Review: The Resurrection of Jesus (The Empty Tomb Revisited)

This 400-page monograph is a reworking of a 177-page essay (that filled half a book, Resurrecting Jesus, 2005), and worth making time for if you have it. It amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection I know of, and covers a lot of interesting ground, but in this post I’ll restrict myself to chapters 6 and 8 (from a total of 18 chapters) which focus on the empty tomb. Allison has revised his arguments, some for the better and others for the worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact.

By way of preface, it’s interesting that Allison describes himself a multiple personality: “pious” (a church-goer who thinks theologically), “critical” (a historian who knows how intrusive theology can be), “skeptical” (about almost everything; a fan of Socrates who knew that he knew nothing), and a “Fortean” (holding that reality is full of surprises and things that resist reasonable explanation) (pp 4-5). But he wrote this book chiefly as a critical historian, trying “to be led to his conclusions rather than being led by them”, and it’s hard to find scholars with this level of integrity on the subject of the resurrection.

The empty tomb as pure legend

Allison weighs eight arguments against the empty tomb as follows:

  1. The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 117-119)
  2. The account is inspired by scripture, especially Dan 6. (pp 119-125)
  3. The words about the women fleeing the tomb, “they said nothing to anyone” (Mk 16:8), is a literary explanation for why no one had heard of the empty tomb before. (pp 125-127)
  4. The account involves the miraculous. (p 128)
  5. Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 129-136)
  6. Mark’s original ending was not about an empty tomb. (pp 136-137)
  7. If people had visions of Jesus and had come to believe in his resurrection, it’s easy to see how an empty tomb legend would have arisen; human beings create religious fictions to justify beliefs all the time. (pp 137-138)
  8. There is remarkable precedent for — indeed, an overwhelming abundance of — legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 138-140)

After going through each one, he concludes (with typos):

“Of the seven eight arguments just introduced, the first five six are, like Jesus’s tomb in the gospels, empty. The sixth seventh, however, cannot be blithely dismissed. Early Christians had the imaginative ability to fabricate fictions on the basis of theological convictions, and on more than one occasion they did so. One of them made up the story in Mt 27:51b-53 (the walking zombies). We can also be fairly confident that the narrative about the guard in Mt 27:62-66 is sheer fiction. The seventh eighth argument impresses me as even more formidable.” (p 140)

(The typos: In Resurrecting Jesus (2005), Allison had considered seven arguments, not eight. Now he includes the one about Mark’s original ending (#6), but didn’t revise the summary to reflect the expanded list.)

I basically agree with how he assesses the eight. The first six are unpersuasive, and I would say that (1), (4), (5), and (6) hardly merit attention at all. Arguments (2) and (3) should be taken seriously, however, and it’s nice to see that Allison has expanded his original rebuttals against them. The obvious difficulty with argument (2) — Dan 6 as the inspiration for the empty tomb — is that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning, while Jesus was not. But Allison demonstrates at length how bankrupt this sort of “parallelomania” is, not least through a personal exercise: as he was editing his work on IV Baruch, for the fun of it, he went hunting for parallels between Mark 14 and IV Baruch 5. He found nine striking similarities. “Seek and you will find. The parallels prove nothing except how simple it is, because of the far reach of coincidence, to compile parallels.” (p 123)

With regards to argument (3) — that the women in Mk 16:8 “said nothing to anyone” is an explanation as to why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known — Allison points out that “they said nothing to anyone” trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 125). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that’s what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to. He notes further (again, expanding his original rebuttal) that Mk 16:8 is probably analogous to Mk 1:44, where Jesus tells a healed leper to “say nothing to anyone”, even though the leper will obviously have to explain himself to the temple establishment where Jesus orders him to go. “Just as 1:44 means ‘say nothing to anyone (except the priests)’, so 16:8 may well mean ‘said nothing to anyone (except his disciples)’.” (p 127)

Allison is right that arguments (7) and (8) are the only decent ones against the historicity of the empty tomb — and they are indeed perfectly plausible. Amusingly, he footnotes the evangelical William Lane Craig: “It is shocking to me that Allison could construe such a priori possibilities based on general background knowledge as constituting a respectable case against the fact of an empty tomb.” (p 140) It is not shocking to me at all, nor in the least bit surprising that Craig would react like this; he probably speaks for many evangelicals.

