Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed, History Channel

Candida Moss in Bible Secrets Revealed
Over on his XKV8R blog, Robert Cargill announces a new six part documentary to air soon on History Channel.  He writes:
I’m pleased to announce that a new documentary series will begin airing on History beginning Monday, November 11, 2013 at 10:00pm / 9:00 Central
The series is entitled, Bible Secrets Revealed, and is produced by Prometheus Entertainment for the History channel. 
The titles of the six episodes and their schedule of appearance are as follows: 
“Lost in Translation” – November 11, 2013
“The Promised Land” – November 18, 2013
“The Forbidden Scriptures” – November 25, 2013
“The Real Jesus” – December 2, 2013
“Mysterious Prophecies” – December 16, 2013
“Sex and the Bible” – December 23, 2013 
The documentary features dozens of the world’s top biblical scholars, religious studies scholars, archaeologists, and historians, who offer different points of view while addressing some of the more difficult readings in the biblical and extra-biblical texts. 
It is also worth note that portions of the documentary were filmed on site during the 2013 season of archaeological excavation at Tel Azekah.
There is a 30 second trailer available here:

Bible Secrets Revealed: Sneak Peak

The picture above is a screen grab; here are two more faces you may recognize:

Bart Ehrman in Bible Secrets Revealed

Francesca Stravrakopoulou

I have not yet seen this myself, though I was interviewed for the programme last summer here in North Carolina.  It looks like we will also see James McGrath and Robert Cargill (who was also a consultant) among many others.

Update (4.29pm): Robert Cargill provides a list of some of the scholars who will be appearing in the series.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath, Richard Bauckham

On Sunday, I posted some comments on Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson's forthcoming book and documentary, Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel".  It led to a very interesting comments thread in which the possibility came up that their "lost gospel" might in fact be a section from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor featuring a Syriac text of Joseph and Aseneth as well as the correspondence that prefaces it.  In response to this, Richard Bauckham has sent the following comments, which I am here promoting to a post of its own.  I have also made this available as a PDF here.

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath

Richard Bauckham

I think there can be no doubt that this ‘lost Gospel’ is a section of The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor. The relevant section is Book I chs. 4-6, where chapter 6 is ‘The History of Joseph the Just and Asyath his wife,’ while chapters 4-5 are two letters that introduce it. The recent English translation of Pseudo-Zacharias (2011) does not include books I-II, mainly because these are not ecclesiastical history and consist mainly of material found also elsewhere. The editors do note that others are working on these books.

I do not read Syriac, and so, in the absence of an English translation, I have consulted the Latin translation by E. W. Brooks (CSCO 3/5, 1924). In the first of the two letters the unnamed writer says that he found in a library a work in Greek called ‘the book of Asyath.’ He says he read only its ‘historia’ (the Greek word apparently used in the Syriac text) and did not understand its ‘theōria’ (Greek again). Since the Greek language is difficult and alien for him, he asks his learned correspondent, a certain Moses ‘Ingilae,’ to translate it into Syriac for him, and to explain both its ‘historia’ as a whole and something of its ‘theōria’. Moses replies, saying that he has read the ‘historia’ of the book and, if I’m understanding the text correctly, that the ‘theōria’ contained in it is (‘to put it briefly’) the truth that our God our Lord the Word became incarnate by the will of the Father and became human and was joined to a soul with its perfect senses ….

And there the text breaks off without finishing the sentence. You can imagine what fun Jacobovici and Wilson will have with that suspiciously lost ending.

The words historia and theōria are obviously here used in the way they were in the Alexandrian tradition of biblical exegesis, where every Old Testament narrative (historia) is expected to have a corresponding Christian allegorical meaning (theōria). Since Joseph and Asenath tells a story about Old Testament characters, it was natural for Moses and his correspondent to suppose it must have an allegorical meaning, which to them would be much more interesting than the literal reading. I suspect that Moses took Asenath (or Asyath, as she is called) to represent the church, the bride of Christ, and Joseph to represent the incarnate Christ, while his heavenly alter ego, the archangel, is the pre-existent Logos. (Moreover, I think he may have been right. I strongly suspect that Joseph and Asenath is not a Jewish work, at least not in the form we have it, but a Christian work with allegorical meaning. But this is hardly relevant to the present argument.)

