Margaret M. Mitchell: What Is Truth in Recent Claims about Christian Origins?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Margaret M. Mitchell is Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and coeditor (with Frances Young) of The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 1: Origins to Constantine.]

Before noon last Friday, April 7, we were presented with a trinity of mass media stories about ancient Christianity: a "lost gospel" of Judas appeared on the front page of the New York Times; a British court decided Dan Brown did not plagiarize from Baigent and Leigh's Holy Blood, Holy Grail; and James Tabor appeared on "Good Morning America" to reveal that he may have new information about the family tomb of Jesus. Yes, it is the run up to Easter, 2006.

When I gave my lecture on "The Historical Jesus: What Do We Know and Why Do We Care?" to my Intro to New Testament class in early March, I warned the students that, with the ironic regularity of the liturgical calendar, the major newsweeklies would somehow find a way to put "Who Was Jesus? -- New Revelations" on the cover. And I said that as far as I knew, there was nothing new since last year, or the year before.

Despite the fury of these recent disclosures, I still think I was right.

The "Gospel of Judas" is a third- or fourth-century Coptic version of a second-century Greek text that apparently presumes and draws upon the Synoptic Gospels and probably John -- along with considerable religious imagination -- to reframe Judas as an intermediary of secret truths. The work is most interesting for the study of Gnostic communities in Egypt in the second through fourth centuries, and for that it constitutes a real find for scholarship. Indeed, it is always a banner day when I get to cross one more book off the list of "Lost Books of Early Christian Literature" in my copy of Edgar J. Goodspeed's A History of Early Christian Literature. This newly published codex does seem to be the genuine article to which Irenaeus was referring in his adversus haereses 1.31 (ca. 180). (See the marvelous website providing images, Coptic transcription, and English translation.)

But it does not give us new historical information about the actual events ca. 30 CE, when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Roman order.

The "Gospel of Judas" (which is not "The Gospel According to Judas"), like another Gnostic gospel, the "Dialogue of the Savior," shows Judas in a neutral or even positive light as a conversation partner of Jesus. The focus in the new text on Judas can be seen as part of a continuation of early Christian rewritings of the Judas story, which we can sight even within the canonical gospels themselves, for instance, when Matthew adds scriptural embellishment to Mark's story of Judas' receipt of payment for handing over Jesus.

But the fresh material in the new Gnostic gospel is not narrated actions, but primarily cosmological speculations in dialogue form. The sensational emphasis on Judas shifting from "betrayer" to "friend" in the recent disclosures appears disproportionate, based as it is on one ambiguous line, the context of which cannot be fully reconstructed, because the papyrus is damaged. Gnostic texts like this revel in the "secret" "special" teachings of the Savior, made known only to an elite few who in turn repeat them to only an elite few. They are based on a theology that is a kind of intentional divine conspiracy theory (indeed -- pssst -- even the creator God of the Old Testament is not really God!).

Dan Brown's book is a novel. Now we know. (Haven't we always known?) Like the author of the Gospel of Judas, he drew upon earlier sources (the book by Baigent and Leigh, which Brown even acknowledges with his clever anagram of their names in his protagonist, Leigh Teabing), but also rewrote them with an artistry that has captured many. Why? Probably because he knew even better than they did how to hitch a mix of historical facts and fictions to a conspiracy theory engine, and he found in the Vatican his perfect embodiment of human malevolence.

James Tabor, in excerpts from his forthcoming book, The Jesus Dynasty, in breathless prose brings the reader along into two first-century Jerusalemite family tombs, including such "you had to be there" tales as late-night discoveries of "shroud" material in a looted tomb, and mini-cams lowered into excavations of a tomb complex now encased below a modern apartment building. He pronounces the "James Ossuary" authentic (disputing the tests done by the Israeli Antiquities Authority) and passionately calls for DNA testing of bone fragments to see if the family line of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and James can be recovered (which the IAA refused to do).

But after this "Indiana Jones meets Michael Crichton" prelude, we find the following admission: "The gripping story of the Jesus dynasty that follows in no way depends on the authenticity of the James Ossuary inscription, nor whether either of these two tombs was indeed the Jesus family tomb .Š There is something about a tomb of this type, with the ossuaries, preserved bones, and the inscribed names so familiar to us after two thousand years, that brings chills up the spine as we try to imagine and connect with the past. And what is most exciting is that we never know what new evidence might emerge at any point to allow us to put more pieces of our story together" (my emphasis).

Here Prof. Tabor has given honest expression to precisely the hermeneutical underpinnings of the Easter media frenzy: "connection with the past" should be tactile, spine-tingling, and will inevitably -- while offering some previously lost artifact (preferably lost through some combination of malevolent "orthodoxy" and criminality) -- leave the audience on the edge of its seat, awaiting the next piece of "new evidence." There's always next year.

"What is truth?" Pontius Pilate poses to Jesus in John 18:38. The popular presentation of these three events is based upon a paradoxical combination of historical positivism and Gnosticism. The former is the assumption that the real "truth" about Jesus is to be locked down by some newly discovered "data" about Jesus, whether dialogues with Judas, pillow-talk with Mary Magdalene, or his DNA. The latter is founded on the belief that cosmic truths (not historical ones!) are what matter, and they can only be found through mediated revelation to an elite few (who read the right books), for they are deliberately occluded from all the rest. Ironically, what both hold in common is a deep suspicion of the reliability of the sources of religious knowledge upon which the Easter season itself rests -- scripture, tradition, and liturgy.

A clandestine codex, a court case, and a cemetery raid. Easter, 2006.

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James D. Tabor - 4/22/2006

I regret that Prof. Mitchell has categorized my work as one more episode in the round of Easter time 2006 sensationalism and that she apparently bases her comments on press releases and edited media clips. My book is a serious attempt to summarize the results of my own research on the historical Jesus after 30 years of work in the field. It is indeed written for the trade market, and is accessible to the non-specialist, but its underpinnings and methods are academic and historical. It is the case that I begin my book with a discussion of a 1st century tomb, and yes, I think even the most dispassionate scholar might be a bit "breathless" to be hiking with students in Jerusalem and to come upon a freshly robbed Jewish tomb from the late 2nd Temple period, unopened for 1900 years, that happened to contain the remains of a burial shroud from the 1st century--the only one of its kind ever found. And yes, I am convinced, as are others who have examined the evidence beyond the press reports and the very flawed IAA study, that the so-called "James ossuary" inscription is authentic--even the Israelis say "James son of Jospeh" was original. If it did indeed come from the "Shroud tomb" then we will be in a better position to understand both it and the tomb from which it came. DNA tests have been done on all the other remains, and a full academic study of the tomb and its contents will be published by the Israel Exploration Society that goes to press later this Fall.

But my book is not about that. It is my take on the historical Jesus at the end of a long and fruitful career of wrestling with these issues. It may be true that there is nothing "new" in it, in that I position myself with many that interpret Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic figure (a la Schweitzer) in the late 2nd Temple period, however, I do think many of my insights offer additional connections and contributions to the discussion. Much of what I say is new to the public and deserves to be dissiminated more widely, especially when not one in a dozen have even "heard" of James the brother of Jesus, who in his day was the most influential leader in the movement.