Is it the End of A Marginal Jew?

Looks like it, unfortunately.

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1991, the Anchor Bible released the first volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which quickly became an ambitious project. Subsequent volumes were released in 1994 (Jesus’s relation to the Baptist, his meaning of the kingdom, his miracles), 2001 (his “opponents”, like the Sadducees and Pharisees), 2009 (his relation to the Torah), and 2016 (the parables). Two more volumes were slated: the sixth would examine Jesus’ self-designations (messiah, Son of Man, Son of God) and the seventh would cover his death and final days in Jerusalem. It looks like those may not be written. Meier has had health issues since the publication of volume 5, and when I contacted Yale last week about further developments, I was told there are no longer any additional Marginal Jew volumes under contract.

If this is indeed the end of A Marginal Jew — and I wouldn’t want to see anyone finish the series except Meier — then, on the one hand, it’s disappointing. It would have been nice to see Meier’s take on the Jerusalem end game. Then again, maybe it’s just as well. The classic criteria of authenticity (embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc.) have become increasingly obsolete, and A Marginal Jew has been a ’90s project on borrowed time, extending into the 21st century. I have less faith in the criteria than I used to. Still, I like the way Meier applied them. If there was ever any objective application of the criteria, it’s to be found in A Marginal Jew. I wish Meier well and hope he gets better. As a 30-year celebratory look-back, I summarize some of his findings in the five volumes. Meier’s historical Jesus is a plausible one, a prophet who expected a future kingdom to arrive, like his mentor the Baptist, with some modifications; who had a strong reputation of being an exorcist-healer; who was largely Torah-obedient, with a few exceptions; and whose parables have been overvalued and overblown in the imagination of modern scholars.

Miracles: 15 out of 31. Meier pronounces half of the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:

  • Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
  • Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
  • Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
  • Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.

Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. Meier finds most of the Torah disputes in the gospels to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.)

  • Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
  • Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
  • Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
  • Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity. Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce, for which he can cite Jesus.
  • Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
  • The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.

The Parables: 4 out of 32. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus. The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (Volume 5, pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.

  • The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
  • The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
  • The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
  • The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.

See my reviews of volume 4 and volume 5 for more detail.

Anti-abortion in Texas, the Bible, and the Middle Assyrian Laws

The new Texas abortion law took effect last week, prohibiting abortions after the presence of a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy (exceptions for medical emergencies only). About 85 to 90 percent of women who get an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, so this law will have serious impact. It violates Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion before a fetus is viable, typically around six months (not weeks) of pregnancy. The law also has a draconian provision that allows private citizens to sue those who perform or aid the abortion in violation of the law, providing for at least $10,000 for each successful suit. That the Supreme Court has declined to get involved isn’t encouraging, and when you add to this the Mississippi abortion case to be heard by the Court, I seriously wonder if Roe v. Wade will be overturned next year.

American anti-abortionists tend to be Christian, and it’s worth revisiting what the bible says on the subject. Chris Heard, an anti-abortionist himself, summed it up many years ago:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21:22-25 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted, which is hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

The Exodus passage, however, may be resolvable, in a way that both helps and undermines the anti-abortionist cause. It’s an assault-and-miscarriage law, which on the face of it does seem to support the idea that late-term abortions are murder, while implying that early-term abortions are mere property crimes against the father. In the former case, the proper redress is execution or mutilation (eye for an eye, etc.). In the latter case, the proper redress is financial compensation. The key lies in what the text means by “harm following” the premature birth, and by “harm not following” the premature birth. Richard Carrier writes:

“If a fully-formed fetus comes out, meaning a viable baby who dies from the premature birth, that’s ‘harm follows,’ and anything else is equivalent to a mere miscarriage, in which case ‘harm does not follow.’ No viable baby was lost. This makes clear that only what we would call a late term abortion is murder; and indeed, the Bible doesn’t really even say that as such, since this is an involuntary abortion (an assault), but it’s reasonable to assume Jewish courts would deem a woman who sought an abortion as then the one committing the crime—either a property crime against her husband if she aborts before the third trimester, or murder if afterward. So this passage does support declaring late-term abortions murder; but it actually is declaring all other abortions permissible — all you need do is compensate the father for the resulting financial loss and (maybe) pay a tax. Essentially, as worded, women could legally pay their husbands and the state to let them have an abortion. That’s God’s law.”

That’s a reasonable inference, though hard to be too confident about, since the bible never generally speaks about abortion. Brian Rainey in fact notes the revealing contrast between the vague biblical view and the clear-cut Assyrian one:

“There is an abortion ban in the Middle Assyrian Laws, Tablet A (MAL A), a law code from ~1076 BCE that predates the Bible. It’s the earliest known abortion ban in the world, I believe. Like the Bible, MAL A contains laws about what should happen when a physical assault results in accidental miscarriage (§21, 50-52). These laws are similar to Exodus 21:22-25. MAL A’s harsh anti-abortion law immediately follows its accidental miscarriage laws:

If a woman aborts her fetus by her own action…they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If she dies as a result of aborting her own fetus, they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If any persons should hide that woman because she aborted her fetus…[And the text breaks off]” (§53, Roth’s translation).

It seems that MAL A, like Texas’s recently passed anti-abortion law, encourages snitching on people who have abortions, though sadly the text is broken so we don’t get details.

The Bible has an assault-and-accidental-miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22-25. But unlike MAL A, an anti-abortion law does not follow it. Clearly, such a law would have been conceivable. The Bible could’ve done what MAL A did and included an explicit anti-abortion law, but didn’t.”

Which is revealing. Relative to their neighbors, the ancient Israelites weren’t so aggressively anti-abortionist.

I’m strongly pro-choice and don’t look to the bible for guidance on the subject. But I recognize that many Christians do seek biblical justification for their point of view — both pro-choice and anti-abortion believers — and I’m sympathetic to those on either side who operate out of a code of empathy. With Chris Heard, I believe that any biblical case for anti-abortion would have to be a “cumulative theological case”, rather than a direct case based on proof texts, since the specific texts of the bible are virtually useless except perhaps for Exodus 21 (which both supports and undermines an anti-abortionist argument). More revealing is the reputation of early Jews and Christians, who were known in antiquity for despising infanticide. Constantine may have even adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and probably the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and New Testament pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on many cumulative biblical ideas. A pro-choice position, on the other hand, has a more uphill battle, but certainly not an impossible one. It could rely on the general silence of abortion in the bible, argue that Exodus 21 implies that only late-term abortions amount to murder, and perhaps extend arguments based on the Torah’s wider concern for widows and orphans, the poor, etc. — women and children, in other words, who end up suffering the most when abortion is not a legal right.

With regards to the particular lawsuit provision of the Texas law, I find it appalling that anyone in Texas can sue anyone else who performs or aids an abortion after 6 weeks. It also puts the conservative justices (except for Clarence Thomas) in an awkward position, since they recently ruled that a lawsuit doesn’t have standing unless direct concrete harm to the plaintiff can be proven. Thomas rightly dissented with the liberals, blasting his fellow conservatives for overturning a precedent that goes back to America’s founding: federal courts had never required plaintiffs to demonstrate direct concrete injury. But now that this is the judicial precedent, the conservative justices (aside from Thomas) should be condemning the Texas law on their own logic. In any case, I can’t see a biblical base for this draconian lawsuit provision, let alone a constitutional one.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

Reading Roundup: 2020

Most of my reading this year was rereads of novels I enjoyed long ago — the prescribed medicine for Covid quarantine. But there were new items too, five in particular, and by far the best of that handful was the expose of the Jesus-Wife hoax. You should read Veritas if nothing else on this list.

1. Veritas, Ariel Sabar. I don’t care what else was published in 2020 that was good and I didn’t read. Veritas is the book of the year, a piece of detective work that shows rare command of so many specialties — early Christian texts, canonical and gnostic; papyrology; peer review processes; online pornography; the fine line between liberal theology and academic study. Sometimes the hardest lie to refute is the Big Lie, since it requires so much ground to cover — even when the lie is obvious from start. Veritas shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete, and the lengths to which forgers will go to bamboozle the academy. I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers, and why certain scholars get easily played. Walter Fritz succeeded thanks to a divinity school in crisis. Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, and the divinity department (and Karen King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment came as a godsend to Karen King, for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship. Full review here.