Jacobovici and Wilson have evidently supposed that the talk of historia and theōria in the two letters means that the story is a cover for a coded meaning, which is the true history of Jesus. They have missed the fact that Moses and his correspondent are speaking merely about the usual sort of allegorical exegesis that in the Alexandrian school was applied to any such narrative.

There seems to be nothing special about the Syriac version of Joseph and Asenath in Pseudo-Zacharias, apart from the fact that Asenath is called Asyath. But it’s not too difficult to see roughly how Jacobovoci and Wilson are interpreting it. Joseph, I guess, is a cypher for Jesus, a thoroughly human figure who nevertheless has a kind of heavenly counterpart in the chief archangel. In the story Asenath’s name is changed to ‘City of Refuge,’ within whose walls many nations are going to gather. Since ‘Magdalene’ derives from migdal, tower, this change of name refers to Jesus giving his wife Mary the new name Magdalene, to symbolize the role she is to have in the Christian movement. Note that the blurb for the book refers to ‘the towering presence of Mary Magdalene’! In the story, Joseph and Asenath have two children: Ephraim and Manasseh. That Mary Magdalene is the ‘bride of God’ reflects the last section of Asenath’s psalm (21:21). I expect the strong political dimension in the description of Jacobovici and Wilson’s book refers to some kind of reading of chapters 23-29 of Joseph and Asenath. None of this sounds to me any more far-fetched than Barbara Thiering’s so-called pesher reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Since Jacobovici and Wilson say that the lost gospel has 29 chapters, they must be well aware that the Syriac work in Pseudo-Zacharias is the well-known Greek Joseph and Asenath. What they find special in Pseudo-Zacharias must be the two letters with their cryptic suggestion of a hidden meaning that has something to do with the incarnation of the Logos. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel"

While I was noodling around on the internet to remind myself of the exact titles of Marcus Borg's and Burton Mack's Lost Gospel books last night (see Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"), I came across something that may be of interest to students of Simcha Jacobovici's work.  Regular readers will know that I have often reflected critically, but I hope fairly, on the claims the filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has made about Christian origins, which include having discovered the tomb of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son Judas.

Although the details are fairly scant at the moment, it seems that Jacobovici has something truly sensational lined up.  This book, The Lost Gospel, has been announced by Pegasus Press and is set to appear on 15 April 2014.  Although this will be just in time for the Easter market, it is probably worth pointing out that there is many a slip between cup and lip and it may be that the book does not make that deadline.  After spotting the book on Amazon, I did a bit more googling and found further references to it with different publishing dates.  It was projected for 3 March 2011 (Overlook press) and 30 March 2010 (Harper Collins Canada).

I must admit that any book that announces a "lost gospel" is bound to gain my interest.  So what do we know about it so far?

