Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Faking a Bundle

Faking a Bundle was first published in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone, a Journal of Mere Christianity.

ROBERT HART on Lucrative Careers and Pseudo-Biblical Schloarship

It was the late 1970s. Collars, lapels, and ties were wide; Jimmy Carter was President; double-knit was still ugly because it was still visible; and I was a young college student unable as yet to grow a decent beard. With a certain amount of naiveté, I sat in my first ever philosophy class.

The instructor (not a professor) lectured on the basics of philosophy before making the most flawed statement I have ever heard: “Then there is the whole idea of matter as something that is evil, which is what we see in Christian teaching.” Never before had I encountered professional and highly refined nonsense (which, I later came to see, is a hallmark of academia when it sinks into higher illiteracy). The punch line, by the way, is that this same instructor taught comparative religion.

This was my first real encounter with the problem of the uninformed informer, whether a journalist or an educator. In the academic world, the uninformed informer presents a special kind of problem, one that is compounded when commercial interests are added. This is especially true when an entire career has been built on a shocking, challenging, and revisionist thesis, authenticated by book sales or television specials rather than by scholarly rigor.

Pesher Ploy

Take, for example, the Australian writer Barbara Thiering, author of Jesus the Man, who earned a Ph.D. from Sydney University and then lectured there on Semitic studies until her retirement. Her academic career was based on her reputed expertise on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet even Geza Vermes, no champion of traditional Christianity, wrote about her work:

Professor Barbara Thiering’s reinterpretation of the New Testament, in which the married, divorced, and remarried Jesus, father of four, becomes the “Wicked Priest” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has made no impact on learned opinion. Scroll scholars and New Testament experts alike have found the basis of the new theory, Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique”, without substance.

What is the “pesher technique?” Basically, it’s the theory that the New Testament can only be understood correctly when it is first translated from Greek into Hebrew, and then subjected to the code of interpretation used by the Essenes of Qumran. It is this method that supposedly unlocks the real meaning of the New Testament.

What might be the weaknesses of this thesis? For one thing, we would have to accept Thiering’s unique dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is about fifty years earlier than what is generally accepted. We would also have to assume that Thiering’s own translation of the Greek into Hebrew was exactly, word for word, what the apostles and other New Testament writers had intended.

There are other technical and scientific objections, but also problems evident to common sense. For example, we know that the books of the New Testament were written mostly for Gentile converts to Christianity. These Gentiles, living in such places as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Berea, Thessalonica, the regions of the Galatians, and so on, not only were ignorant of Hebrew; they would never have heard of the Essenes. Nonetheless, we are supposed to believe that, in order to understand the Epistles and Gospels written specifically for their instruction, they would have needed a special—dare I say Gnostic?—knowledge of the Essene Hebrew code and how to unlock it.

Thiering would also have us believe that the apostles courted the death of martyrdom for reasons that had nothing to do with actual faith in anything supernatural, such as Christ’s Resurrection. For her pesher method proves that the apostles did not really believe in miracles at all, not even the Resurrection they proclaimed at the peril of their lives. And their converts, unless they knew Hebrew and the Gnostic method, could not begin to grasp the real meaning of all the things the apostles wrote and sent to them—sent, I might add, in times of official persecution to the death. It seems like a pointlessly dangerous effort when you think about it.

Nonetheless, Thiering’s work was given serious enough consideration for her to build a career off of: employment for many years by the University of Sydney, sales of her book, and even a documentary expounding her ideas. The latter, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and called Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was later shown on the Discovery Channel and sold (at the time) as a VHS tape. The promotion for the documentary called her work a challenge to the faith that every Christian needs to take seriously.

