authorship claims were still notions of the distant future, and the line between what we might consider to be real or fake had yet to be drawn.

[1] The Coptic text is itself probably a translation from Greek, which carries the implication (which holds true for many texts) that even if this particular fragment is a falsification in the sense that its dating does not conform to the historical context, it might well be a copy of an earlier authentic original. So proving this fragment to be falsified would not in itself prove that the text which it carries, and what that text says, is also false. That the text of the fragment could have been copied and translated from a now-lost Greek original is therefore entirely plausible.

[2] The same process of posthumously turning someone who held Gnostic values into a champion of orthodoxy was also exercised by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. This time it was Anthony whose life and values became rewritten in a fictitious biography penned by Athanasius that for centuries was regarded as fact. Please see my post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction for more about this curious episode.  

[3] Please see my post A Simple Misunderstanding for some of the results of these hazards of translation and mistranslation in scripture.

[4] Please see my post The Gospel According to Somebody for a further investigation of Gospel authorship.

[5] For more about such pseudepigraphic writings - and a questionable contemporary Christian view of Gnosticism - please see my post Leaving the Cult.

Hans-Josef Klauck: Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Baylor University Press, 2006. This study contains a complete chapter on all the letters attributed to Paul, also mentioning those not included in the New Testament. It places the letters in the historical and social context in which they were written, and examines both their writing style and their possible authorship in a rigorous depth of detail which my post here only outlines. The author points out that even in the letters which we reasonably can attribute to Paul himself, various additions and amendments to his text by later unknown others have been made which change the original context. The 'pastoral' letters appearing in the New Testament as 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus not only are conclusively not by Paul, they apparently are not to Timothy or Titus either, making them what Dr. Klauck describes as 'doubly pseudonomous'. Message, apparently, is a more important criterion than authenticity for a text's inclusion in scripture.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Trinity Press International.

An academic review of the fragment can be read at: The Gospel of Jesus's Wife
Updated conclusions can be read at: The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: Introduction 
Further Q&A detailed discussion regarding current results of and conclusions about the fragment can be read via the task bar menu of this website (Harvard Divinity School). The conclusions at the time of the writing of this post are that the fragment is authentic to its time, and its text reflects genuine issues of doctrine being discussed at that time. These issues were concerned with whether or not wives could also become disciples, which Jesus appears to confirm.

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