The empty tomb as historical

Allison weighs eight arguments for the empty tomb as follows, and in this case he ranks them from least to most persuasive:

  1. The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (pp 141-142)
  2. The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 142-145)
  3. Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  4. Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief. (pp 145-146)
  5. The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 146-150)
  6. Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 150-152)
  7. The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented. (pp 152-153)
  8. In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 154-162)

Again, Allison includes a new argument (#7) for a total of eight, and concludes:

“Of our two options — that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the stronger possibility. The two best arguments against the tradition — the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies — while powerful, remain hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential: (a) the short enigmatic story in Mk 16:1-8, which invited so much revision and expansion, looks like a memory Christians sought to upgrade, and (b) the involvement of Mary Magdalene and the women commends itself as nonfiction.” (p 162)

I don’t know about this. I would rank the eight arguments much differently. The two that impress me the most are (3) and (4), not (7) and (8). Let’s go through them (and simply acknowledge that (1), (2), (5), and (6) hardly deserve attention).

Regarding argument (3): The testimony of Paul counts more in favor of an empty tomb than Allison allows. The fact that Paul mentions a burial — “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (I Cor 15:3b-4) — implies to me an allusion to the empty tomb. If Paul believed that Jesus had died and ascended into heaven without his body being resurrected, then Jesus’s burial is irrelevant and intrusive. (Paul would have probably just said, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures”.) To go from “burial” to “resurrection” evokes a tomb being filled and then emptied.

Regarding argument (4): It’s strange that Allison has backpedaled and relegated this to (4), where in Resurrecting Jesus (2005) it was high on his list of persuasive power. He actually still does believe in its persuasive power and argues for his own variant of it; he just doesn’t like the way it’s been deployed by its chief advocate, Tom Wright. He says, “I wish to be perfectly clear here. At the end of the say, I am not far from Wright on this matter. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was the upshot of three stimuli: pre-Easter eschatological expectations, encounters with the postmortem Jesus, and the empty tomb. That is, I do not believe that the appearances themselves did the trick. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that Wright’s argument, in the form that he offers it, should carry the day.” (p 146) I agree that Wright’s logic is flawed (as it almost always is), but Allison acknowledges the idea itself — that post-Easter appearances alone would have doubtfully triggered a resurrection belief — is solid, and so it deserves to be ranked higher. Allison just wants to distance himself from Wright as much as possible (and who can blame him).

As for arguments (7) and (8), I’m nonplussed. They depend on the criterion of embarrassment, and we all know how slippery that goes. (7) is actually the stronger one, on which Allison writes:

“We have here a phenomenon found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition, in places where a memory invited embellishment because a fact seemed problematic. That Judas, one of the twelve, betrayed Jesus was a source of potential embarrassment and so begged for elucidation. We accordingly find texts emphasizing that Jesus was not surprised, that the devil must have possessed Judas, that everything happened in accord with scripture, and that the betrayer came to a miserable end.

Matters are similar with Jesus’s baptism. That Jesus [the “sinless savior”] submitted to a ritual of repentance and forgiveness under the Baptist’s supervision raised uncomfortable questions. The tradition rose to the challenge…

What we find in Jesus’s baptism and Judas’s betrayal is what we find with the story of the empty tomb. Everywhere we discern attempts to head off possible objections and answer difficult questions. It is natural to suppose that, in all three cases, we have a historical memory that invited apologetic massaging.” (p 153)

Maybe. But this business is tricky. “Apologetic massaging” can occur over something that was invented to begin with. What was embarrassing decades after Jesus’s death (when the gospels were written) might not have been as difficult to accept at earlier stages of the movement. I lean towards the view that “embarrassing” accounts in the gospels — rare as they are — may slightly reduce the likelihood that the accounts were invented out of whole cloth, but I’d never rest my case on it without stronger supplements.

