Tuesday, April 15, 2014

If You Want to Learn Something, Don't Read Newspapers

Perhaps you've heard some of the hubbub over a document being called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." Well, I say "document," when it's a scrap of parchment showing fragments of sentences, one of which contains the phrase "Jesus said, 'My wife....'" But from the dramatic news headlines and the sheer volume of attention this find has received, you'd think someone had found an autographed picture of the Messiah and the Mrs. on vacation. You'd think we'd have learned before, from reports on comments made by the pope to pretty much everything blogged about at GetReligion, that newspapers aren't the best source for clarity and insight when it comes to things religious, but it appears we have one more lesson. Let's take a look at an example article and strain out the assumptions, hyperbole, and leaps of logic so that we can get something of a clear idea of just what it is we're dealing with.

This article from the Boston Globe is headlined "No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning 'Jesus' wife.'" The lead reads:

New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review.

Already in the headline, and here in the first sentence, we have a problem. The smidgeon of text we have does not posit that Jesus had a wife. Jesus begins a sentence saying, "My wife...." How does that sentence end? It very well could end, "My wife is the one who follows my teaching." Think of Matthew 12:50: "Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and my sister and my mother." So, first problem: people are inferring too much from these four words.

Second problem: the article calls the text "ancient." But dating the text precisely is difficult, and very problematic. One carbon-dating test put it in the 4th century BC, leading to the apparently miraculous conclusion that a text recording Jesus' words was written 300 years before he lived; another carbon-dating test placed its origins in the 8th century AD, 800 years after Christ lived. You could just as well call the 700s AD "medieval" as "ancient"--it's right on the borderline. So calling it "ancient" (or assigning any time value to it at all) is a tad misleading.

Third problem: the article calls the text "authentic." If by "authentic" they mean it isn't a modern forgery, that may be an acceptable usage of the term, provided that's true. But many people will read "authentic" to mean "telling us something really true about Jesus." I may have an "authentic" (meaning "not forged") text of Harry Turtledove's book The Guns of the South, which imagines a time traveler coming to the Confederacy and giving Robert E. Lee automatic weapons; but that doesn't mean that the text has any relation to reality. There were all kinds of false gospels written in the early centuries, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, that made up all sorts of stories about Jesus--think of them as "Jesus fan fiction." And those false gospels were a lot older than this thing appears to be. This text, even if it's not forged, could just as well be one of them.

"Ah," you say, "but it's an ancient text. It was written close to the time of Jesus! It must be telling us something true!"

You mean "ancient" as in 700 years after Christ lived? That's like saying I have an "ancient" copy of St. Thomas' Summa Theologica because my copy was printed last week--it's only 700 years older than the original!

And even assuming that this text was written much closer to the time of Jesus, that just makes it old fan fiction. There's no attestation to this idea from any other authority or tradition in Christianity. You would think if this were true, and since it would be a fairly important or interesting piece of information about the life of Our Lord, somebody somewhere, and indeed, everybody everywhere, would have remembered it. If your cousin says, "Hey, wasn't Uncle Jack married?" and everybody said, "I never heard anything mentioned about a wife of his," you'd conclude, "Oh, then he must not have been, because surely someone would remember that Uncle Jack had a spouse."

Don't let the headlines and the hype mislead you. There's no reason to believe that this bit of paper tells us anything actual factual about the life of Jesus. It's probably the equivalent of stories written in online forums in which fans write that Han Solo is really the secret eldest son of Anakin Skywalker--it may have been written down somewhere by someone, but it's not canon.


  1. Nice analysis. Thanks for taking the time to get to the bottom of things. I've been loving keeping up on your blog!

  2. Did you actually read the entire article? Also do you know anything about journalism? You refer to the article like it doesn't give any of the information that you are providing when in fact it says everything you say and more. Also journalism has a long tradition of using misleading titles to grab the interest of readers. I don't mean to sound like a jerk, but this blog can be just a misleading as an article title. Be careful of hypocrisy.

    1. Hello Anonymous,

      I did actually read the entire article, and I know quite a bit about journalism; in fact, I have a degree in it. I did not refer to the article as if it doesn't give any of the information I discussed, which you correctly point out that it does; I referred to the article as if its headline and lead were misleading and inaccurate, which they are. It is simply not the case that the text makes "an explicit reference to Jesus being married," as I showed above. I critiqued the article for using terms like "ancient" and "authentic" in its lead paragraphs without first acknowledging that those points are under contention; the article mentions the contention later, but it's no good to claim something in the headline only to qualify it at the end of the article, down to which most people don't read; that's like writing an article with the headline "All passengers lost in plane crash," then putting at the end, "Well, actually, we don't know yet, but we think they might be." That's poor reporting. You acknowledge that newspapers use misleading headlines, which was exactly the point I was making, so I'm not sure what you're complaint is.