Pagels Sells a Lie

Thiering is hardly the only misinformed informer on Christianity; this kind of thing has become all too common. The Da Vinci Code, while not produced in a quasi-academic manner, is a related phenomenon, but a more relevant example is that of Elaine Pagels, whose life work and commercial success have stemmed from her claim to have discovered suppressed Christian writings, as she describes in her book Beyond Belief:

When I entered the Harvard doctoral program, I was astonished to hear from the other students that Professors Helmut Koester and George MacRae, who taught the early history of Christianity, had file cabinets filled with “gospels” and “apocrypha” written during the first centuries. . . . When my fellow students and I investigated these sources we found that they revealed diversity within the Christian movement that later, “official” versions of Christian history had suppressed so effectively that only now, in the Harvard graduate school, did we hear about them.

The trouble is, the “suppression” she writes about never occurred, and no one needed to explore file cabinets in Harvard to find these Gnostic works. One need only to have read some of the fathers of the Church, or to have taken any standard course in church history, in which Gnostic movements have always been part of the subject matter.

But Pagels’s claim of suppression is necessary for her to sell her product. Therefore, the elaborate tale was created. It is a cornerstone of her career to present the Church as having tried to silence the very texts that it, alone, preserved (simply for the sake of teaching its own history). Pagels has simply invented a lie, or fiction if you prefer, which she repeats twice in Beyond Belief:

But in [a.d.] 367 Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria—an admirer of Irenaeus—issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all writings, except for those he specifically listed as “acceptable,” even “canonical.” . . . But someone—perhaps monks at the monastery of St. Pachomius—gathered dozens of the books Athanasius wanted to burn, removed them from the monastery library, sealed them in a heavy, six-foot jar, and intending to hide them, buried them on a nearby hillside near Nag Hammadi.

The only problem with this story is that it never happened. Athanasius did write the Easter Letter of 367, to be sure, but it contained none of the things that Pagels claimed it did.

Book-&-TV Deals

Sensationalism and junk science about Jesus Christ have increased in recent years in the related marketplaces of books and television. For example, in 2006, The Judas Gospel was sensationalized as both a book and as a television special on the National Geographic channel. The English translation of the book has since been discredited, as it became apparent that Judas had been inaccurately described as a “spirit” or a “god” where a proper translation would have called him a “demon.” But if the book and TV special were to achieve commercial success, it was necessary to recast the traitor into a loyal disciple. It sold better.

Not to be outdone by National Geographic, the Discovery Channel produced a heavily publicized special called The Lost Tomb of Jesus for broadcast at Easter time in 2007. Directed by Simcha Jacobovici, who has gone on to work for the History Channel as The Naked Archaeologist (just a name for the show), and produced by Titanic director James Cameron, this “feature documentary” was advertised as making the case that “the 2,000-year-old ‘Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries’ belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth” and as revealing “new evidence that throws light on Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene.”

In fact, the “discovery” of the tomb had taken place many years earlier, in 1980. The “evidence” amounted to nothing more than a collection of very ordinary names among Jews of the period, such as would be listed in most families. The methods of genuine science were not allowed to interfere, as Michael Medved pointed out in USA Today in March 2007:

Nearly all prominent Israeli archaeologists reject [Jacobovici’s] reasoning. Amos Kloner, who conducted the original excavation, has denounced the project as sloppy, exploitative and irresponsible. Joe Zias, who was the curator at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum for 25 years and personally numbered the now controversial bone boxes, has said this of Jacobovici: “He’s pimping off the Bible. . . . Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

(It may be worth pointing out that Medved and the two archaeologists he quoted are Jewish, not Christians with a personal ax to grind.)

There was also a book, The Jesus Family Tomb (co-authored by Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino), to go along with the TV special, and even an article in Newsweek on the subject. Medved noted that this was not coincidental: “Could this sudden flurry of interest possibly relate to the upcoming Easter holiday?”

Exorcism Time

The need today is to exorcise the TV producers and booksellers from some of the academic hideouts that have been providing a basis for their popular credibility and aiding their commercial success. It is not enough to criticize their methods after the fact, or to hold them in disdain behind the scenes.

I look back on that philosophy instructor who taught comparative religion, and feel sorry for her that she missed the bus. If only she had worked to commercialize her crazy idea, it might well have paid off and put her in fat city. Real scholars would have unloaded their scorn and derision in properly objective words, but she could have cried all the way to the bank.

