Tuesday, September 25, 2012

More Thoughts on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife

A lot can happen in a week.

Last Thursday, I posted a few words on the recent "discovery" of a Coptic papyrus fragment (erroneously dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife") which purportedly suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was hitched, most likely to Mary the Magdalene.

Since then, I have received several comments on my opinions presented in my last post. Most of those comments have suggested that my previous post lacked one of the primary objections that many people have against the idea of a married Jesus: that is, the notion of sexuality's inherent "dirtiness." How could Jesus have participated in a sexual relationship and yet remained sinless? This is a question for more advanced theologians than myself, but it is duly noted and certainly worthy of consideration. However, I would caution against applying Augustinian sexual ethics to first century Jewish practice. In short, if Jesus was married, it would have been nothing out of the ordinary for him to have engaged in sexual intercourse—in fact, custom would have demanded it for the sake of the continuance of the Jewish people. He would simply have been fulfilling his role as a good husband and a loyal Jew.

In addition to these comments, there have been further developments in the whole discovery saga. A recent post by Craig Evans on the biblioblog Near Emmaus has reported that the Harvard Theological Review has opted not to publish Dr. Karen King's paper on the fragment, presumably amid increasing debate regarding the artifact's authenticity.

I need to reiterate here that I am no papyrologist, nor even a textual critic. My experience in this field is extremely limited. However, that being said, I believe that it is possible for the careful observer to note some physical characteristics of the artifact that might serve as cause for suspicion, or at the very least extreme caution in making any definitive claim regarding the authenticity of the piece. Among the fragment's most notable critics is Francis Watson, Professor of New Testament at Durham University. A few of the objections to the artifact's authenticity listed below have been gleaned from several recent essays by Watson, all of which can be found via Mark Goodacre's blog here.

1. Note the nearly perfect rectangular shape of the fragment. This is unusual—papyri rarely deteriorate in pristine angles. The fragmentation of various samplings of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri or Chester Beatty Papyri (to name a couple of the most well-known ancient papyri sources) indicates that papyrus tends to crumble and tear and develop holes in odd places, possibly due to the initial process used to produce the material. While it is certainly not unusual for whole pages of papyri to remain intact, the shape of fragments is another matter.

2. The calligraphy is shoddily done. Like other writing materials in the ancient world (such as parchment or vellum), manuscript papyrus was not given to any old amateur calligrapher to doodle on. The scribes who painstakingly copied texts took great care in their work. The fragment in question looks as if it were written by a fifth grader with a cheap watercolor brush. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the word tazime, or tahime, which has been translated as "my wife" or "my woman," is instantly recognizable, as it is suspiciously bolded.

3. If one looks closely at the edges of the fragment, as well as the leading and kerning of the text itself, it appears that the text was written on the papyrus after the papyrus was already a fragment. In other words, the text seems crammed into this small piece of material, with very few of the words being sacrificed in the split. In fact, the last couple lines appear to end with the contour of the piece itself. If a papyrus fragment that was part of a larger page of text was to be ripped, it seems unlikely that at least one or two lines would remain uninterrupted by the tear.

4. To my knowledge, the German collector who gave the fragment to Dr. King remains anonymous.

5. Finally, perhaps the most damning evidence of the fragment's forgery is that it appears to be an amalgam of numerous phrases or sentences from the Gospel of Thomas. Further information on this problem can be found among Watson's essays and Craig Evans's recent post on the subject.

Every year, it seems that we are bombarded with new and fantastical information by the media: some new "discovery" of a "Lost Gospel" or a reported "Family Tomb of Jesus" ekes its way into the public forum, and battle lines are quickly drawn between those who are all aboard with the find (who are perceived as exciting and progressive) and those who either require more information to make a solid decision or remain skeptical of the whole thing altogether. The latter are often perceived or portrayed in the media as being traditionalists who cling to outdated beliefs, who let their personal faith or dogma impede their judgment. However, it remains incredibly essential that scholars look upon such sensational claims with a keen, suspicious eye and a level head. It is not a matter of disregarding new information because it conflicts with tradition. It is simply a matter of practicing good scholarship.

The Jesus Blog: Book Giveaway!—Chris Keith

For those interested in historical Jesus studies, Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith are offering a giveaway of their new book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Information on how to enter via the link below:

The Jesus Blog: Book Giveaway!—Chris Keith

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Brief Word on the So-Called "Gospel of Jesus's Wife"

In case you haven't already heard, there has been quite a hullabaloo the last few days over a new fourth-century Coptic papyri fragment which has come to be known as the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife." The fragment was presented to Harvard Divinity professor Karen King last year by an anonymous German collector, and King has since analyzed the piece and drafted a forthcoming article on its examination that is due out early next year. The papyrus, which suggests that Jesus may have been married (see Line 4 below), contains the following text:

Line 1: "...not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]..."
Line 2: The disciples said to Jesus, ...
Line 3: ...deny. Mary is worthy of it...
Line 4: Then Jesus said, "My wife...
Line 5: ...she will be able to be my disciple...
Line 6: Let wicked people swell up...
Line 7: ...as for me, I dwell with her in order to...
Line 8: an image

There are many reasons that traditional churchgoers might balk at the notion of Jesus being involved in a marital relationship. One implication of such a claim is grounded in the knowledge that in first-century Palestine (as well as most elsewhere in the ancient world), the institution of marriage was designed to facilitate the continuation of the family line, and therefore of the whole Jewish people. Marriage was a way of surviving exile by procreation. If Jesus were to be married, many critics say, then it would most likely mean that he had a child, which would be problematically suggesting that Jesus had a continuing family line. What should these people then do with his heirs? Worship them? That's a question fit only for Sir Leigh Teabing, and isn't really one that I care to try to answer. 