And argument (8) is not stronger by a long shot, though Allison has certainly doubled down on it. He sees the testimony of the women who saw the empty tomb to be revealing, in a male-dominated world like the ancient Mediterranean where women had little credibility. It’s thus difficult to believe the gospel writers would have invented “inferior women” being the star witnesses at the empty tomb. But I don’t think the two Marys and Salome would have been embarrassing in the least.

A patriarchal culture can be very welcoming of female heroes. Witness Judith (who decapitated Holofernes, for Christ’s sake), Deborah, Ruth, and other scriptural legacies. The Christian movement was generally favorable to women (by contemporary standards); for every “misogynist” text in Paul’s letters there is one praising the proactive roles of women in his church. It’s true that the legal testimony of women was often deemed worthless in antiquity, but a courtroom setting has no relevance to the empty tomb stories. I see no reason to suppose the accounts of women at the tomb were much embarrassing, if at all.

So here’s how I would re-rank Allison’s eight arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb, from least to most persuasive (the numbers in parenthesis are his rankings):

  1. (8) In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb.
  2. (1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty.
  3. (2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration.
  4. (5) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty.
  5. (6) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed.
  6. (7) The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented.
  7. (3) Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  8. (4) Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief.

What Allison considers the strongest argument I think the weakest (red), and what he considers second strongest I hold to be a moderately fair argument (bold italics). Two of the ones he regards as unpersuasive I do find persuasive (bold) — and so does he, actually, or at least the last one (“visions without a tomb”), as soon as he comfortably distances himself from Wright’s version of it. Here’s how he unpacks it in a later chapter, in a manner different from Wright.

Allison vs. Wright

Allison asks: If Jesus preached apocalyptic woes (which I agree he did), and if at some point he expected to suffer and even die during the eschatological trial (which I think likely), and then, on the last day, to participate in the resurrection of the dead at the same time as everyone else (agreed, only logical), then what might we expect his disciples to think in the days immediately following the crucifixion?

He suggests that some followers of Jesus simply gave up the cause (as often happens in failed millennial movements), while others, especially his closest circle of disciples, revised their expectations to fit what happened (as also often happens in failed millennial movements). But it was a re-interpretation laid over real-world circumstances: “Once they had the report of an empty tomb, and once a few had reportedly seen Jesus, they could begin to believe that God raised him, and that the general resurrection had commenced.” (p 203)

Prior to Jesus’s execution, this is what Jesus and the disciples expected:

1. Present and immediate future: Eschatological tribulation; suffering and death for the saints, including Jesus

2. Further future: Resurrection of the dead, including Jesus; triumph of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

Soon after Easter, this is how the disciples now saw the salvation scheme:

1. Past: Suffering, death, and the resurrection of Jesus

2. Present: Tribulation, suffering, the persecution of saints

3. Future: Resurrection of the dead; return of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

In other words, though there was a mismatch between events and expectations, the disciples forced a fit between the two to their satisfaction. Out of real-world circumstances they created two resurrections: their messiah’s a few days after his martyrdom, and the general resurrection later on. It took the empty tomb and postmortem visions to trigger this revision — not because people are incapable of dramatic revisionism without such triggers (as Wright claims), but because people usually resort to such creativity (without real-world triggers) to cope with broken dreams.

And that’s really the point, as I see it: that the disciples’ dreams hadn’t been broken. Maybe the ones who fell away and returned to their homes felt crushed, but for the core group, the crucifixion, while demoralizing, would have been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they and Jesus would have been resurrected together. The empty tomb (coupled with visions) threw a wrench in the works, and caused them to conclude that Jesus had been resurrected prematurely.

