The analogy to “The Da Vinci Code” rankles academics, of course. “Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the code or its author,” my colleague Laurie Goodstein notes in her story on the newly discovered text, and quotes King saying: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.” But if they don’t want people to make the analogy, they shouldn’t imitate his arguments.
It’s been six years since National Geographic revealed, amid much fanfare and discussion, the existence of a heretofore-unknown document that seemed to retell the New Testament narrative from the point of view of Judas Iscariot.
That experience should have been a cautionary tale about the intersection of Biblical archaeology and media sensationalism: The first wave of coverage suggested that the document painted Judas as a misunderstood hero who was “only obeying his master’s wishes when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss,” but the evidence soon mounted that this sensationalistic claim relied on dubious translation decisions, and that the Judas in the fragmentary gospel might well actually be the embodiment of a Gnostic “king of demons” rather than Jesus’s most loyal friend.
It’s possible that a similar reassessment may be in store for this month’s entry in the “lost gospel” genre, a fragment of a fourth-century transcription of a late-second century Gnostic text that contains a line in which Jesus seems to refer to Mary Magdalene as his wife. Indeed, the document may ultimately prove to be an outright forgery or fraud, as some scholars are already suggesting. But from the point of view of Christian faith and the quest for the Jesus of history, it actually doesn’t matter all that much either way. Even if this scrap of text has been authentically identified and interpreted, it still tells us much more about the religious preoccupations of our own era, and particularly the very American desire to refashion Jesus of Nazareth in our own image rather than letting go of him altogether, than it does about the Jesus who actually lived and preached in Palestine in the early decades A.D.
This passage from the Smithsonian Magazine story on the discovery puts it well:
[Harvard's Karen] King makes no claim for its usefulness as biography. The text was probably composed in Greek a century or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, then copied into Coptic some two centuries later. As evidence that the real-life Jesus was married, the fragment is scarcely more dispositive than Brown’s controversial 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code.
Precisely. And what’s true of the new text has been true of nearly every alternative gospel, “lost” or otherwise, that ended up excluded from the Christian canon. Apart from the Gospel of Thomas, whose collection of gnostic-tinged sayings are sometimes claimed to have a first century provenance, none of the endless apocryphal documents can compete with the actual New Testament – and particularly the synoptic gospels and the Pauline epistles – when it comes to historical proximity to the events of Jesus’s life. They’re useful windows into the religious trends of subsequent centuries, but they tell us next to nothing about what Jesus and his earliest followers thought and did and said.