The book's subtitle is Jesus' Marriage to Mary Magdalene, Bride of God. and the book blurb tells us a little more (emphasis original):
In a startling follow-up to the New York Times bestseller The Jesus Family Tomb, a historical detective story that unravels a newly translated document filled with startling revelations and fascinating detail about the life and times of Jesus. 
Gathering dust at the British Museum is an ancient manuscript of the early Church, written by an anonymous monk. The manuscript is at least 1,600 years old, possibly dating to the first century. This revelatory book provides the first ever translation from Syriac into English of a profound document—some twenty-nine chapters in length —that tells us the inside story of Jesus’ social, family, and political life. 
The Lost Gospel takes the reader on an exciting historical adventure through this highly informative ancient manuscript.  The authors were easily able to decode the basic symbolism, but what the authors eventually discovered is as surprising as it ground-breaking: the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene; the names of their two children; the towering presence of Mary Magdalene (who was a Gentile priestess), a serious plot on Jesus’ life in 19 C.E. prior to the crucifixion; an assassination plot against their children; Jesus’ connection to political figures at the highest level of the Roman Empire—Emperor Tiberius and his protégé Sejanus;  and a religious movement that antedates that of Paul—the Church of Mary Magdalene.    
None of these discoveries are the authors’ claims: they are what this ancient manuscript reveals now that it has been decoded. Part historical detective story, part travelogue about a journey into the heart of an ancient world, The Lost Gospel reveals a secret that's been hiding in plain sight for centuries.
This is really intriguing.  The blurb to some extent retains the sense of mystery and sensation, but there are a few clues about the identity of the manuscript.  It was found in "the British museum", it is anonymous, it is Syriac and it is dated to the fifth century.  My guess is that the line "possibly dating to the first century" refers to the theorized date of the work to which the fifth century Syriac manuscript witnesses, but that is not clear.

The content does not correspond to any early Christian work I am aware of, so it is definitely one that lots of us will be watching with interest.

I must admit that after reading the book's blurb, I was so intrigued that I googled for more.  It is co-authored with Barrie Wilson of York University, Toronto, who has the following on his website:
Watch for
Book and documentary - Spring 2014
An exploration of a mysterious document prized by early Christians that takes us into the political ambitions and connections of Jesus along with his human and family side.
Who would become "King of the Jews" - Herod Antipas who so coveted the title? Jesus who was crucified for this claim? Herod Agrippa?
Who was Pontius Pilate and what were his connections to Rome?
How were Jesus and those closest to him imaged by his early followers on the world stage, outside the confines of Middle Eastern politics?
And just who were Jesus' closest companions?
This document takes us well beyond the canonical gospels shaped by Paul’s theology and answers questions they fail to address.
So the Spring 2014 date is here confirmed -- and there is the additional news that a documentary is planned to accompany the book.  It may well be, then, that a big media event is planned to publicize "the lost gospel", with TV documentary, book and website.

Wilson's blurb is tantalizing.  It is mainly composed of questions, but if the "mysterious document" indeed features Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa, Pontius Pilate and "Jesus' closest companions", it will be well worth studying.

There is not much about it yet on the Associated Producers' website, though there is the following statement, which confirms news of the documentary associated with the book:
Upcoming is “The Bride of God” co-written with Professor Barrie Wilson. Harper Collins is the publisher, Discovery Science and Vision Canada will air the companion film.
I also noticed, while googling, that there were quotations on the internet (including in this blog, which I had forgotten about!) from older versions of Wilson's website, so I took a closer look and found the following details:
. . . . . Lurking in the British Museum is an ancient Syriac manuscript dating from the 6th century but translated from much earlier Greek writing. Scholars have known about it for almost 200 years but have not known what to make of it. No translation exists based on the Syriac text. We provide a first-ever translation from the Syriac.
More importantly we use decoding techniques employed by early Christians themselves as they sought to understand biblical writings. They saw scripture differently than we do. An ancient Syriac introduction to manuscript – never before translated – tells us that the writing we examine contains an embedded meaning.
As we let this ancient writing speak for itself, it opens up a fascinating, hitherto unknown world. The results are startling:
  • The full humanity of Jesus and what it means for understanding his family life and sexuality.
  • Roman politics and why Jesus had to fear for his life, constantly on the move to avoid Herod Antipas who successfully caught and executed John the Baptist.
  • Pontius Pilate and his connections to the Roman Emperor Tiberius and to the real power behind the imperial throne, Sejanus.
  • A different theology of redemption than the more familiar one promoted by Paul (as a sacrificial atonement for sin).
  • A new early Christian movement alongside the ones led by Paul, by James and by the Gnostics.
  • Strange archeological depictions of Sun Gods and Zodiacs that have hitherto defied analysis.
More than any other writing, this manuscript places Jesus on the world stage, as a major player within the Roman Empire. 
The site went on to say "This book will be tied into an episode on a 7-part History Channel documentary series, "Secrets of Christianity," to air likely early 2011," but it looks like they decided not to include it in that series (which has six parts) and to save it for next year.