Modest Results

Like Allison I don’t think we can be too confident about this stuff, and he’s right that a decent case can be made for the empty tomb as legend or history (the epileptic seizures this causes to pious Christians notwithstanding). For me, the latter is more persuasive by a small but healthy enough margin… though I don’t know that it really means anything. That Jesus’s tomb was empty, historically, could just as easily mean his corpse was stolen or moved, regardless of what fantastical event the disciples ascribed to it. Whatever happened to the body, thanks to the empty tomb, we have this thing today called Christianity.

The Omicron Variant in Mark 7:19

In his recent sermon, “Purging All Meats”, Pastor Steven Anderson takes a razor to the many “blasphemous” bible translations that portray Jesus as declaring all foods clean in Mark 7:18b-19. The King James Bible (of course) is the absolutely holy and correct translation, which reads:

“Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him? Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?”

The context is everything that proceeds these verses in Mark 7, where the subject is not kosher but handwashing and the transfer of impurity. Here is Jesus is saying that it is not what goes into the body that renders someone impure, but rather the impure things residing in a person’s heart — and that anything eaten which is impure doesn’t enter one’s heart, but rather exits the body, going out into the latrine. In other words, if you take in something bad, it’s eventually going out into the toilet anyway, and you’ll get over it.

That’s how the term “cleansing all the foods” is translated in the King James Bible: the process of purging into the latrine. But most other translations have Jesus doing the “cleansing”, and by going so far as to have him declare all foods or meats clean. Thus the NIV:

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Or the RSV:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

This radical statement on the part of Jesus is put parenthetically by the translators — which is no surprise, since it’s a non-sequitur. Again, the issue throughout Mark 7 isn’t dietary regulations. It’s handwashing and the transfer of impurity. But in these non-KJV translations, Jesus is adding this radical addendum that it’s okay to eat non-kosher foods.

People may wonder what’s at stake here. For Pastor Anderson, the issue hinges on two things: (1) making sense of the context of Mark 7 (which again has nothing to do with Jewish dietary laws), and (2) preserving Testamental boundaries. Regarding the second, he says:

“There is no New Testament until Jesus dies on the cross. It doesn’t start in Mark 7. So how can Jesus be ending the dietary restrictions before he dies on the cross? I would love for anyone to try to defend this to me. I would love for anyone to try to defend Jesus telling people to eat things against the law of Moses before he dies on the cross. Have fun trying to defend that, because it’s crazy and it’s totally wrong. These modern Bible versions are way out to lunch on this.”

The good pastor then proceeds to explain the translation issue with regards to the “omicron variant”. Here’s his explanation, which you can listen to around the 25:33-33:50 part of the youtube video:

“Now normally I wouldn’t go this deep into a subject like this, but I’m gonna go a little deeper on this translation issue of this passage, just because it involved the omicron variant. This is the omicron variant in Mark 7:19. Now I’ve already explained to you where the modern versions got their stupid interpretation — how they took this ‘purifying all foods’, or ‘purging all meats’, and turned it into this parenthetical statement of, ‘Jesus is saying you can eat anything’, instead of leaving it in the quotation where it belongs.

But not only that, the Greek text underlining the King James Version of the Bible is the Textus Receptus, or the Received Text — the one that’s been passed down and used for centuries. The one that’s tried and true. Versus a new reconstructed text based on the Nestle-Aland, which is on, like, it’s 28th edition. And they’re coming out with a 29th edition very soon. Now look, we believe in the Textus Receptus, that the Holy Spirit has been using for centuries. We’re not part of the Bible-of-the-Month Club, digging up some old manuscript and saying, ‘Well maybe this is the original.’