And, even though I was very young, I think I gave a good answer in that classroom all those years ago. “That’s not Christian teaching.” The instructor replied, “Defend that statement.” I replied that Genesis teaches that all of God’s creation is “very good,” that the Church has always believed in the holiness of sacraments that involved such matter as water, oil, bread, and wine, and that, above all, “the Word was made flesh.”

She was visibly annoyed, and continued her lecture with, “As I was saying. . . .”


Sandra McColl said...

Thank you, Fr Hart, for calling to mind some of the best laughs I've ever had with my friends. The Gospel of Judas and the Lost Tomb had us in stitches. If only it weren't so sad!

Many many years ago (about 20, I think), on a Sunday night which was either Palm Sunday or Easter or Low Sunday, our esteemed national broadcaster presented a televised session of Dr Thiering an an audience of variously qualified people. It turned into a discussion concerning the Resurrection (which Dr Thiering's book that was being discussed cast doubt on, because it wasn't necessary, because He hadn't died yet, or something). A representative of the Diocese of Sydney (was it dear old Abp Robinson, who was Low Church, but not No Church?) got up and said something like 'of course the Resurrection happened, it's in the Bible', in tones of his colour of churchmanship which didn't grab or convince me. A dissident priest got up for the Roman point of view and said something apparently learned but a bit incomprehensible and woolly and a little accommodating of Dr Thiering and not really very helpful. Then a tiny little Greek bishop with his beard down to his knees got up, looked around incredulously and said words to the effect of, 'It would appear that you are debating the Resurrection. How can you do this? It is the cornerstone of our faith, and without it we have nothing.' Actually, I'm sure what he said was a lot better than that. I'm sure St Paul would have patted him on the back.

Sorry, folks. Memory fails me badly, but I distinctly remember getting no help from the Sydney fundamentalist or the Roman liberal, but being spellbound by the deep, living and altogether grown-up faith of the Orthodox. It recalled me to an opinion I had already formed, that the majority of Christians in the world are (at least officially) neither fundamentalist nor liberal, but (small-o) orthodox, but that the mainstream media consistently played the liberals off against the fundamentalists and tended to ignore the orthodox, except when they were being multicultural and accidentally let a capital-O Orthodox in.

Fr Odhran-Mary TFSC said...

This theory indicates that God was not smart enough to make his message known the the public at large.

The NT is written in plain language and uses the universal language of the Empire.

'nuff said.

Sandra McColl said...

Imagine how many more books Dr Thiering could've written in the '80s and '90s if only Babelfish had been developed by then . . . Hmmmm, gives me an idea . . .

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I have posted this a few weeks before Easter so that we can all be ready for whatever sensational nonsense they present to us this year.

Canon Tallis said...

This very much reminded me of an incident in the mid sixties when I asked a friend, then a student at Seabury Western Seminary, what they were then teaching as the date of St. John's gospel. He told me that the consensus of his professors was that it was written sometime late in the second century. I laughed and told him that this was certainly strange since since Justin Martyr whose floriat was in the middle of the second century discussed the identity of the author of same while the Rylands fragment found in the upper Nile was then being dated at about 108 A.D. That meant that the teachers at one of our most prestigious seminaries believed that the gospel according to John had been written a full forty years after one of the fathers had discussed who wrote and about eighty years after someone had produced a copy of same. Under those conditions it is no wonder so many of our seminary graduates had doubts about the truth of the New Testament.

It is precisely because of this that I am hoping that those who are currently serving the Continuum and those training for Holy Orders are reading the Continuum. If they are not, their bishops need to inform them of their need to do so.

Shaughn said...

We read the Gospel of Judas in a course on Ancient Daily Life back in graduate school before I went to seminary. I quickly concluded it was GnosticBabble(tm) when it started to wax eloquently for pages on cosmology. In my mind, elaborate cosmological systems (as opposed to visions, like we find in Daniel and Revelations) are a sure indicator that the source is nonsensical. Yaldaboath, anyone?

