UPDATE 09-21-12 21:09
UPDATE 9-19-12 17:20
Thanks to Ben (see below) for pointing us to a blog on this by Christian Askeland, who says that there are reasons to think that this fragment is not authentic. If so, that should kill this story. Even if it is authentic, however, we should not be surprised to find bizarre things being said in Egypt in the 4th century.
UPDATE 9-20-12 07:24
The Tyndale House (Cambridge, UK) has published a helpful evaluation of the alleged “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” They note:
- It’s not a gospel;
- As I pointed out yesterday, it’s possibly fraudulent;
- The date is uncertain (3rd to 7th century);
- There’s no evidence from this fragment that Jesus had a wife;
- Simon Gathercole observes, “Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus.”
UPDATE 9-20-12 05:54
The press (HT: Mike Krueger) and the world are atwitter over the revelation of the existence of a credit-card sized fragment from the 4th century. It is being hailed as the discovery of a fragment of a “new gospel.” It is generating interest because it attributes to Jesus a wife. Those of us who are more than ten years old, however, remember the last discovery of a “new gospel” (the “gospel” of Judas). As John Cleese used to say on Monty Python, “There’s nothing to see here, move along.” The existence of such documents has been well known since the 1890s and since that time there has been a struggle on the part of a certain cohort of scholars to overturn the consensus as to which came first, Gnosticism or Christianity, i.e., which is the authentic faith and which is the heresy.
The second-century fathers, i.e., the Apostolic Fathers argued that the truth always precedes error and that the Gnostics and other (spirit v matter) dualists were derivative of Christianity. The objective evidence actually supports their position but there has been a movement since at least Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy (1934) to say that the categories “orthodox” and “heretical” are arbitrary and that what we consider “orthodoxy” was really the result of politics and the exercise of power. Dan Brown anyone?
In our late-modern age, which is deeply skeptical about the existence of any sort of “orthodoxy,” is quite prepared to believe that the orthodoxy of the early fathers was really the result of politics and not the consequence of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The great problem for this (now) fashionable and (apparently) attractive (hypo)thesis is that it relies on assumptions, misconceptions, and generally very late texts. The canonical gospels were established at least a century (and more) before the Gnostic texts.
Yes, there were movements that were derivative of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The church reacted to them. Her theologians, e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Polycarp and others, responded by showing how the biblical account of Christianity taught a view of creation that was completely contrary to the spirit-matter dualism of the Gnostics (and other dualists). They showed how Jesus and the Apostles taught a view of God, man, salvation, redemptive history, and the church that contradicted the claims of the Gnostics (and Gnostic-influenced Christians). Where the Gnostics made salvation a question of overcoming matter and sort of ladder climbing process up a hierarchy of being, Jesus and the Apostles taught that Jesus, God the Son incarnate, true God and true man, had come down from heaven for us and our salvation. Where the Gnostics made salvation a matter of obtaining esoteric, secret knowledge (hence Gnosticism), Jesus and the Apostles taught openly and plainly, in public, for all to see and hear. Where the Gnostics denigrated the goodness of creation and made the OT the story of a crude demi-god, Jesus and the Apostles taught the unity of the history of salvation, and the goodness of creation before the fall.
Conspiracy theories sell books and cinema tickets but this discussion isn’t about the recent discovery secret texts hitherto hidden by corrupt, powerful, self-interested authorities but rather the ancient struggle between two accounts of God, man, Christ, salvation, and revelation. The late modern era seems quite taken with the Gnostic account (as Peter Jones has been noting for a couple of decades). Edwin Yamauchi (Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), showed, to my satisfaction, long ago that the pro-Gnostic interpretation of Christianity (that “orthodoxy” is really the heresy here) doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
So, we cannot be surprised that Karen King has found a fourth-century fragment from Alexandria. Of course she did! There were lots of folk running about in the 4th century, many of them Alexandria, teaching all many of crazy things (e.g., Jesus had a wife). The general media seem to have no idea that scholars have long been aware of texts alleging to be written by Jesus himself. There was a Coptic (Egyptian) “Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ.” This was a 4th/5th-century text brought to Cairo in the 1890s. Of course, the most famous (or notorious) competing Gospel the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” a collection of 114 sayings (logia) which “Thomas” attributes to our Lord. It dates perhaps to the the first half of the 3rd century and presents a rather different account of our Lord’s teaching.
There are infancy “gospels,” the most outrageous of which (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas) portrays Jesus as a cosmic brat who needs to be corrected by Joseph and Mary. There are all derivative accounts of the acts of the apostles, derivative apostolic epistles, and even derivative versions of the apocalypse (revelation). That’s what the Gnostic movement was: a derivative of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Charles E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: OUP, 2010) has an excellent account of how the canonical gospels came to be recognized and received by the church as such.
Hill shows that contrary to the claim that there were thousands of competing gospels, there about 8 in the early 2nd century. Further, the canonical gospels were were established long before the competing gospels appeared, even on the modern dating system (e.g., Markan priority beginning c. 70AD). On the traditional dates, Matthew ante-43AD, Mark 43 AD, Luke (c. 60s) and John c. 70AD) the discrepancy is even greater.
Not only do pro-Gnostic scholars and their willing accomplices in the media (who may have had a pro-Gnostic religion prof as an undergrad as I did) misrepresent the nature of the relations between the canonical and Gnostic texts they also make basic factual errors. Hill shows that James Robinson, a major proponent of the pro-Gnostic view, misrepresented the number of textual witnesses to the so-called Gospels of Thomas and Peter (Hill, 16-18).
Simon Gathercole has an excellent account of the bizarre story of the 2006 discovery of the “Gospel of Judas.” Opening line of the “Gospel of Judas” tells the whole story:
The secret message of the revelation which Jesus spoke to Judas Iscariot in the week leading up to the third day before they celebrated passover.
It’s Gnostic in theology (demiurge, corrupt world, dualism, salvation by gnosis etc). Like virtually all Gnostic texts, it focuses on those things the canonical gospels don’t explain. This one makes Jesus into Satan. The text places Jesus anachronistically in 2nd century—it doesn’t even hide the fact that it is derived from the apostolic teaching. It was obviously written by someone at war with the orthodox church in the 2nd century.
As Chuck Hill says, claiming that the Gnostic texts discovered at Oxyrynchus (Egypt) were “the” Christian gospels only to be displaced by Constantine (so Dan Brown) is like doing an archeological dig around Salt Lake City, UT and, on that basis, claiming that the Book of Mormon is the authentic Christian text. (The Book of Mormon dates to the 19th century in North America). The picture is entirely out of whack. The only odd thing about this new fragment is that they didn’t wait, as they usually do, until just before Easter to release and publicize it.
My advice is to read the Apocryphal post-NT texts for yourself and compare them to the canonical gospels. That’s the best way to see the sharp differences between them and to see the evident secondary character of the Gnostic texts.