So here’s the thing. There are two letters in the Greek alphabet that are really similar to one another. One is ‘omega’, the other is ‘omicron’. One is a ‘big O’, the other a ‘little o’. In the Textus Receptus you have the little o (omicron) at the end of this word, which means that it’s a neuter word, which means that the ‘purifying’ cannot be applying to Jesus, because Jesus isn’t a neuter person; he’s a dude. So if you have the right Greek text, you would NEVER come up with this crazy interpretation that Jesus is saying ‘all meats are pure now’. You can only have that interpretation with the corrupt modern Greek texts. The omicron isn’t referring to JESUS, it’s referring to the PROCESS of going out the draft. Going out the draft is what is purging all meats. That process is neuter, as the omicron implies.

But in the corrupted texts, the omicron is changed to an omega, which now makes it masculine. Now even with this masculine word, it still doesn’t have to refer to Jesus, because it could refer to the draft, which is masculine. My point is that because of this omicron variant in Mark 7:19, you could never get this dumb interpretation that came from the corrupted Greek texts. But even if you had their corrupted Greek texts, you’d still have to be an IDIOT to think that this is saying that Jesus is making all meats clean, when that has NOTHING to do with the context, and it’s not right in the timeline, because Jesus hasn’t died on the cross yet.

I want to drive home how bad these modern versions are, and how they ruin doctrine. Because if you have a Jesus who is just ignoring the Mosaic Law, telling you to ignore it, telling you not to quibble about it, just do what you want… folks, that is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible said, ‘I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, I came to fulfill.’ The Jesus of the Bible got up and said, ‘When the Pharisees tell you to obey the law of Moses, they’re right about that.’ He didn’t get up and say, ‘Hey dude, we need to get free! Eat whatever you want, man!’

That’s not what he’s saying in Mark 7:19. He’s saying that if you eat something contaminated, it’s not going to hurt you, whereas stealing will contaminate you; adultery will contaminate you; fornication will contaminate you; blasphemy will contaminate you. But is eating without washing your hands going to contaminate you? No, because worst-case scenario, you take in something bad, it’s going into the toilet anyway eventually, and you’re going to be okay, you’ll get over it.”

There you have it. A Sunday-morning textual criticism lesson from our dear Pastor Anderson. Watch that omicron variant! These days it’s bringing people down in more ways than one.

Pastor Anderson: The Illegal Immigrant as a Role Model

Pastor Steven Anderson is a curiosity to say the least. He’s a true fundamentalist — the only one I’ve ever encountered — who takes every part of the Bible at its word, impartially, regardless of what tribe that aligns him with. So he’s a right-wing LGBT-hater (since the Bible says the sodomites deserve to die, in both the Old and New Testaments) but a left-wing immigrant lover (since the Bible says to welcome to the resident alien among you). He’s a right-wing climate change denier (because the book of Revelation spells out the world’s fate much differently) but a left-wing granola when it comes to respecting the earth (not littering or polluting, not driving the car to work, and eating organic and health foods). He’s an anti-vaxxer but aggressively pro-mask (per Lev 13:45), and throughout the year of 2020 railed from the pulpit against Covidiots who refused to wear masks or distance socially. He condemns Zionism with as much fervor as Islamic jihadism. He thinks Democrats are wicked, but Republicans in some ways more so, and that Donald Trump in particular is the “most degenerate man to ever sit the Oval Office”. He even preached (in Oct 2016 and Oct 2020) that it might just be well if Hillary and Biden, wicked as they are, won the elections. You can say this for him: Anderson follows the Word no matter where it takes him, and he has lost church members because of it.