Fr. Bill Klock said...

Thanks for posting it. It was a good read when the magazine arrived on my doorstep and a pleasure to read a second time here!

Sandra McColl said...

GnosticBabble? Or GnosticTwaddle?

Anonymous said...

This splendid article reminds me that I need to subscribe to Touchstone (or rather, renew my subscription).

This sort of stuff, illustrated by your dismissive rookie instructor who was ignorant of the difference between Christ and Gnostic views of matter, ought to be a reminder that orthodox Christianity has weakened its defenses by entertaining far too much of a "critical" view of the Bible. We have mistakenly conceded the historic position that Moses indeed was the human author the Penteteuch (just as Jesus mentioned more than once). We have embraced the ridiculous notion that there were two or three Isaiahs. We have allowed that the Book of Daniel is almost a fraud, being written about 250 or 300 years after that the inspired writer claimed. We have caved in to the modern and quite ungrounded notion that Mark was written before Matthew. We have failed to asert that Paul was the author of ALL the Epistles which have his name at the head. We have waffled on whether the Word of God is truly inspired and therefore inerrant. As long as orthodox and traditional Churchmen wimp around in the face of negative higher criticism, we richly deserve the regular seasonal slanders dished out to us by Newsweek and Public Radio.

poetreader said...

Thank you, Fr. Wells. Even though I think you may somewhat overstate the case you are saying things that need to be said.

I don't automatically reject the findings of scholarship simply because they do not match my preconceptions. In fact I'm quite convinced that some long-standing views are simply naive and unnecessary.

But I bristle when I am told I must believe what some 'scholar' proclaims, even if he is manifestly an unbeliever with an interest in weakening or destroying the Faith.

Deconstructionist criticism is routinely applied to Scripture in a way it is not applied to secular literature, which is not surprising, as this kind of 'scholarship' is the cornerstone of a distinct modern religion which is, to say the least, not quite Christian.


Sandra McColl said...

"We have allowed that the Book of Daniel is almost a fraud, being written about 250 or 300 years after that the inspired writer claimed."

In this connection, might I be so bold as to suggest that my grannies suck eggs and read (if you have not already), The Prophet Daniel by Pusey, in which the author masterfully amasses evidence by 'ordinary human means' to demonstrate that the Book of Daniel was more likely to have been exactly what it purported to be than any of the numerous alternative explanations offered by unbelieving Germans and taken up with gusto by equally unbelieving Englishmen. It's also a wonderful way of gaining entry into Pusey's wonderfully rich intellectual world.

Shaughn said...

Fr. Wells,

I have to say I'm mildly skeptical of at least one premise behind dating Mark before Matthew. It's the notion that texts tend to get longer, not shorter.

I've some formal training in classical literature, and I've observed it's just as frequently the reverse. Ovid gives a wonderful Reader's Digest version of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid in his Metamorphoses. We're fairly certain that the Iliad and the Odyssey are parts of a much larger Epic Cycle which hasn't completely survived. Livius Andronicus published a shorter Latin edition of the Odyssey. And on and on.

Poets are frequently abbreviating, alluding to, expanding on, and parodying the works of other poets. I use mostly Roman poetic sources because I'm more familiar with them, but I'm quite certain it goes on in other Latin genres and in Greek, too, with plenty of interchange between languages.

It may well be that Mark came first, but I would like more proof than a supposition with innumerable counter-examples across multiple genres and languages. The traditions are far more organic than a simple matter of texts growing (or shrinking, really).

One suspects German scripture scholars only get away with this sort of thing because they're so squirreled away from scholarship on the rest of ancient literature.

Brian Gold said...

I agree with Father Wells and just pause to add that a traditional view of scripture is equally necessary for refuting the sort of "uncultured despiser" of the catholic faith who fill the ranks of today's purportedly traditional neo-Anglican movements.

Anonymous said...

Bless you, Sandra! I was hoping for someone to bring up Pusey's great work on Daniel!

Sandra McColl said...