Since Wilson's website speaks about the document having been known for almost 200 years, there must be some who are more familiar with this document than I am.  In the mean time, and since I am ever the optimist, I look forward to hearing more in due course.

Nevertheless, if there are some grounds for caution, one might see them in the idea that this work will provide "the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene".  Since there are no ancient sources that speak of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, it is not clear at this stage how a newly discovered work could provide "confirmation" of this.  The note that she is a "Gentile priestess" is curious and, one would have thought, makes it unlikely that the work goes back to the first century, so too the idea that they had two named children.

Some might find grounds for caution also in the idea that the authors had to "decode the basic symbolism" in the manuscript.  The "discoveries" in the manuscript are revealed "now that it has been decoded".  The idea that ancient manuscripts require "decoding" is a favourite element in popular historical fiction like The Da Vinci Code, and the metaphor is regularly used in Jacobovici's own work (see, for example, the Da Vinci Code and the Talpiot Tomb).  However, it is worth noting that there is some reported substance to the claim here in that the manuscript features an introduction stating that the document has "an embedded meaning".

All in all, though, I am looking forward to hearing more about this exciting find and -- as always -- I will approach the claims made with an open mind.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"

Regular readers will know that I am not averse to finding an excuse to talk about the rich potential for analogies between scholarship on Christian origins and Doctor Who (e.g. recently The canon of Doctor Who and the canon of the New Testament).  This is one of those occasions where reflection on the one world provides a helpful way of thinking about the other.

Those familiar with the world of Doctor Who will know that this has been a momentous week for the longest running science fiction show ever.  One of the tragedies of 1960s British television is that the BBC routinely failed to save television programmes after they had been broadcast.  Many programmes were wiped and some were simply binned.  For the last generation or so, obsessive fans and collectors have been frantically trying to find lost copies of programmes missing from the archive, especially Doctor Who.  This week was truly momentous in that nine lost episodes of Doctor Who were announced as having been found, returned to the BBC, and digitally remastered and released.  The star of these episodes is Patrick Troughton, the second doctor, who earlier played Paul of Tarsus (1960).  The nine episodes comprise two stories, "The Web of Fear" and "The Enemy of the World", both of which are classics.  I am savouring the new episodes.

I have sometimes thought about the analogies between the lost episodes of Doctor Who and the lost writings of early Christianity.  There is something extraordinarily exciting when early Christian writings are rediscovered, an excitement that for scholars of early Christianity parallels the excitement felt by Doctor Who fans when lost episodes turn up.  The most recent hoard was true bounty too.  It was a cache that enabled us to watch two almost complete stories for the first time.  Previously, only episode 1 of "Web of Fear" and episode 3 of "Enemy of the World" were available, but now we can watch both serials almost in their entirety.

It's rather like the way that for many years we had only a few fragments of the Gospel of Thomas.  P.Oxy. 1, 654 and 655 were three Greek fragments of Thomas discovered in Oxyrhynchus at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.  Like episode 3 of "Enemy of the World", and episode 1 of "Web of Fear", we previously had only a fraction of the Gospel of Thomas available.  Then, just as all the rest of "Enemy of the World" and most of "Web of Fear" turned up this week, so too the whole of the Gospel of Thomas turned up in the big cache of finds in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

When you have only fragments of texts, or only parts of a story, you find it all the more tantalizing to want to see more.  And when you do see more, there is nothing quite like it.  The excitement of rediscovering an authentic piece of something so special knows no parallel.

There is also something of an interesting contrast here.  My academic friends and colleagues like to tease me about Q, the hypothetical source behind Matthew and Luke's double tradition material, against which I have been a vocal opponent.  They like to suggest that perhaps one day Q, like the missing episodes of Doctor Who, will also turn up.  They can, of course, fantasize all they like, and I thoroughly enjoy the teasing, but there is an interesting point here.