2. Rating America’s Presidents, Robert Spencer. Most historians tend to favor presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented managers, foreign interventionists, and heavy into top-down government. But just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. That he intervened militarily abroad and economically at home are just as likely bad signs as good ones. Robert Spencer grades the American presidents on the basis of their actual policies and their Constitutional fidelity. Were they good for America, or were they not? In most cases (26 presidents), I agree closely with Spencer’s rankings, aside from minor quibbles. And even in the other 14 cases, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements on my part (Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump high, where I score them low. He scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton low, where I score them high.) We agree in any case on what matters most in a president’s policy-making decisions: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of fiscal conservatism, and the importance of liberty. Full review here.

3. Age of Monsters, Robert Kruger. I read the draft for this novel in 2019 but it was published this year. It tells two stories — the aches and twists of teen love in the ’80s and a gaming campaign that loudens the relationship. An eighth-grade student in Portland Oregon falls for the new girl in town, and hooks her into his role-playing fantasies (the RPG sort, not S&M). The dark-priestess character she plays is a vessel of her real-world baggage, and together the teens use their imagination to confront real-world problems at school and home. There are Stranger Things vibes but it’s very much its own thing; Kruger started writing the story long before the Netflix series landed. It’s hard to make table-top narratives engaging as they are immersive, but Age of Monsters taps into the fire that made us grognards so passionate for old-school D&D in the ’80s.

4. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Will Arbery. I saw this play dramatized over Zoom and it was brilliantly acted. Four graduates of a Catholic college in Wyoming have returned to campus for a weekend event, and spend an evening arguing with each other about a lot of things — abortion, divorce, the LGBT community, hate speech, to name a few. Justin laments the fading power of Christianity in the world. Kevin is a pathetic whiner who can’t shit or get off the pot. Emily is tormented by a painful chronic illness. And Teresa (by far the most entertaining character) is practically a clone of Ann Coulter who writes polemical essays for a right-wing publication. These four voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but had reservations about doing so. Their mindset is alien to those of a liberal or secular audience (like myself), but the play has been hailed as compelling by many viewers. It’s a fascinating stretch of dialogue between friends trying to make sense of entrenched values. Arbery neither endorses nor condemns them. He writes about them because it’s what he knows, having been raised as a conservative Catholic. See this review for more.

5. Presidential Elections and Majority Rule, Edward Foley. Since the 2016 election especially, people have demanded that we abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote. But the electoral college is a very good if flawed system. A national popular vote carries the danger of mob rule — like the reign of tyranny during the French revolution, or the Brexit vote, when 51% or 52% of the people imposed their will on 49% or 48%. The American founders wanted more than just a simple majority rule; they wanted a compound form of majority rule, or a “majority of the majorities” — in other words, a majority of the electoral votes compiled from states in which the victor also achieved a majority of the statewide popular vote. That system works like a gem in two-party elections, where the winner by necessity obtains a compound majority of the vote, but when third-party or independent candidates are involved, they can rob another candidate of an honest victory. The solution, as Foley argues, isn’t to abolish the electoral college, but to establish rank choice voting (or some run-off equivalent) in all the states. Full review here.

Pastor Anderson and the Historical Jesus

For fifteen years I wondered if Steven Anderson would sermonize on the historical Jesus, and he finally got around to it.

The good:

  • He admits there is zero archaeological evidence for Jesus and no first-century writings about him (outside the bible). He accepts the Josephus passage as a forgery.
  • He slams the criteria — multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment — as useless, especially the latter two, oddly echoing the opinions of scholars he disdains (Allison, Goodacre, etc).
  • He ridicules the scholarly love-affair with Lukan stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, which not only fail the criteria but are a projection of modern liberal values.

The bad:

  • He says the lack of evidence for Jesus outside the bible is according to God’s plan: God wanted it this way, so that the only record of Jesus in the first century was the divine record. If people want to learn about Jesus, God wants them to learn from the proper holy source and none other.
  • His overview of the three quests is horrible.
  • He believes that Thomas Jefferson is burning in hell for his Jefferson Bible, since Jefferson “removed God’s words” (Rev 22:19); for that matter, hellfire awaits those who have served on translation committees for anything other than the King James Bible.

The humorous:

  • He makes fun of the Mandela Effect (shooting fish in a barrel), since human memory is fallible. But he is unwilling to extend the principle of fallible memory to the gospel writers.

In a nutshell:

  • There is only one Jesus — the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and it’s a package deal. That’s the true historical Jesus, according to King James fundamentalism.

Veritas: The Truth of the Jesus-Wife Hoax and a Divinity School in Crisis

I thought I knew all there was to know about the Jesus-Wife forgery, but I was wrong. Veritas is an extended piece of Ariel Sabar’s investigative journalism published four years ago, a must-read for hoax gurus, and for any New Testament and non-canonical specialists. It shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete and the boundless guile of the forger. It’s an exciting read, but also at times surreal, or at least for me, when familiar online acquaintances and Facebook friends make an appearance in the narrative. I now know Mike Grondin’s daily and nightly routines, thanks to Sabar. But I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers to bamboozle the academy, and why certain scholars get easily played.

Da Vinci Affinities

The book starts with Karen King, and fleshes out her upbringing as a child in Montana, her undergraduate years at the University of Montana, her PhD work at Brown University, and her teaching position at Occidental College, and finally, against the odds (given the competition), her appointment as professor at Harvard Divinity in 1997. She became well known in November 2003, when her book on the Gospel of Mary was published at the height of The Da Vinci Code craze. The timing was probably coincidence, but King exploited it.

Her book, to be sure, didn’t mention The Da Vinci Code (published months before in March), for it hardly served as a feminist manifesto by 21st century standards. As Sabar puts it, the ideological flaw in The Da Vinci Code for King was the inverse of the ancient gnostics’. In gnostic belief, the feminine is valued at the expense of her sexuality. In Dan Brown’s thriller, it’s the opposite: Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ fertile wife — “her uterus the ‘Holy Grail’ for his seed” — but at the expense of her spiritual leadership. “Put crudely,” says Sabar, “the Code’s Mary was a womb without a brain, while the Gospel of Mary’s Mary was a brain without a womb. (p 280).” [One reason King would become snared by the Jesus-Wife fragment eight years later is that it marries the best of both worlds, portraying a Mary who has sex with Jesus (“my wife…”) and who also talks and learns (“she is able to be my disciple…”). The hoax was practically designed for someone like Karen King.]

Nevertheless, King praised Dan Brown in the media for raising “important questions” about early Christianity. Of the scholars interviewed about The Da Vinci Code, she was the least critical of the novel’s blend of fact and wild fiction. While she always had enough sense to insist that there is no historical evidence of a married Jesus, she found a common cause with Dan Brown. In The Da Vinci Code the early church fathers demonized Mary Magdalene for her marriage to Jesus; for King, in her 2003 book, they demonized her for her spiritual leadership:

“For King, the Da Vinci effect helped turn a scholar whose intellectual passions had been confined to classrooms, academic tracts, and the occasional church into a bestselling author with live audiences and hundreds and a television viewership of millions. Yet it put King in a curious bind: On the one hand, The Da Vinci Code was just the latest of more than fifteen hundred years of fictions about Mary Magdalene — and fictions about Mary Magdalene were precisely what King had devoted her life to dispelling [italics mine]. On the other hand, this particular fiction — of Magdalene as Jesus’s wife — had given King a platform bigger than any she had ever known.” (p 65)

This platform, however, would be nothing like what she got almost a decade later, when she obtained the mysterious Jesus-Wife fragment from a “collector of antiquities”.

Assessing the Fragment: An Implied “Criterion of Embarrassment”?

The papyrologist meeting at Roger Bagnall’s home in New York (on October 24, 2011) is where the whole business should have died, and apparently almost did. As Sabar tells it (pp 28-31), Bagnall (a classics scholar) hosted the meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by King, who was a close colleague and friend. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) was present along with eight other young papyrologists. All were initially skeptical — the handwriting alone suggested a forger rather than a scribe of antiquity — but they soon strangely reversed themselves, becoming convinced that the forgery tells could be marks of authenticity.