Fr Wells: I've only recently finished it. It was my companion for months on my daily commute. I can't say I read all of the footnotes, and I can say that I don't read Hebrew at all, but I still found it remarkably easy to read, informative, entertaining, at times even amusing, and throughout inspiring.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

As it happens, Pusey's work on Daniel is next to my lounge-chair and I have been dipping into it for a few weeks. Very powerful.

Anonymous said...

Shaughn: Take a look at John Wenham, "Re-dating the Synopic Gospels." Wenham does not absooutely commit himself to the priority of Matthew, but shows weaknesses in the claim for Mark's
priority, as you do.

The priority of Mark was pushed by modernists who liked the fact that Mark has no infancy narrative and no Resurrection appearances. So they could argue, at least by insinuation, that these were later accretions to the Gospel story.

Most of our critical views, accepted as "assured results" even in CC circles, such as JEDP, Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah, so-called Synoptic Problem, etc, came out of a 19th century academic culture in which it was fashionable to speculate on multiple authors of the Homeric epics, a Christian and a pagan source to Beowulf, a non-Stratfordian author or authors for the plays of "Shagsper," etc. Such hogwash has long been laughed out of scholarship for non-Biblical literature, but is allowed to remain, strangely, in Biblical studies, even among the main-line orthodox. We need to say "No" to it and return to the truly historic positions concerning authorship and dating.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

It is possible that Mark is missing both an opening and an ending, since it plunges in and stops. We know that vs. 9-20 have been considered canonical scripture, but not part of the original text (which I do not see as self-contradictory at all).

As for Daniel, I noticed years ago that the spelling in the earlier chapters was not standard O.T. Hebrew, and that the difference was more than what we see in II Chronicles (where differences are few and small, but that include the very important name of David himself, adding a yud in the second syllable). The shifting of the language as it worked its way into becoming what we call Aramaic, was obviously well underway. But, we see the same thing in one chapter of Jeremiah. This indicates that classic Hebrew was frozen as the language of scripture, prayer and prophecy at a very early date indeed. It simply means that Daniel was written in the vernacular, contemporary Hebrew/Aramaic.

Sandra McColl said...

Fr Hart, as a Hebraist, you of all of us would enjoy Pusey's Daniel most of all. There are bits in Hebrew and bits in Chaldee (which, incidentally, has no word for grandfather), and Pusey discusses the various Aramaic dialects that also appear and influence it, as well as the instances of Aryan and Greek words, and offers a perfectly plausible reason for their appearance. If I, with no Semitic language capability, and no Aryan and pitifully little Greek, can get as much as I could get out of it, you'll get a lot more.

poetreader said...

The Pusey is available online at

copy and paste link, eliminating the space halfway along.


Anonymous said...

I can grasp--sorta--notion of a "lost" ending of Mark, but have a problem with the idea of a lost beginning. Mark has a truly magnificent opening: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...."
I rather like the proposed repunctuation (all punctuation, after all, is modern) to make it translate:
"The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God was John preaching in the wilderness..."

And I do agree with you on the canonicity of the conclusion of Mark. But I'm not as convinced as most people that it is a "later addition." If Mark was written slightly later than Matthew, as I believe, it would not be un-natural for him to echo Matthew's Great Commission passage.

Anonymous said...

Pusey's work is in print, thanks to Kregel, at $31 and change. Worth reading are two book reviews from his time, an unfavorable one in 1866 and a highly positive one in 1885 published in, of all places, the NYT.
Google in "Pusety on Daniel" and follow "Dr Pusey's Daniel" and "The Contemporary Review." Much good info in both.

Sandra McColl said...

One of the delights of the book is in the Preface to the second edition, in which Pusey answers many of the critics of the first edition. It would appear that some of the Germans in particular did not hold back in expressing their own opinions of Pusey's competence, so he just let 'em have it. My own edition is a reprint by Klock & Klock, with a short preface by the publisher praising the book but qualifying the praise by a mention of its being amillennial, which might disappoint some readers.