One of the reasons that students often struggle with the concept of Q is that it is a hypothetical work, unattested in antiquity.  It is solely a scholarly construct.  In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, we knew of such a text from antiquity because people like Origen mentioned it.  We knew of the existence of the work by citation even though for many years there was no detailed textual attestation to its content.  Just as in the case of the Doctor Who missing episodes, we knew that it had once existed, but it had been lost.

Q is not like that.  It is important to remember the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical".  A work is rightly described as "lost" when we know that it once existed, when it leaves some kind of trace in conversations among those who witnessed to its existence.  But there is no reference, as far as we can tell, to Q, in antiquity.  We can't find anything, anywhere that attests to its existence.  It is a solely a scholarly construct, based on the notion that Matthew and Luke accessed Mark independently, a postulate that requires a hypothetical writing to have existed.

This is not to say, of course, that Q is problematic because it is hypothetical.  If Q were the best way to explain the close textual agreement in the double tradition between Luke and Matthew, then that would be sufficient reason to postulate its existence.  My point here, though, is to remember what kind of theory the Q theory is.  It is a theory about a hypothetical source.  It is not a theory about a lost source.

Although the rhetorical appeal of titles like The Lost Gospel (Burton Mack) and The Lost Gospel Q (Marcus Borg) is obvious and to be expected, it is worth underlining that Q is not really a "lost gospel" at all.  It is a scholarly construct.  Moreover, the attraction of trying to find "lost" writings , an attraction I very much share, should not obscure the fact that there is a world of difference between a writing we know to have existed and a writing we have constructed as a scholarly endeavour.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Jimmy Carter, Jesus and "the Matthew effect"

I have discussed the Matthew effect here before whereby a a piece of research, an idea, a quotation, a story gets associated with a more famous, more prominent person.  There's a famous example of it in our field, the misattribution of a saying to Schweitzer (about looking into the well and seeing our own reflection) that was actually said by George Tyrrell.

There was another example of it circulating on the internet not long ago, where a saying was misattributed to the Dalai Lama.  Today I saw another great example of the Matthew effect in a quotation attributed to Jimmy Carter (right).  The quotation is actually extracted from an interview with John Fugelsang.  Here is the quotation in context:
Who would Jesus vote for in this election? 
I don’t know. I don’t think he would vote for either of the two major party candidates. I think Jesus would be third party all the way, if he did vote. I bring up the fact that Jesus never lived in a democracy quite a bit, because when you hear people say, “Jesus said to help the poor, but he didn’t say the government should do it!” I always respond, “Yes, but Jesus didn’t have democracy.” If you want your tax dollars to help people over here instead of blowing them up over there, then vote that way. And if you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t.
I actually prefer the original quotation from Fugelsang in which one may hear an allusion to Matt. 25.31-46 (Sheep and the Goats).  Also, the term "government" makes better sense here than "country".  In order for the briefer, pseudo-Carter version to work, ". . . But don't ever say" has to be adjusted to "then stop saying", but otherwise the saying is clearly the same.

There's a nice analogy here for Christian origins scholarship in another way too.  It is sometimes said that simpler, briefer, terser sayings are likely to be more primitive than longer sayings, and this works as a common criterion in historical Jesus research, especially as it is practised by the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan.  However here, as also in early Christianity, the briefer, terser version can be later than and dependent on the earlier, more detailed version (see further Thomas and the Gospels, 145-50).

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Candida Moss takes on Bill O'Reilly

This is so impressive.  Three cheers to Professor Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame University!  For those who don't know, Candida wrote a witty and intelligent review of Bill O'Reilly's new book Killing Jesus for the Daily Beast the other day.  O'Reilly invited her onto his Fox News show tonight and she showed us how it's done -- calm, collected, polite, respectful and yet authoritative, intelligent and showing killer instinct!

You can find the clip on Mediaite here or over on Youtube here:

Very nicely done indeed, Candida.