The logic reminds me of the increasingly discredited criterion of embarrassment in historical-Jesus studies: if what Jesus says or does in the gospels would have created “embarrassment” to the gospel writers, the less likely they would have invented it. (Most famously: Jesus’s baptism by John appears to portray the sinless savior in need of having sins washed away.) The logic being that if you want to invent something about your savior, you invent something that aligns cleanly with what you believe, and not something that creates difficulty or contradiction (“embarrassment”).

In Sabar’s account of the Bagnall meeting, a variant of this criterion seems to have been invoked. “Surely no one would forge something that looked obviously this fake.” “A forger would have tried harder”. A forger, in other words, surely wouldn’t produce such an embarrassing product. Really.

Dating the Fragment

Five months later (in March 2012), King met with Bagnall and Luijendijk and other scholars in New York, where she showed them the Jesus-Wife fragment. Sabar tells (pp 31-33, 37-38) how Bagnall dated it to the 4th century AD, and speculated that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.

Months later in July, King felt confident dating the fragment to the 2nd century AD when she spoke to the press. One might wonder how she felt this confident, when Bagnall had (in their March pow-wow) dated the Coptic handwriting to the fourth century — and that Coptic in any case didn’t emerge as a written language until the third century. For King a fourth-century fragment wasn’t good enough, because it looked too reactionary against the settled orthodox portrait of a celibate Jesus. Something from the second century would make a more formidable weapon against the orthodox, as it would imply early debates among Christians over marriage and sexuality.

She argued for an early date of the fragment on the same basis that she had assigned the (unconvincing) early date for the Gospel of Mary — by assuming that the Coptic was a translation of an earlier Greek original, and that the original text was “in conversation” with a competing theological view, rather than reactionary against an established orthodox view. If there is no evidence that Jesus was married, King insisted that there is also no evidence that he wasn’t, and the Jesus-Wife fragment should now lead scholars to re-evaluate the Christian doctrine of sexuality and marriage.

Naming the Fragment

When TV producer Hannah Veale and her boss Andy Webb, got unrestricted access to a Harvard scholar that summer — before the Jesus-Wife fragment was even peer reviewed — fate was writ. Veale and Webb asked her if she had given the fragment a name, and she told them she was thinking of calling it the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Sabar cites Webb as follows:

“Webb had interviewed enough scholars over the years to expect the usual impenetrable nomenclature. This, he never expected. ‘If Karen had decided to call it Artifact 957/A, then that would have been fine,’ he said. ‘So to be given, as it were, the license to call this little tiny fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” … it sort of put the headline on the story that even as a journalist and filmmaker I would have never dared to apply myself.” (p 69)

To be fair — and as before, during the Da Vinci craze a decade earlier — King was careful to emphasize that there is no historical evidence that Jesus was married, and that the Jesus-Wife fragment did not offer proof of such. It only meant, she said, that some Christians living over a century after Jesus’s death believed that he was married, probably to affirm a theology that legitimated wives and mothers as disciples, and to sanctify sexuality. King insisted that part of her scholarly job was to “throw water on sensationalism”. But then why, asks Sabar, had she picked a title for the fragment that guaranteed sensationalism?

Bombshell in Rome

King officially announced her discovery in Rome on September 18, 2012, in a room filled with Coptologists. The announcement would summon a media storm, but the Coptic specialists weren’t impressed and raised all sort of objections. For example, Einar Thomassen pointed out the phrase ta-hime (“my wife”) appears in the fragment, but it’s a phrase that can’t be found in any surviving Coptic document. Even the word hime alone was rarely used in Coptic. Shime was the generic word for “woman” that could also mean “wife”, and much more frequently used. But ta-hime is completely unheard of. When ancient scribes wrote “my wife”, they used ta-shime in every known instance that survives. Sabar elaborates on Thomassen’s objection:

“Whether some rule of syntax treated hime differently from shime is unknown; ancient Copts didn’t leave behind grammar books. What is clear is that ta-hime appears in exactly one known Coptic text: the tiny fragment that a stranger had given Karen King. The papyrus would thus be noteworthy not just for its content but for its singular use of language. Had an ancient scribe used ta-shime instead of ta-hime, no scholar would have translated, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife”…’ differently. No one would think that Jesus, in referring to ‘my woman’, was speaking of, say, a girlfriend. But ta-hime took no chances. It doubled down. It was an unprecedented, belt-and-suspenders locution.” (pp 93-94)

Other objections were raised, but King evidently felt secure enough with the “authority” of Bagnall behind her. Three days after the conference, Francis Watson published a paper showing that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of passages from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, but likely enough from a modern forger with limited Coptic skills). Three weeks after the conference, Andrew Bernhard showed the fragment to be a completely obvious fake… but more on that later.

“Peer Review” by Friends

Here’s the real shocker. King submitted her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review (on August 10, 2012), and on the same day the journal’s editors (Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson) asked Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article.

Roger Bagnall was the classics scholar who had already worked with King to date the fragment to the 4th century; whom King had cited in her article; and who was a good friend of Bagnall. “Asking Bagnall to anonymously peer-review King’s article,” says Sabar, “was like asking an athletic team’s co-captain to referee his own game, and in disguise.” On top of this, Bagnall even admitted upfront that he lacked expertise in non-canonical early Christian literature. He was a papyrologist, yes, but a classics scholar. The Harvard editors wanted him anyway.

The other two peer reviews of King’s article were negative in the extreme, and came from two leading Coptologists, Bentley Layton and Stephen Emmel. Layton told the Harvard editors point blank that publishing the fragment “would be very embarrassing for The Harvard Theological Review.” Emmel identified the papyrus as a clear fake and fingered just about every forgery tell that would emerge over the next four years.

Then a greater shock. At this point — after the negative peer review — King’s article should have been rejected, but the Harvard editors ignored the advice of the two lead Coptologists and allowed King to gather her own team to make a case for the fragment’s authenticity. The team consisted of the following experts:

  1. Noreen Tuross, Pofessor of Scientific Archaeology, Harvard Univeristy
  2. Gregory Hodgins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Arizona
  3. Timothy Swager, Professor of Chemistry, MIT
  4. James Yardley, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University

The choices of Tuross and Hodgins were fair enough, and their radiocarbon tests actually overturned King’s claims the Coptic fragments dated to the 2nd century, and for that matter Bagnall’s more cautious claims that they dated to the 4th. The papyri in fact dated to the 8th. (Naturally, this didn’t stop King from claiming that the contents of the papyri dated much earlier, even if copied onto an 8th-century payrus.)

The choices of Swager and Yardley, on the other hand, made little sense and were unethical. Timothy Swager, an expert in explosives detection (not ancient papyri) is unknown in the community of archaeological science. He was chosen because his father was a close friend of Karen King’s father. (Back home in Montana they were hunting partners.) As for James Yardley, he runs the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia, but has no actual experience with ancient objects or ink identification. He has spent most of his career as a research administrator, and founded the lab because Roger Bagnall is his brother-in-law. Obviously, neither Swager nor Yardley were inclined to damage the academic reputations of their friends/relatives King and Bagnall, and on the strength of that nepotism, the Coptic fragments were given a murky pass on the ink and material tests.

The final shock is that The Harvard Theological Review didn’t bother peer-reviewing these lab results. The radiocarbon dating and ink/material analyses went unchecked. King published her article (on April 10, 2014), robustly confident that the specter of forgery had been put to rest.

This is all bad, but to me, frankly, the biggest shock of all is that this lab work proceeded despite Andrew Bernhard’s proof (published on October 11, 2012) that the Jesus-Wife fragment was without doubt a hoax. King basically ignored Bernhard’s findings because he’s a non-specialist.