Perhaps no sermon illustrates Anderson’s ability to surprise more than his defense of the illegal alien. Here are the bullet points:

  • (1) Don’t oppress the foreigner. According to the Bible, “You shall neither vex a stranger or oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). You should, in other words, know what it’s like to be a foreigner, because you were foreigners who came from Egypt.
  • (2) One law for everyone — alien and citizen alike. “You should have one manner of law: for the foreigner as well as for one of your own country.” (Leviticus 24:22; Exodus 12:49). Many Christians today say that foreigners shouldn’t have the same rights as American citizens. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. If cruel and unusual punishment should not be inflicted on the citizen, then it shouldn’t be inflicted on the non-citizen; if the native has the right to not be searched without a warrant, then the stranger has the same right; if the citizen has freedom of religion, then so does the foreigner; if one has the right to a speedy jury trial, so does the other. These are Biblical principles that we should institute in the United States.
  • (3) These rights come from the Creator and have nothing to do with citizenship. Even the Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. Man-made laws should simply reinforce what the Creator intended.
  • (4) The illegal alien should be our role model. The illegal aliens crossed an imaginary line. Get over it. They’re not mostly violent criminals. You say, “But it’s not fair, they don’t pay taxes, and they’re not documented!” Look, we should all strive to be undocumented. Let the illegal alien be our model. It’s almost like this mentality of “since I’m a slave, everyone else should be one too”, or “if I have to have a social security number and pay all these taxes, then everyone else should suffer with me”. It’s ridiculous logic. We should all be undocumented and not be carrying around so much paper and ID.
  • (5) Illegal aliens pay taxes anyway. They may not pay federal income tax, but they pay almost every other kind of tax. They pay sales taxes; if they rent they pay property taxes indirectly; if they drive a car they pay gas tax. When they use a phone, they pay taxes on their phone bills.
  • (6) Illegal aliens are being scapegoated, when in fact they help the economy. What’s really happening is that the government is stealing our money and giving it to the bankers and the military industrial complex. Those are the real thieves. Illegal immigrants are the scapegoat as to why the economy is messed up. In reality illegal aliens help the economy. They come here and spend money, and use businesses and use services.
  • (7) The problem of welfare. There’s only thing that’s sort of a problem with the illegal immigrants is that they get some free stuff. But even that’s misleading, because no one should be getting free stuff. When you hear these Republican politicians say, “There should be a lifetime ban on illegal immigrants getting welfare,” no, here’s what we really need: a lifetime ban on anyone getting any welfare. These Republicans are just changing the issue. The problem has nothing to do with immigrants. It’s welfare, for anyone.
  • (8) Bring them all in. Now look, I do believe that those who come here should learn to speak English and assimilate to this culture, just as I would have to learn Spanish if I moved to Mexico. You don’t just demand that everyone know your language. But let me tell you something: I’m all for as many people as possible immigrating to this country. Bring them all in, I say. Jump the border, so what?
  • (9) Immigrants are not bad people, and in some ways better than Americans. You say, “But they’re bad people!” No, in some ways they’re actually better people than Americans. Do they have their own problems? Sure, but so do we. Let me tell you, whenever I went on the Spanish TV channel, and I was ripping on the homos, at least more of their viewers were actually on my side than when I went on the English-speaking TV channel. Are there criminals amongst them? Of course, but there are criminal American citizens too.
  • (10) Don’t get brainwashed, by either the left or the right. Now you say, “Pastor Anderson, you’re a flaming liberal Democrat”. Look, you need to get past the false left-right paradigm. You have to be careful that you don’t get brainwashed by either the left-wing politicians or the right-wing ones, and that you read the Bible to figure out what you believe. And on the subject of the foreigner, the stranger, the Bible is clear: God says they should be treated the same.
  • (11) Who would respect the imaginary line anyway? If you were the one living down in Mexico, and struggling to survive, what would you do? Are you really not going to cross that imaginary line? Or would you just cross it, if that’s what’s going to be the best thing for your family?

So there you have it. An argument that illegal immigrants should have the same rights as U.S. citizens — straight from the lips of that preacher who is banned from 34 countries because of his hard-core preaching against sodomites. I can’t help but love the irony of someone who is so welcoming of illegal aliens, but is not welcomed abroad in turn.

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.)