However, my hunch is that the problem most people have with Jesus as a married man is that at its core, marriage implies a sharing of power. We typically like to think of Jesus of Nazareth as a lone mysterious figure, traveling the Galilean and Judean landscapes, performing miracles and giving moral teachings while the twelve disciples struggle to keep up with all he is saying and doing. To think that Jesus may have had a wife who shared in some of his most intimate moments of doubt and pain, or indeed in the very development of his moral and cosmological worldview, is for some people quite challenging. Many just don't want to imagine a Jesus who would share his power with another human being.

To be blunt, I don't really care whether Jesus was married. I think it would be fascinating if he did indeed have an intimate human partner—it might make him somehow appear more relatable, in an earthly kind of way  (As Stephen Colbert recently remarked, "Mr. and Mrs. Jesus and Helen Christ. The Christs!"). From what we can glean from the canonical New Testament, however, it appears that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who stressed that the world was soon going to end. While he recognized the created order of marriage (see Mark 10:6-9, Matthew 19:3-6), he taught so much about the imminent breaking-in of the Reign of God (in which there would be no marriage—see Matthew 22:23-33), it seems unlikely that he would marry—his mission regarding the coming reign superseded his obligation to continue his own family line. Indeed, in the four canonical Gospels, it appears that Jesus's idea of family was much more radical—that is, we are all sisters and brothers of Jesus and children of the living Creator God.

The bottom line is that this discovery doesn't change much. It's a fourth-century fragment of an Egyptian papyrus of which we know very little. Without the rest of the manuscript, the most it can possibly tell us is that more than 250 years after Jesus lived, people were beginning to speculate on different aspects of his life and ministry. At this point, we can only watch and wait for King's paper to be published and see how this discovery develops. It may be that there is indeed a second-century Greek text on which this Coptic papyrus is based, hiding out in a jar in a cave somewhere like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or buried in a bundle in the Egyptian desert like the Nag Hammadi Library. It could, ultimately, be proven to be a forgery. Or it may just fizzle its way out of the public eye into archival obscurity, just as the Gospels of Judas, Mary, Philip, and countless other "sensational" gnostic texts have done. 

For more information on the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," see the following:

• BiblePlaces Blog: "Somebody Once Believed Jesus Had a Wife" (Todd Bolen)
• Evangelical Textual Criticism: "Gospel of Jesus's Wife (Updated)" (Christian Askeland)
• Evangelical Textual Criticism: "Yet Another Question About the So-Called Gospel of Jesus's Wife" (Dirk Jongkind)
• Larry Hurtado's Blog: "'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife'...Maybe...Maybe Not" (Larry Hurtado)
• Larry Hurtado's Blog: "'Jesus' Wife' Fragment: Further Thoughts" (Larry Hurtado) 
• NTBlog: "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" (Mark Goodacre)
• NTBlog: "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: The Story Is Moving Fast!" (Mark Goodacre)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Koinonia, the Eucharist, and Beloved Community

In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England founded a little project in Sumter County, Georgia, that they called a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” Based on New Testament teachings and the mutual submission exhibited by the early Christians in the book of Acts, it became an intentional community based on sustainable agriculture and human fellowship, and eventually gave birth to numerous humanitarian organizations such as the Fuller Center for Housing, The Prison and Jail Project, and most notably, Habitat for Humanity International.

Clarence Jordan, a New Testament Greek scholar, was fully aware of the meaning behind the word chosen to represent their community: Koinonia. This Greek word—koinwniva—appears around 20 times in the New Testament in one form or another, and typically is translated as “fellowship,” “community,” or “sharing.” The core of the word’s meaning implies a deep emotional and spiritual bond, as that of a spouse. Strangely enough, it is this same intimate spousal companionship that Christians are said to share with one another and with the Source of all creation.

Diner en Blanc
Koinonia has an inherently reciprocal nature at its base meaning. It is more than simply showing up to church or doing a good deed for a neighbor. To share in the practice of koinwniva means to share not just an amiable spirit, but also to contribute one’s own material possessions. Because of this, perhaps nowhere is koinwniva more fully realized than at the Eucharistic table.