David & Goliath

In his podcast review Mark Goodacre calls Veritas a “David & Goliath” story, in which the amateur Andrew Bernhard takes down the Harvard-giant Karen King. It’s true: Sabar gives Bernhard (who does not have a PhD in biblical studies) a lead role in the narrative, and this is fair, since Bernhard did more than anyone to drive a nail in the hoax. His discovery was stunning as it was hilarious: if the Jesus-Wife fragment were truly the product of an ancient scribe, that scribe had somehow time-traveled into the age of the internet, and obtained access to Mike Grondin’s interlinear — an online pdf created in 2002, that contained a typographical error which the forger unwittingly copied. (That typo-versioned interlinear is still available here, which Grondin is preserving for historical purposes regarding the whole controversy.)

Mark notes in his podcast review that he and Francis Watson don’t get much coverage in Sabar’s book, despite both having been heavily involved in critiquing the Jesus-Wife fragment (see here and here for Goodacre, for example, and here especially for Watson), though Mark is probably right that underscoring professional contributions might have spoiled Sabar’s David & Goliath story.

Similarly, I thought it curious that in discussing the Secret Mark hoax (pp 33-37), Sabar mentions Peter Jeffrey’s debunking but not Stephen Carlson’s, even though Carlson struck first. They are equally compelling treatments, but Jeffery is a biblical-studies amateur (a musicologist by profession), and again Sabar probably wants the amateurs to shine. (Carlson would have actually shined fine in this light, since he was a patent attorney when working on Gospel Hoax; he enrolled in a biblical-studies graduate program only after debunking Secret Mark.)

On the other hand, Dr. Christian Askeland gets his proper due, as the one who exposed the Coptic John fragment to be a fake. This fragment was in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment, and — only two weeks after King’s article was published — Askeland realized something just as stunning and hilarious as the typo spotted by Bernhard. If the Coptic John fragment was the product of an ancient scribe, the scribe had once again projected his psyche centuries into the future, and copied from an available online pdf, and then got careless in covering his tracks. This time he replicated a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest Coptic copy of John). See here for an illustration.

So, just as the Jesus-Wife fragment reproduced typos from a modern interlinear of Thomas (which Bernhard spotted in October 2012), the Coptic John fragment displayed a typesetting format from a modern translation of John (which Askeland saw in April 2014). Sabar notes that Askeland took his ground-breaking find not to a newspaper, but to the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog, and then promptly got himself into hot water for having the blog run his article entitled, “Jesus Had an Ugly Sister-in-Law”. The use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppily forged text was evidently too much for some people who cried foul, sexism, or even outright misogyny (all horseshit accusations, in my opinion, and a pathetic deflection from the issue at hand). Askeland is also in bed with the Hobby Lobby crowd, who are no friends of mine, but tribalism is the worst trap to fall into. Sabar observes that “Askeland’s job with the Green Scholars Initiative made him an easy target for King’s supporters, who sought to discount his findings as evangelically driven. But King, it turned out, had also taken money from affluent culture warriors (p 297).” Forgeries are forgeries no matter what tribe you belong to. The fact is that Askeland’s findings spoke for themselves and were unshakable.

But then so were Andrew Bernhard’s back in October 2012. King found Bernhard easy to ignore though, since he was a non-specialist who published his findings on blogs and personal websites. In the long run this hurt King all the more. By ignoring the amateur Bernhard, assembling an unethical team of experts to test the fragment, and finally publish her “prestigious” article — only to be hit two weeks later with Askeland’s discovery confirming Bernard’s — the liabilities were piling up. As Sabar says, “Truths hounded in basements might take long to find their way into the ivory tower, but they get there eventually (p 144).” And the longer the delay, the harder those accumulated truths hit.

Unveiling Walter Fritz

Everyone and their mother has known since the publication of Sabar’s article in The Atlantic Monthly (June 15, 2016) that Walter Fritz is the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment. But there’s a hell of a lot more of his background presented in Veritas than in the Atlantic article. Years of investigative work on Sabar’s part yield a biography of the man that goes well beyond adjectives like “colorful”.

The highlights of Fritz’s life, as chronicled by Sabar (much of it out of sequence) can be summarized linearly as follows: He was allegedly (and quite plausibly) sodomized by a Catholic priest at the age of nine (1974). He enrolled in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin (1988), where he disdained fellow students as inferiors. He published a scholarly article (1991) in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argued that the Pharaohs Akhenaten and his father Amenhotep III had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article pissed off his instructor Jurgen Osing, who considered it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanished from campus, and never earned his degree. Later that year he was hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin, and was soon castigated by the board of directors for poor management and missing items suspected to be stolen. He resigned (1992), and soon after hooked up with a low-IQ mule, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, whom he eventually manipulated into allowing him joint directorship of a metalworking company (1995) that he expanded into Florida and eventually became the sole director of (2001) before it went bankrupt (2002). It is this Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who would become Fritiz’s fall guy (he died in 2002) — the supposed “original owner” of the Coptic fragments that Fritz would peddle onto Karen King.

Walter Fritz drank theology that cut against the Catholic church, and actualized his unorthodoxy in sex and pornography. Only a month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code (2003) he launched pornographic websites that showed his wife (an American woman he recently married) having sex with shitloads of other men, sometimes with multiple men at the same time. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.) On a fetish blog his wife proudly announced that she “fucks as many men as possible” (2005), as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz unreservedly supported his wife’s libertinism, stating that while he likes “being dominant and using women”, he also enjoys being used by them in turn so that he can know the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.

On her many websites, Fritz’s wife praised sluthood as nothing less than the key to the kingdom of God. She wrote poems to sluthood and aligned them with Jesus’s teachings according to the ancient gnostics: “If we were able to find out the nature of our own reality (the part that exists and is immortal), we may have a chance of finding the reality of the world as well. That’s why Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’ It means: find your own reality within, then you will know it all.” Applied to orgiastic sex, the Fritzes had found salvation through slutty gang bangs.

Things got bad for Fritz and his wife during the Great Recession, causing Fritz to put his home on the market for sale (2009). He wrote nasty letters to the editor, demanding that city employees be laid off or take drastic salary reductions. His financial woes seem to have been the trigger for launching his hoax at Harvard… but of course things are never quite that simple.

Fritz’s Motive(s) in Forging the Jesus-Wife Fragment

Here’s how Sabar describes Fritz. He was

“a sycophant with a salesman’s silver tongue. He traveled to Egypt, had access to ink-making ingredients and a large papyrus collection, and was clever enough to decipher a damaged hieroglyphic text for a scholarly journal. Yet for all his talent and ambition, he was stymied by a language — Coptic — and a professor — Osing — and he quit before earning the most basic of degrees. Such a background could well explain the ‘combination of bumbling and sophistication’ that Karen King had deemed ‘extremely unlikely’ in a forger… But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive? Greed — or simply financial need — inspires many forgers, and by 2010 Fritz’s assets and income appeared to have taken a beating. But the facts didn’t entirely square with this theory. The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife may have wanted to get rich, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He had agreed to loan the Wife papyrus to Harvard for a decade, even after the university rejected his proposed deal — that the school buy his other papyri in exchange for his donation of the Wife papyrus… Other motivations seemed just as viable. By all accounts, Fritz had seen his Egyptology dreams thwarted. He might well have nursed a grudge against the elite scholars who had failed to appreciate his intellectual gifts — who had told him he was mediocre at Coptic and short on original ideas. Not a few forgers have been driven by an impulse to show up the experts. A yearning to settle scores might have intensified at a time when Fritz — beset by joblessness, corporate bankrupticies and an unsellable house — found his life in free fall.” (p 187)

Walter Fritz, then, would represent a cross between Konrad Kujau and Morton Smith, a forger who (a) commits fraud for money and (b) orchestrates a hoax to make scholars look like fools. But there could also have been a third motive in play. As described later in the book, Fritz claims to have been raped by a priest when he was nine years old, and Sabar’s detective work on this front shows that claim to be very plausible. The Jesus-Wife hoax could have been — at least in part — a “Fuck You” to a church that deeply wronged him, and to which he reacted against (with his slut-proud hotwife) in “master and servant” sex acts.

