Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Most Bulveristic Argument I Have Ever Heard

In 2014 an academic called Karen King published what appeared to be a fragment of a seventh or eighth century Christian document which appeared to say that Jesus Christ was married (or, as she very carefully put it, that some Christians in the seventh or eighth century believed that Jesus Christ was married.)

The document was subjected to very close scrutiny by other academics, and the consensus was eventually reached that the document was a forgery. Simcha Jacobovici, who believes in a number of fringe-theories about the historical Jesus wrote the following: 

“The rules of the game are that any archaeology that contradicts orthodox Christian theology is either too late, too early, not what it looks like or an outright forgery. Nothing, I repeat, nothing in archaeology can ever contradict what Pauline Christianity says is the gospel truth. So in the 1970’s when Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University – the leading New Testament scholar of his day – said he found a version of the Gospel of Mark that contradicts the present Gospel, he was called an outright forger and he went to his grave with his reputation in tatters. They were kinder to Professor King. The sleeper agents of Christian theology didn’t say that she was a forger. They simply said that Professor King was dumb enough to fall for a forgery.” 

This is a classic “you only think that because...” argument: the new manuscript appears to contradict Christian orthodoxy; therefore anyone casting doubt on it’s authenticity “only thinks that because” they are orthodox Christians. Therefore all evidence that the document is a forgery can be discounted. When you have discounted the evidence that it a forgery, what you are left with is evidence that it is authentic. Hence it is authentic: QED. 

It is true that were an ancient document that shed heterodox light on the historical Jesus to be discovered, someone who was highly committed to orthodox Christianity would have an ulterior motive to say that it was forged. It is equally true that if a forged document were discovered, someone highly committed to different version—someone who claimed to have discovered the tomb of Mr and Mrs Christ and a coded Gospel describing their courtship, for example—would have an ulterior motive for saying that the document was genuine. But the theological prejudices of the writers tell us nothing about whether or not the documents is authentic or forged. That involves months and years of boring linguistic, textual and palaeographic study. 

If heterodox writers always believe that heterodox documents are genuine. and orthodox writers always believe that orthodox documents are genuine no discussion of religious texts can ever occur. Jacobovici's reasoning takes historical theology out of the realm of rational discourse.

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Aonghus Fallon said...

Sure, but maybe another factor is the balance of probability? (And I realise this is very much a moveable feast). My understanding is that Jesus Christ was a relatively obscure figure historically - at least at first. The gospels aside, personal details would be kind of thin on the ground. So it seems more likely to me that people would fabricate evidence about him as he became more relevant rather than new evidence coming to light.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that is a slightly different question. The Gospel of Jesus Wife -- so called -- turned out to be a deliberate modern hoax. If it had turned out to be a genuine fragment of an eighth century text, that wouldn't "prove" that Jesus was "really" married. There would still be a whole lot of open questions.

No-one proposes that an eighth century document could simply be an eye-witness report of the historical Jesus. Everyone agrees that the infancy Gospel of Thomas is very old (third century?) but no-one thinks it contains an historical account of Kid Jesus' school days. It's religious fan-fiction. But it's still very intersting -- that a popular third century Christian book imagined Jesus as a naughty child (like Krishna) not a perfectly obedient child (as in some Victorian carols.)

An eight century text could have been copied from a much older text: and the much older text could have contained ancient and authentic traditions which would provide an historian with data about the Historical Jesus. Some people think that the other Gospel attributed to Thomas contains traditions which are as old as the traditions in the Synoptic Gospels, and independent of them, and therefore can be used as evidence from which to reconstruct the historical Jesus. But other people think that its another fan-fic riff on the Synoptics.

I agree that the presumption is always against a "new" Gospel giving actual factual data about Jesus; but any ancient text gives actual factual data about what some Christians were thinking in the third or fourth or fifth century. But the Gospel of Jesus wife (sadly) turned out to be a clever modern hoaxer having a laugh.