Today, whole subcultures—both religious and secular—have sprung up around the concept of table fellowship. New publications like Kinfolk Magazine specialize in getting people together for intimate little group meals, and the French concept of diner en blanc, a sort of flash mob in which thousands of people dressed in white share a picnic in a public place, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The ancient Greeks (as well as other Pagan-based cultures) believed that sharing a meal was a sign of complete union, both with the other feasters present at the table and with God. For them, koinwniva symbolized not merely fellowship, but a “consummation” of the total union between the human and the divine. This concept was fully realized in the Dionysian cult of ancient Greece.[1] It is not difficult to see the connections between this belief and the early mystery that surrounded the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

However, though the etymological roots of koinwniva greatly influenced the Christian use of the word in the New Testament, the latter understanding of the word remained distinct from the former in at least one key aspect: rather than union with the deity, Christian koinwniva emphasized communion with God.[2] In the image of the Eucharistic meal, we have the exemplar understanding of what it means to share in the community of God in the here and now. This image of mutuality also fits in well with the gospel narrative of sacrifice—the Last Supper is followed by the climax of the Jesus Story: the cross. Bonded by the initial tragedy of the crucifixion and the sudden hope offered by the resurrection, it is little wonder that from the earliest cultic memory, Christians have continued the Eucharistic practice throughout history. I often repeat the words of a pastor friend of mine, who once told me, “The feet of enemies are rarely seen under the same table.”
Yet koinwniva is more than just passing the potatoes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a world where those who dwelt on commonality rather than difference could openly share in what he referred to as the Beloved Community. His was a vision that was not only part of a future eschaton, but also able to be glimpsed in the here and now.  In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King recounts being stranded in an airport with a diverse group of people following the 1966 march to Montgomery: “As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the [humanity] of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”[3]

Dr. King’s vision of koinwniva clearly involved not just those of the Christian faith, but humanity itself—those of “all walks of life.” It is my sincere hope that we as a species continue to widen the gates of the Kingdom of God until we share in that beloved koinwniva with all creatures great and small.

[1] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Volume 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976. p. 799
[2] Ibid. p. 800
[3] Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Harper & Row, 1967. p. 9. Quoted in Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., “Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community.” Christian Century, April 3, 1974. pp. 361-363.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

EverydayRev: A Re-evaluation

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed a few changes being gradually applied to EverydayRev over the last few months. Not only have the background and header image been changed and the layout altered, the general content of the website has changed, as well. Here’s an explanation for that.

It has been a long and difficult road to my current status as a MATS student. Everyday Revolutionary has been for me at various times over the years a lint trap of mundane photos and recipes, a place of emotional catharsis, a political soap box, and a venue to discuss my dreams with others. Since EverydayRev began in March 2010, I have gotten married to my best friend, graduated college, moved four times, started seminary, worked for three different churches, and suffered a violent spiritual and existential struggle that still continues today. After all that, I can now say that I am once again in a period of transition. But this time there is something different involved. Something new.

If you are someone who read my blog back in the early days because it was edgy or cool (if it was ever either of those things), and you are now frustrated that the vast majority of my latest posts involve textual studies and adventures in neo-orthodox biblical theology, I apologize. If it is any consolation, I can honestly tell you that in some ways, I’m the same old rabble-rouser wannabe with anarchist leanings that I’ve always been. But change is inevitable, and as I learn and grow both as a Christian and as a student of scripture, I am drawn again and again to a deeper, more thorough understanding of the faith than that which easy answers and bumper sticker slogans can afford. I’m learning to see that not everything has to hinge on the buzzword, “radical,” and that there is something quite lovely about finding God unexpectedly in the quotidian, something inherently extraordinary about God working in and through all things ordinary.  In this respect, the title of my blog has begun to take on a distinct new meaning for me. Before, I always emphasized the revolutionary piece of the title. It characterized my desire to be anything other than a white, male, middle-class Protestant. My original intent was to “make every day revolutionary.” Now, however, the words have shifted in meaning. I feel as though my intent now may be to “find the revolutionary quality of the everyday.”

I am coming to understand that for much of my adult life, my god has been a small god, confined by social expectations and reactions to even smaller conservative American evangelical gods. I have spent too much time ranting about the treatment of the poor by the wealthiest margins of society, and too little time doing anything about it. Too much time shouting at people about what God is really like, and too little time listening for God to tell me what she is like.

“We readily forget,” Anthony Thiselton writes in Life After Death, “what it means to be ‘oppressed.’ Liberation Theology has made it fashionable to speak of ‘the poor’ and ‘the disempowered.’ But this approach is too narrow…If God’s vindication of the oppressed includes those weighed down with constraints imposed upon them, by their race, gender, or society, who is to say how far God’s act of vindication can reach?”[1] In other words, it is possible to search so rigorously for the presence of God among the economically disadvantaged (or whichever category we choose to fixate upon) that we neglect the opportunity to seek the justice of the Deity among the morally bankrupt. There are many, many shades of poverty, and it is all too often that we choose to work with a black-and-white palette. But I believe that the God of Jesus is a Technicolor God.

I don’t know where I’m headed next. My theology is changing, my worldview is changing. My surroundings are changing—I am no longer surrounded by the supportive community that I once had, and this has caused some emotional and spiritual stress. I am thinking more about PhD work in New Testament, and how to go about taking those first few steps in that direction. I can now say, however—with the least amount of doubt that I have felt in years—that whatever path I follow, God will be there.

[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). 182.