I was drawn at this point in Sabar’s book to compare Walter Fritz very strongly to Morton Smith. Obviously Smith was a brilliant scholar (unlike the wannabe Fritz), but like Fritz he had the rare combination of skills to forge what he needed to forge, and similar motives. Secret Mark was created at a time in Smith’s career when he was denied tenure at Brown, and few appreciated his talents, even though he was (again, unlike Fritz) a brilliant scholar. Smith was a priest-turned-atheist, and he developed theories way ahead of his time. (Biblical studies in the ’50s was still largely confessionally driven, and hadn’t become the sophisticated and interdisciplinary field we know today.) Smith’s anger at the homophobia of the ’50s, his resentment of the academy, and his nasty sense of humor all combined in one of the most successful literary hoaxes of all time. In his profile of Smith, Peter Jeffery notes how motives can reinforce one another even as they undermine, and be more effective for it:

“One of the slippery things about the whole Mar Saba venture — both the ‘original’ document and Smith’s various publications on it — is that there seem to be three messages, which shift in and out of focus depending on how one looks at it, and which tend to undermine each other. First of all, Smith clearly wanted us to believe he had discovered major new evidence that Jesus approved of homosexuality — even engaged in it, even imbued it with religious significance… But how could we take Smith’s proposal seriously when, on closer scrutiny, it keeps dissolving into dirty jokes?… But then, just as we are about to dismiss the whole thing as a prank — lewd, crude, and facetious — the humor fades into hostility. All the experts and eminences whose endorsements Smith claimed to have obtained, and all the other scholars who became convinced that he had discovered a genuine ancient writing, will have good reason to feel abused, more than amused, by the whole sordid mess — arguably the most grandiose and reticulated ‘Fuck You’ ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship. Were all three messages equally intended? Did Smith fully realize what he was doing?” (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242)

We can likewise ask: Did Fritz fully realize what he was doing on July 9, 2010, when he contacted Karen King for the first time? It was only a day after his furious letter to the editor, in which he ranted about economic hardships; it was only months after his letters to Pope Benedict describing his rape by a priest when he was a kid, with still no reply from Rome; it was years after dropping out of the university and being derided as a plagiarist with no original ideas — but there’s really no expiration date on that sort of thing when it makes you a loser for life, and you have the superiority complex of Walter Fritz. I suspect all three of these motives — financial need, hatred of the Catholic church, and the thrill of making fools of tools like Karen King — drove Fritz to do what he did.

The Fate of Harvard Divinity: The Crisis of 2009-2011

One thing kept eating at me through Veritas. Why did Karen King ignore Walter Fritz for so long before finally taking his bait? He first emailed her on July 9, 2010, describing the Coptic fragments he wanted to sell. She didn’t reply until almost a year later, on June 25, 2011, and that was to tell him she wasn’t interested. Then, four months after that, on October 15, she suddenly had a change of heart. Why fifteen whole months before she bit?

I was beginning to think this would remain an unanswered question until I got well into the final act of the book. Sabar describes a crisis on Harvard Divinity — a long wave of complaints starting in 2009 about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, causing many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. By late 2011, Harvard President Drew Faust planned to bring in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Theology and religious studies might split into separate departments, as at other universities. The strongest resisters of this, ironically, came from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity.

Karen King would have been in this camp advocating the status quo. She wasn’t a fan of fact-driven scholarship — or “fact fundamentalism”, as she often put it — to the extent that in an almost-surreal dispute with a colleague (Hal Taussig) over the Diary of Perpetua, “Taussig the pastor insisted on historical defensibility, while King, the historian, was treating dates as adjustable furniture” (p 320). (The Diary of Perpetua was a favorite text of King’s, and she was trying to get a committee of scholars to include it in a “New New Testament” they were putting together, but it didn’t fit the committee’s criterion of pre-175 AD date boundary; King wanted an exception made for this text that she liked so much.)

According to Sabar, on October 13, 2011, President Faust sent an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she was bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. There was a strong reaction from those who favored the status quo. Two days later, on October 15, Karen King — after fifteen whole months of showing no interest in Fritz’s sales pitches — contacted Fritz and told him that she had reconsidered his offer, and wanted the Jesus-Wife fragment after all. Sabar interprets this remarkable change of heart:

“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, I came to believe, was King’s boldest intervention, a daring play for survival in a time of uncertainty. King had earned her degrees in traditional departments of religious studies, at the University of Montana and Brown; they were the sorts that Faust’s panel had held up as models for a secular institution as eminent as Harvard. But for King, Harvard Divinity School had become a more congenial home. The school was a kind of Ivy-fringed Jesus Seminar, peopled by no small number of scholars for whom reason and faith were mutually reinforcing.” (p 318)

King had been strongly influenced by Bob Funk — creator of the liberal Jesus Seminar, and inflamed with the same degree of religious zeal as the evangelicals he despised — so I can readily buy this.

And so we have it. What opened the door to the whole fiasco was a divinity school in crisis. If Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, then the divinity department (and King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment must have seemed a godsend for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship.

Timeline

Sabar’s book is well written and plotted, but keeping track of the chronology of events is a challenge because his tale is non-linear. I’ve created a timeline for convenience, and so readers can see, in some cases, how one seemingly unrelated event leads into another and explains it.

 

