Revolutionary Biblical Discoveries and the Need for Historical Amnesia

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Philip Jenkins

The Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife… every few years, the media report new finds of ancient texts that supposedly throw revolutionary new light on the Biblical world, and (commonly) on Christian origins. In reality, such finds rarely tell us much that is new or unexplored, and are mainly of use to hardcore specialists. In most cases, the claims that are made are actually quite familiar, and have been made on many previous occasions. Any kind of historic perspective shows that even what initially look like the most radical ideas in this field have a long prehistory. Successive claim about new and explosive discoveries rely on a process of recurrent public amnesia.

In modern times, two finds in particular have rightly caused much excitement for what they might suggest about the Second Temple era and early Christian times, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls and the books in the Nag Hammadi library, specifically the Gospel of Thomas. <INSERT FIGURE 1> Both those discoveries date from the mid-1940s but many of the main insights long predated that time. In the 1890s, manuscript finds at Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, already produced major portions of the Gospel of Thomas, and these created a sensation in popular newspapers and magazines. Before the First World War, any reasonably literate person would be expected to know and quote those “Sayings of Jesus,” not to mention a wide range of alternative Jesus sayings and logia that were widely available in popular books. In 1917, a religious education text intended for schools gave the Thomas passages the homely description of “a bit of Bible long lost.”

Think of a radical new version of the “Jesus Quest” from the past few decades, and it was thoroughly established in the popular mainstream by 1914. Jesus as feminist prophet, as Buddhist sage, as New Age mystic, as the husband of Mary Magdalene – all these images were familiar and readily available, and grounded in ancient writings and alternative scriptures.

Particularly familiar was the idea of “Jesus the Essene.” While the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery did revolutionize scholarship, the Qumran community itself was not quite as unexpected a revelation in the 1940s as we might think. Scholars had long known the writings of Josephus and other ancient writers on the Essenes, and integrated those ideas into their speculations. Already by the 1870s, English Biblical scholar J.B. Lightfoot denounced the habit of “a certain class of writers” who claimed Essene precedents for many aspects of early Christianity. The idea of mystical Jewish settlements in the Judean wilderness was so familiar in the nineteenth century that it was almost old hat.

Nag Hammadi Codex II, folio 32, the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas (Wikimedia Commons)

Caves at Qumran (Wikimedia Commons)

The study of Jewish sectarianism was revolutionized by a truly important discovery in the 1890s, namely the documents in the Genizah (manuscript storage facility) of an ancient Cairo synagogue. Although this vast collection continues to be explored and published, one document created a particular sensation at the time. This was a text from a then-unknown sectarian movement, which we now know to be fragments of the Community Rule of the Qumran group. It was published as the Fragment of a Zadokite Work (1910) by rabbi Solomon Schechter, with a brilliant and perceptive commentary. Among other things, Schechter gave a wonderful idea of the nature of the sect, its legal outlook and scriptural universe. Widely quoted and anthologized, Schechter’s translation popularized many of the distinctive ideas, terminology, and emphases of the Qumran sect.

The Fragment detonated a public controversy of a kind that would be instantly recognizable from the modern media. Biblical scholar George Margoliouth made far-reaching claims about the nature of the mysterious Zadokites or Sadduceans, whom he saw as early Jewish-Christians, which would make the Fragment a very primitive lost gospel describing Jesus and his first followers. For Margoliouth, Jesus himself was the sect’s Teacher of Righteousness, with Paul as one of his enemies and betrayers. So sensational were these ideas that they dominated the Christmas Day front page of the New York Times in 1910, and the controversy echoed through US newspapers and periodicals for months afterwards.

Between them, the Sayings of Jesus and the Zadokite Fragment ignited immense popular interest in alternative scriptures and religious texts, and fired demand for accessible translations. One of the most successful was R. H. Charles’s two volume collection of The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (Clarendon Press, 1913). Meanwhile, mystical and proto-New Age groups ran a whole publishing industry producing alternative and heretical early Christian texts and Gnostic writings. These already contained virtually all the fundamental ideas about Gnosticism that have attracted so much attention in recent years.

Solomon Schechter at work on Cairo Geniza material in Cambridge (Longread)

Rev. George Margoliouth (Fearon UK)

In 1916, George Moore produced an international best-seller in his novel The Brook Kerith, which went through many editions. In this daring retelling of the gospel narrative, Jesus begins and ends his career in an Essene monastery on the Dead Sea. Surviving the crucifixion, he ends his days by joining a band of Buddhist monks evangelizing the Judean countryside.

Just how mainstream was the idea of these lost “other” portions of the Bible? In 1915, the Kansas City Star published a short religion column on the theme of “How the Idea of Immortality Developed” (January 17). The story was clearly aimed at a general audience, and made no pretensions to academic depth, yet the author's main point was that “The whole doctrine of the future life as it is worked out in the New Testament is based on the religious teachings and insights of the writers of the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament.”

That assertion is undeniably correct, but we must be struck by the assumption that ordinary non-expert readers would be expected to know or care about those “Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament” – including the Zadokite work. In the 1930s, the four million paid subscribers of the Women’s Home Companion could have read a major essay on “The Books That Jesus Loved.” This listed an impressive range of pseudepigraphic texts that Jesus almost certainly knew, including “The Book of Zadok” – or as we would call it, the Community Rule from Qumran.

So commonplace were these various ideas and theories that it is perhaps surprising that they have proved so sensational in very modern times. Although the text is authentic, the Gospel of Judas (for instance) really adds next to nothing to what we knew about Gnosticism a century ago. Why, then, do we so often hear that such a new find is astonishing, revolutionary, that it challenges the long-held beliefs of dyed-in-the-wool academic orthodoxy… and so on?

But to ask the question is to answer it. If an author or publisher produces a hitherto unknown text, just what are they meant to say? Well no, this text really doesn’t change our basic knowledge about early Christianity, and it obviously contributes nothing to what we can say about Jesus’s time, but it’s really exciting for scholars in early Coptic grammar and narrative! Of course not. In order to seize attention, the text has to be portrayed as ground-breaking, explosive, and wholly new in its implications, even if that means ignoring a long history of previous research and scholarship. Any and every “revolutionary discovery” has to be founded on painting and exaggerating the ignorance that had prevailed in previous years.

Historical amnesia is a fundamental and necessary component of the process of claiming, and over-claiming.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.


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