Date Event
1974
Walter Fritz, at nine years old, is allegedly raped and sodomized by a priest in the town of Bad Wurzach.
1988
Fritz enrolls in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin.
1991
Fritz publishes a scholarly article in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argues that the Pharaoh Akhenaton and his father had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article angers Jurgen Osing, who considers it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s Egyptian history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanishes from campus forever, without finishing his degree.
November 1991
Fritz is hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin.
March 1992
The Stasi Museum’s board members question Fritz on missing valuables in the museum. Soon after, in the spring, Fritz resigns from the museum, possibly due to being threatened by a museum volunteer named Wolfgang Veith. (Fritz may have stumbled on Veith’s stash of child pornography that eventually sent Veith to prison in 1995.)
Spring 1992
Sometime after leaving the museum, Fritz meets Hans-Ulrich Laukamp in a steam room, and strikes up a friendship with him. (Laukamp will eventually become Fritz’s fall guy as the “original owner” of the Jesus-Wife fragment.)
1993
Fritz comes to Florida.
1995
Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and his friend Axel Herzsprung found ACMB Metallbearbeitung GmbH (ACMB Metalworking), and become overnight wealthy.
1997
Laukamp buys a holiday house in Venice, Florida.
December 23, 1999
At the instigation of Fritz, ACMB incorporates an American branch in Florida, with no ostensible clients. ACMB now stands for American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks, and Fritz is a director along with Laukamp and Herzsprung.
January 8, 2001 Fritz signs a government form striking Laukamp and Herzsprung from their directorships of the Florida ACMB. On the same day Fritz acquires a three-acre piece of property in North Port (30 minutes away from Venice).
March 2001
Fritz builds a home on his property in North Port and marries an American woman, who becomes his hotwife glorifying sluthood.
August 2002 ACMB files for bankruptcy.
January 2003 Death of Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, from lung cancer.
April 2003 A month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Fritz launches a series of pornographic websites, showing his wife having sex with many other men. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.)
2005 On a fetish blog, Jenny Seemore (the hotwife name for Fritz’s wife) says she “fucks as many men as possible” as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz, for his part, states that he enjoys “being dominant and using women”, but also being used in turn by women and knowing the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.
Spring 2009
In the midst of the Great Recession, Fritz puts his house in North Port on the market.
August 31, 2009
On one of her blogs, Fritz’s wife advertises pendants for the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, accompanied by small papyri fragments of Christian writings in Coptic. She “guarantees” the papyri date to the second century. (Coptic emerged as a written language in the third century). By this point, she and Fritz are clearly contemplating the peddling of fake papyri for profit.
January 2010
The legacy of Catholic clergy abuse erupts in Germany, with many Jesuit students reporting that they were molested by priests in the ’70s and ’80s. Pope Benedict comes under fire in the media for his history of shielding pedophiles in the clergy.
April 29, 2010
Fritz writes a letter to Pope Benedict describing how he was raped and sodomized by a priest when he was nine.
July 8, 2010
Fritz’s house remains unsold after over a year. His furious letter to the editor is published in the North Port Sun, in which he demands layoffs at North Port City Hall, and drastic salary reductions for other city employees.
July 9, 2010
A day after Fritz’s nasty letter to the editor is published, he sends his first email to Karen King, saying that he has a set of Coptic fragments that he is willing to sell. (This is also 10 weeks after reporting his alleged rape in 1974 to Pope Benedict, but still without any reply from the Vatican.)
Later July, 2010
Attending a conference in Berlin, King receives a second email from Fritz. She responds to him for the first time, saying that she’s busy, but asks him where he obtained the Coptic fragments. He replies, saying that he purchased them from a German American [Hans Ulrich Laukamp] in the ’90s.
June 25, 2011 After ignoring Fritz for almost a year, Karen King contacts him and writes that she’s not interested in his collection of Coptic fragments.
June 26, 2011
Fritz, desperate, replies to King, telling her that a European manuscript dealer has “right now” offered him a sum “almost too good to be true”. If she doesn’t move fast, his papyrus might move into a private collection for good, and never be seen by anyone. King continues to ignore him (until October 15).
October 13, 2011
Harvard President Drew Faust sends an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she is bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Her decision comes after a long wave of complaints about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, which has caused many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. Faust is entertaining the splitting of theology and religious studies into separate departments (as at other universities) and the strongest resisters of this, ironically, come from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity. Karen King is in this camp for maintaining the status quo. She is not a fan of fact-driven scholarship (or “fact fundamentalism”, as she puts it), and if a secular religious studies were to be created at Harvard, the divinity school’s prestige (and hers) would be greatly diminished.
October 15, 2011 Two days after Drew Faust announces an outside investigation that threatens the future of the Harvard Divinity School, King contacts Fritz and tells him that she has reconsidered his offer after all. She tells Fritz that she will make arrangements to date the fragment so that she can publish the discovery. [She agrees to preserve his anonymity. No one will learn that Fritz is her source until Ariel Sabar uncovers Fritz in his investigation in late 2015.]
October 24, 2011
In his New York apartment, Roger Bagnall hosts a meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by his colleague and friend Karen King. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) is present along with eight papyrologists. All are initially skeptical, but then strangely reverse themselves, seeing the forgery tells as marks of authenticity. (They seem to have used a variant of the criterion of embarrassment: “surely no one would forge something that looked this obviously fake”; “a forger would have surely tried harder”; etc.)
December 14, 2011 Fritz comes to Harvard and gives Karen King the Coptic fragments, with the sales contracts showing Hans Ulrich Laukamp as the previous owner.
March 12, 2012 King, Bagnall, and Luijendijk meet in New York with other scholars to examine the physical fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife. Bagnall dates it to the 4th century AD, and speculates that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.
July 25, 2012 King speaks to the press at Harvard, saying that she believes the fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife can be dated to the 2nd century AD.
August 10, 2012 King submits her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review, and also sends a copy of the article to the Smithsonian Channel. On the same day, the editors of The Harvard Theological Review ask Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article. The journalist Ariel Sabar, who is covering the story, asks King if he might interview the collector who gave her the fragment, but she protects Fritz’s anonymity. [Who Fritz is, where he lives, and what he does will remain a mystery until late 2015.]
August 26, 2012 Fritz registers the domain name “www.gospelofjesuswife.com”.
August 29, 2012 In a journal entry, Fritz’s wife writes, “Knowledge as you know, is what brings forth the fortune. For all the Bibles and all the churches in the entire world, cannot give you what you can give to yourself.” [This entry will appear among many others in her self-published book of “universal truths” in 2015. In the book, Fritz’s wife will claim that God and the arch-angel Michael speak directly through her. The dates of the book’s entries align with Fritz’s overtures to Karen King throughout 2010-2012. The 8/29/12 entry is the next-to-last, mere weeks before King’s announcement in Rome.]
September 18, 2012
King announces the discovery of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus in Rome. A media furor erupts the next day.
September 21, 2012
Francis Watson wastes no time demonstrating that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of texts from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.
September 25, 2012
Fritz begins changing the street addresses to which his porn sites are registered.
October 11, 2012 Andrew Bernard shows that the Jesus-Wife fragment was copied from Mike Grondin’s interlinear, which has been available online. The interlinear has contained a typo since 2002, and the Jesus-Wife fragment has the same typo.
April 10, 2014
After over a year of silence — and despite the glaring forgery tells, especially those flagged by Andrew Bernhard — The Harvard Theological Review publishes Karen King’s article, which argues that scientific tests have “proven” the JW fragment to be authentic. (In fact the radiocarbon tests have dated the papyrus itself to only the 8th century medieval period, not the ancient period; and the ink and material tests are inconclusive.) The journal also publishes a scathing rebuttal of King’s article by Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University.
April 24, 2014
Two weeks after King’s article is published, Christian Askeland shows that a papyrus in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment (a Coptic version of the Gospel of John) has the same handwriting of the Jesus-Wife fragment, and replicates a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest surviving Coptic translation of John), which is accessible online.
August 28, 2015
Soon after King makes Fritz’s interlinear available online — the interlinear that he gave her along with the forged fragments years ago — Andrew Bernhard shows that the transcription is undeniably a reiteration of Mike Grondin’s interlinear.
November 2015
Journalist Ariel Sabar contacts Fritz for the first time. Fritz denies that he is the owner of the JW fragment.
December 2015
As scrutiny of the Jesus-Wife fragment revs up again, all of Fritz’s porn websites go dark.
January 2016 Sabar finds the first hard evidence linking Fritz to the Jesus-Wife fragment (his registering the domain name “www.gospelofjesuswife.com” back in 2012) and The Atlantic sends him to Germany for more research.
March 2016
Sabar calls Fritz after finishing his research in Germany. Fritz still denies being the owner, or having forged, the Jesus-Wife fragment, but speaks in quasi-confessional roundabout ways.
March 21, 2016
Fritz admits to Sabar that he is the owner of the Jesus-Wife fragment, sating that “neither I, nor any third parties have forged, altered, or manipulated the fragment and/or its inscription in any way since it was acquired by me”; and that “the previous owner gave no indications that the fragment was tampered with either”.
April 9, 2016
Sabar and Fritz meet face to face.
June 15, 2016
The Atlantic Monthly publishes Ariel Sabar’s article which unveils Walter Fritz as the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment.
June 16, 2016
King concedes that Ariel Sabar’s article “tips the balance towards forgery”.
August 11, 2020 Doubleday publishes Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas, reviewed in this blogpost.

 

A Fundamentalist argument against Racism (from the bible and DNA)

Pastor Steven Anderson, who believes that gay people should be executed by a righteous government, is also passionately anti-racist: “I’m probably the most non-racist person you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life,” he says. “If half of this nation was Hispanic, or if 75% of this nation was Hispanic, or if 99% was Hispanic, or black, or anything, I would be thrilled.” I suppose it’s a consolation that Anderson is enlightened on some issues.

Just as he easily justifies his homophobia from the bible, so too he proves that racism is anathema in the eyes of God. “If you are a racist person, you need to get right with God,” says Anderson. Here are the essential points from his recent sermon:

1. Racism has always been around and always will be around. Despite our progressive efforts to rid of ourselves of institutionalized racism, it is natural (sinful) for human beings to think tribally, and that “their group” is better than another. Witness the “segregated dining hall” phenomenon in Genesis, where the Egyptians refuse to eat with the “dirty Hebrews”:

“And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves: because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians” (Gen 43:32).

Also the famous “segregated dining hall” at Antioch, where Peter capitulated to the men of James, who believed that uncircumcised Gentiles shouldn’t mix with Jews at the same table:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” (Gal 2:11-13)

“Whether it’s Egyptians or Jews or whoever,” says Anderson, “it’s easy to demonstrate that through every phase of human history, on every continent, one nationality has puffed itself up against another. This is part of the sinful nature of humanity. You don’t have to teach your kids to be racist. You have to teach them not to be racist.”

2. God, however, is not impressed by anyone’s nationality or ethnicity; it means nothing to Him — indeed, less than nothing. “All nations before him are as nothing. And they are counted to Him less than nothing and vanity.” (Isa 40:17) “How do you get ‘less than nothing’?” asks Anderson. “The bible was ahead of its time.”

3. The heroes of the bible were never troubled by “mixed” or “interracial” marriages. Abraham had a child with Hagar the Egyptian; Judah was married to a Canaanite; Joseph was married to an Egyptian. Most notably, Moses married a black woman (a Cushite/Ethiopian), and when Aaron and Miriam got angry about that marriage, God explicitly took Moses’s side, going so far as to strike Miriam with leprosy for her racist attitude (Num 12:1-12).

4. Even in general, the Hebrews didn’t take much care to keep their “bloodline pure”. See Ezra 10:18-44, where the priests, levites, and Israelites all married foreign women.

5. The idea of any “pure bloodline” is a myth in any case. Anderson invokes ancestry tests which prove how mixed everyone’s DNA is. In Anderson’s case, his top three DNA matches are (1) Moroccan Berber, (2) Spanish, and (3) Arab — even though he was raised to believe that he was mostly Swedish. Anderson’s father has “Alabama black” in his DNA chart. Etc. Scientifically speaking, “race” is an illusion.

6. And why would you be proud of your race to begin with, when you did literally nothing to achieve it?” Or, as the apostle Paul said: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (I Cor 4:7). “Why,” asks Anderson, “are you glorying in something that happened to you automatically, that you had no control over? Losers take pride in their ethnicity since they have no actual achievements.”

7. Those “in Christ” derive their identity from precisely that, not ethnicity. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:27-29) Anderson concludes the sermon by saying that he has rebuked many people for being racist — black people for playing the victim card, white people for their sense of privilege — and he will continue to so, especially in his church, which God intends as a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mk 11:17).

From an exegetical point of view, some of Anderson’s points are more convincing than others. But from a fundamentalist point of view, he deserves credit for representing the clear pattern in the Old and New Testaments which show God as a respecter of no one’s ethnic background. He may have chosen the nation Israel to play a special role in the OT, but the deity didn’t favor the Hebrews or Israelites as a race or ethnicity or for how they look or appear.

I find the example of Moses and his Cushite wife (in point 3) very interesting, but I’m not as confident as Anderson that Aaron and Miriam objected to Moses’ marriage out of racist attitudes for a black woman. That could be what’s implied, but scholars seem divided on that point.

(Note that Anderson has also sermonized on behalf of immigrants (and fervently against Donald Trump), showing how the bible is pro-immigration.)

Jericho Walkers: Ancient and Modern

There’s been a lot of noise about Donald Trump’s supposed “Jericho Walk” a few days ago, when he visited St. John’s Church (the Church of the Presidents) across from the White House. The police used tear gas to drive away protesters, and church leaders denounced Trump for turning holy ground into a battleground. Trump devotees, on the other hand, praised him for his righteous “Jericho Walk”. But what does a Jericho Walk refer to?

A Jericho Walk is a ritualized march, enacted so that God will intercede, protect, or change something dramatically. It’s patterned on Joshua’s silent march around the city of Jericho for six days straight (Joshua 6) until the walls miraculously fell flat to the ground, allowing the Israelites entry into the city. A legendary account to be sure, but regardless of how historical it is, the Israelites and later Jews believed it was historical — as historical as Moses’ parting of the Red Sea.

It’s puzzling that anyone would call Trump’s visit to St. John’s a Jericho Walk. By the first century, it was Jewish underdogs who led such marches. They were prophets who ritually reenacted the various acts of exodus from slavery and arrival in the promised land. Every time these marches happened, the prophets and protesters were rounded up, and either slaughtered or imprisoned by the Romans.

For example, there is the case of Theudas (sometime between 44-46 AD) who fired up the masses to follow him to the Jordan River, which he promised to part, just as Moses had parted the Red Sea 1700 years before (Exodus 14-15), and as Joshua subsequently parted the Jordan upon beginning the conquest of Israel (Joshua 3).

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded the majority of the masses to take their possessions and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government. (Antiquities 20:978-98)

Palestine under Roman rule was oppressive, and to many Jews their promised land had become a new Egypt. By promising to part the Jordan River, Theudas was copying Moses and Joshua: he would lead a new exodus out of Palestine, across the Jordan River, and into the desert, where God would perform some miraculous event to liberate the Jewish people from Roman rule. Theudas was no more a violent insurrectionist than Jesus of Nazareth; he doubtfully had plans to lead the masses back into Palestine for a violent “reconquest” of the promised land. Like most prophets he left violence and vengeance to God. But the Romans took no chances. Large-scale protests like this were politically loaded and catalyzed the more violent movements led by bandits and would-be messiahs. Sort of like the way today’s peaceful protesters of George Floyd’s death have triggered the more violent and reprehensible riots. Theudas got his head chopped off accordingly; today’s peaceful protesters are tear gassed, associated and conflated with rioters.

Another example is the unnamed Egyptian prophet (from the 50s AD) who gathered followers and preached that he would topple the walls of Jerusalem:

Moreover, there came to Jerusalem from Egypt a man who declared that he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, which lay over against the city. He said that at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, through which he promised to provide them an entry into the city. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight; but did not appear any more. (Antiquities 20: 169-171)

The Egyptian prophet was reenacting Joshua’s “Jericho Walk”, by marching around the walls of Jerusalem, after which they were supposed to miraculously fall down. Another peaceful protest (leaving violence and vengeance to God), but the Romans didn’t care; they killed and captured hundreds of these Jericho Walkers, though the Egyptian himself managed to escape.

To call Donald Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church a Jericho Walk is backwards in the extreme. It is the peaceful protestors (though not the rioters) in the Black Lives Matter movement who have been engaging in what could legitimately be considered “Jericho Walks”. Trump is Caesar, and quite the opposite of a Jericho-Walker. Those protesting the death of George Floyd are crying out against systematic oppression — just as Theudas and the Egyptian had done by their ritualized imitations of Moses and Joshua.

The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.

Revelations: The Book of Revelation Applied to the Other 65 Books of the Bible

If I’d known adventure scenarios like this existed, I would have widened my scope beyond D&D a long time ago. Revelations brings the bible to life in a horridly twisted version of the apocalypse. The PCs will basically live the book of Revelation applied retroactively to the other 65 books of the bible. If that sounds confusing, read on. If it sounds messed up, it is. If it sounds like a nihilistic death scenario, it’s that too: PCs have a 90-99% of dying as the world goes to hell around them, and they can’t do a damn thing about it. Unless they’re really good.

The adventure is set in the small town of Toil, Illinois in 1938. The Dust Bowl setting and the time of the Depression is perfectly suited for what appears to be the biblical end times. Revelations is about the crushing despair triggered by a preacher’s loss of faith, and the devastating consequences of his attempt to make God active in the world as He was in biblical times. Stop reading now if you think you might play this. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only.

How did the end begin?

The backstory is the tragedy of Andrew Yearta. Andrew is a King-James-Bible-only fundamentalist preacher who believes God has deserted humanity. While biblical scholars and theologians speak of “Remnant Theology”, Andrew has formulated a “Deserter Theology”: that humanity’s sins have so offended the Lord that He has entirely given up on creation. God doesn’t even bother punishing the wicked anymore; there is no salvation to be had for anyone, let alone a faithful remnant. The parental love that sent Noah’s flood is dried up; God has washed His hands of humankind.

Andrew, in his insanity, believes that his own recent sin (fornicating with a young woman) was the straw that broke the camel’s back — the final sin that damned humanity. Instead of showing His love through apocalyptic rebuke, God simply wiped Himself from existence, removing his love and forgiveness from the world. Andrew thus believes that he is the slayer of his own God, and must therefore become the prophet of His resurrection. In desperation and despair, he launches an incredibly obscene plan to “bring God back”. He summons a Cthulhu-like god (Noought-Iss), binds it in a hideous ritual, and molds it into a devastating parody of the Judeo-Christian God. In this way, Andrew hopes to piss off Yahweh, make Him jealous, and provoke His return so that Biblical Truth can again hold sway in the world.

Andrew would infuriate his God back into existence by his blasphemous gall — by worshiping something so abhorrent and base that it escaped the notice of even the most brutal pagans. Thus, in an attempt to save his own soul, Andrew Yearta made Earth a living Hell.”

Andrew does this by sacrificing an innocent farmer and his family (by mutilating and dismembering them), and then casting a spell from an obscure tome found at a college divinity school — nominally a school for biblical studies, but one that also explores the theology of bizarre and heretical texts. The tome in question was written by a certain Klaus von Meinhoff, a German linguist in the early 1800s, who dealt with forbidden knowledge and realized that the god-creature Noought-Iss is the primary catalyst of all existence. Andrew Yearta tapped into this forbidden knowledge, to channel Noought-Iss into a copy of the King James Bible:

“Andrew has used what von Meinhoff called the ‘Objective Tongue’ to bind Noought-Iss to his will. Rather than serving as the bridge between all that IS NOT and all that IS, he has performed a sick, profane ritual that focuses Noought-Iss on a single copy of the King James Bible. His insane hope is that Noought-Iss will then rewrite his ‘Deserter God’ back into existence and save the doomed souls of mankind.”

The problem is that Noought-Iss is not meant for a task like this. The “god’s” intellect, if it has one, is cold and alien. It has no concern for humanity’s survival; no understanding of historical context, subjective interpretation, or inter-textuality. For Noought-Iss to attempt a feat like this would rewrite the laws of reality and result in an explosive apocalyptic nightmare. Reality would become a perversion of everything that happens in the King James Bible:

“Every line of the King James Bible is now being used as the code for a new reality, applied literally and without any regard for possible contradictions. The incongruities are tearing existence apart. Noought-Iss’ chaotic, bloody application of the new reality is causing existence itself to collapse.”

And so the skies are raining hail and fire (Rev 8:7); mobs are slitting people’s throats to perform sin offerings (Lev 10:12-20); people are eating ash as if it were bread and weeping hysterically (Ps 102: 9); other people are eating actual bread, but the loaves are turning to flesh that pulsate with sweaty skin and spurt blood when eaten (I Cor 11:23-32); frenzied worshipers, as they rave about the end of days, clamor to rip chunks from that living bread and guzzle bottles of blood; the weak are becoming slaves on the spot and obeying their new masters (Eph 6:5); the ten plagues of Egypt are decimating life everywhere; and countless other horrors that have been shifted and twisted from every page of the bible.

It’s like living the book of Revelation retroactively applied to the other 65 books of the bible.

Of course, not everything in the bible is bad, and much of what has been translated into existence is harmless, or even beneficial. There is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) outside the agricultural supply store, with fruit that magically heals all physical wounds, insanity, or any mental illness. The grocery store has an endless supply of bread and tuna (Mk 6:41): when a loaf is removed from the shelf, another takes its place; a single can of tuna could feed the entire town, as there is always more tuna in the can. But whatever is beneficial or mundane is hardly noticed under all the calamity.

The earth is now flat, thanks to Rev 7:1: “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth”. When Noought-Iss made reality of those words, the result was a victory for flat-earthers (if they can live to enjoy it).

The PCs run around town in vain, witnessing horrors on every block, unable to do anything beyond helping an occasional victim. Indeed, the module encourages that the PCs (1) embrace their destruction: the scenario is apocalyptic, and so no one will win; at best, a few might survive. And to (2) accept their ignorance: the atmosphere of the module is one of escalating, unstoppable doom; players should expect not a shred of hand-holding from the game master; the apocalypse plays no favorites. And to (3) enjoy their fall: in good, nihilistic Call-of-Cthulhu fashion.

Impossible to stop?

The apocalypse can be stopped, and Noought-Iss banished back to his base state, but it will take an extremely shrewd group of players, and an altruistic PC. The solution is found at the farm at the western edge of town where Andrew sacrificed the innocent family and conducted his obscene ritual. At the farm the PCs will find an altar made of the family’s corpses:

“Disemboweled and dismembered, the farmer’s wife and children have been arranged into concentric circles around what appears at first to be a miniature tornado. In the eye of the storm, somehow contained by the human remains, a single leather bound book appears to float.”

That book is the King James Bible, and removing it from the vortex will stop the apocalypse. But that’s easier said than done:

“The bible appears to swirl in the vortex, but at the same times it blinks into the shimmering text of the word ‘book’ or ‘truth.’ The words written in the wind just as suddenly translate into hundreds of other languages, shriek the sound of those words, expand into verses that whip around, a dizzying flurry of language, sound, and raw meaning. Beholding the thing as it sprawls into every realm of perception simultaneously is maddening, and approaching the bloody nexus just makes things worse. Characters can feel their skin turn into the mere idea of skin. Each outstretched finger becomes the word ‘finger,’ letters curling away and being ripped into the maelstrom surrounding the book. To reach into the circle flays the body and mind at once, and there is no hope for any who dare to physically touch the nothingness that is Noought-Iss.”

To unmake the apocalypse and return Noought-Iss to his base state, one of the PCs must dislodge the bible from the vortex — which will irrevocably destroy the character’s body, mind, and soul. It’s an automatic act of suicide/martyrdom, and if one of the PCs makes this sacrifice, then he or she is unmade before the other PCs’ eyes. But with the book wrenched free, the day is saved: Noought-Iss expands outward to encompass all and everything again, and the events of the last day suddenly never were.

Which means that everyone who died under the perverted biblical apocalypse is completely fine and ignorant. All are alive and safe — except the person who removed the bible from the vortex. All traces of that hero have been erased from the world. There are no records of the character having ever existed; family and friends of the PC don’t recognize his or her name if mentioned. No one remembers the apocalypse happening, except for survivors who witnessed the removal of the King James Bible. They do remember everything, since it was their perception of the book’s removal that allowed normality to be restored. They live on as scarred witnesses (some of them may be insane by the end), and they must decide what to do with preacher Andrew Yearta, who is also alive and well. He could very well try casting the spell again. Since he doesn’t remember ever having done so, that is probably exactly what he will do… to infuriate his God back into existence…

Learning the Solution

I can guess what you’re thinking. Stopping the end of the world sounds rather easy: one of the players must simply become a martyr and remove the bible from the vortex. But why would any of them think to do that? The PCs will have no idea this bible is the source of the apocalypse. (For that matter, they may not know anything about Andrew Yearta, who is dead at home, unless they’ve searched his house.) There’s crazy shit to be seen everywhere in town; a bible floating inside a mini-tornado surrounded by a hacked up family is just par for the course. The question isn’t so much, “Will a PC be willing to sacrifice him or herself to remove the bible from the vortex?”, but rather, “Why would a PC try?”

There are two places where the PCs can learn the nature of what’s going on. The first is in Andrew Yearta’s house. Andrew himself is dead, having drunk the toxic “eucharist” wine appearing in bottles all over town. In his bedroom can be found the German tome (by Klaus von Meinhoff), which takes considerable time to read through and make sense of — and that’s assuming at least one of the PCs knows German. But there are also Andrew’s journals and notes, written in English, which describe Noought-Iss’ powers and what the preacher hoped to accomplish by channeling him through a King James Bible.

The second way to learn the truth is much more easy, though instantly fatal. Just as there is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) at the agricultural shop, there is a Tree of Knowledge (Gen 2:17) by the river running through the town. While the Tree of Life is beneficial, the Tree of Knowledge is beneficial and fatally terrifying at once:

“As this is the Tree of Knowledge, anyone eating of the fruit will get just that: Knowledge. Of everything. All at once. The omnipotence provided by the fruit is mind-meltingly powerful and utterly deadly. Characters eating of the fruit are doomed to a writhing, poisonous death on the ground, but they will learn all about preacher Andrew Yearta, the god Noought-Iss, and how to stop what is happening around town. Essentially the player is granted access to all GM information about the plot, and then told that they are very soon to die. What remains to be seen is if eater of the forbidden fruit will be able to convey this information to someone else before dying in agony from internal hemorrhaging and madness.”

If the PC can convey the solution — removing the bible from the vortex at the farmer’s house — before dying (and that’s a mighty big if), then the group may just succeed in stopping the apocalypse.

Verdict

Revelations is everything demented I could ask for in a horror module. It’s perfect for Call of Cthulhu, and a special treat for game masters and players who are familiar with the more dramatic elements of the bible, of which there are plenty.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.