Saturday, December 21, 2013

Skepticism about Jesus' Wife Papyrus in the Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.  The news is that there is no news:

Skepticism About 'Jesus' Wife' Papyrus Grows as Test Results Lag
Tom Bartlett
I checked again this week with Jonathan Beasley, assistant director of communications at the Harvard Divinity School. He wrote in an email that "we are waiting for final reports to come in on some of the testing, and, depending on the results, for a decision about whether to do further testing."
He couldn't provide an estimate of when testing might be completed. Ms. King declined to comment, writing in an email that she had nothing to add to Mr. Beasley's statement.
There are quotations from this blog and from Larry Hurtado's blog, and a mention of Andrew Bernhard.  Bartlett's conclusion is that:
Such a flashy discovery won't just fade away. At some point we'll find out whether or not it was a hoax. In the meantime it's fair to ask why it's taking so long.
Two quick comments:

(1) It is still not clear to me if Harvard themselves are arranging for these tests or whether the owner of the fragment is arranging for these tests.  A comment in January suggested the latter.  There is clearly a major difference between the one and the other.  Does the owner currently have the fragment or does Harvard have it?

(2) Bartlett mentions that "the papyrus had already been tested".  I have heard this mentioned on several occasions but I am not sure of the source of it.  Karen King's article does not confirm this; she writes:
Given the content of this text, we took into serious consideration whether this was a genuine ancient text or a modern forgery. It would be very difficult to reproduce the kind the damage from insects or moisture that the fragment indicates, but it could have been penned on a blank piece of ancient papyrus, which are available for purchase on the antiquities market. Such a papyrus would pass a Carbon 14 dating test.
In other words, she suggests that the fragment could pass a Carbon 14 dating test even if the text itself was composed in modernity; she does not confirm that such a test was undertaken.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Defining an Apocalypse and Making Toast

We have recently come to the end of the semester here at Duke and in my New Testament Introduction, we reached the Book of Revelation right at the end, just as one should.  One of the things I always like to stress to introductory students is that "Revelation" is the same word as "Apocalypse" and that understanding apocalyptic is not simply about eschatology but is also, more importantly, about the open heaven and the revelation of divine secrets.

While I was retailing the SBL Apocalypse Group definition from 1979, I couldn't help finding myself amused by an element in it.  Take a look:
"Apocalypse" is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated  by an otherworldly being  to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world."
I've seen this and thought about this many times over the last twenty years or so, but what struck me on this occasion is that it contains the word being defined within the definition!  Since "revelation" is another way of saying "apocalypse", I can't help thinking that this is a bit like one of the recipes in a book I used to use as a student, The Gourmet Vegan by Heather Lamont.  In a section headed "Eating to Survive", the book helpfully explains how to make "toast" lest anyone is unfamiliar with the concept:
Used sliced wholemeal bread or bread buns, halved.  Toast until golden. Spread with vegan margarine, and any vegan jams, preserves, marmalades or Marmite . . ."
This used to strike me as hilarious.  The implied reader is a hypothetical (one might say non-existent) person who does does not know what "toast" is.  Should there be such an unlikely person who has purchased The Gourmet Vegan, they would hardly be helped in their ignorance of what "toast" is by invoking the verb "to toast".

It's worrying the kind of links that your mind makes when you are in the middle of teaching.  Perhaps it's just me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Apostle Paul - A Polite Bribe

Robert Orlando's documentary film about Paul, A Polite Bribe, premieres in New York City next Thursday, 19 December, at 8.10pm (poster to the left), where there will be a Q&A with the director as well as Gerd Luedemann.  The discussion will be moderated by David Gibson (Religious News Service).

I have not seen the film yet myself so I am looking forward to doing so.  There are trailers available here and lots of scholar clips available here (featuring, among others, Amy-Jill Levine, Bart Ehrman, Douglas Campbell, N. T. Wright and Daniel Boyarin).

There is more on the Polite Bribe website, and James McGrath has reviewed the film on his blog.

There is a screening planned in Durham, North Carolina on 23 January next year, more of which anon.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Whatever happened to the Gospel of Jesus' Wife?

Larry Hurtado ("Jesus Wife" Fragment: A Continuing Puzzle) has been raising questions about the Jesus' Wife Fragment, which was  announced with a great fanfare in September 2012 but which has now largely gone to ground.

The key issue here is that several scholars raised serious questions about the authenticity of the fragment, after which Karen King, Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Theological Review all appeared to go quiet.  Nor has there been any public comment from the two other prominent scholars who originally supported the authenticity of the fragment, Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie  Luijendijk.

I won't repeat what Prof. Hurtado says in his blog post except to agree with his comments and to add some additional reflections of my own, born in part from continuing to think about this over the last year and more.

One of the issues here is that Harvard used the internet in a savvy way to publicize the claims, with excellent hi-def pictures published, a draft article, Q&As, video clips and so on. So we are not talking here about contrasting media.  This is not a case of blog-responses to published work. We are talking about responses within the same medium, responses, moreover, that were carefully considered, fair, detailed and rhetorically sensitive. If there are good answers to the critiques of Francis Watson, Andrew Bernhard, Leo Depuydt, Christian Askeland, Alin Suciu and others, then they need to be heard (see further: NT Blog: Gospel of Jesus' Wife).

As readers of those posts will know, I think the case for forgery is overwhelming.  But this does not mean that there is any shame in the early advocates of its authenticity explaining now that the case may not be as strong as they had originally thought. The internet brings something new and really valuable to scholarship, the availability of many eyes to look at something together in collaborative scholarship of a kind that was not available when, for example, Coleman Norton published his Jesus agraphon hoax.  (See further The Jesus' Wife Fragment and the Transformation of Peer Review?)

One concern that I would like to raise, though, is the following.  Where is the fragment now?  Is it still in the possession of Harvard Divinity School or not?  The report that I find troubling dates to January this year.  It is the most recent public comment about which I am aware:
"The owner of the fragment has been making arrangements for further testing and analysis of the fragment, including testing by independent laboratories with the resources and specific expertise necessary to produce and interpret reliable results. This testing is still underway," Kathyrn Dodgson, director of communications for the Harvard Divinity School, said in a email to CNN." (Still no news on the Jesus' Wife Fragment; emphasis added).
If the anonymous owner of the fragment is the one "making arrangements", is there any guarantee that we will ever see the results of these tests?  My question, therefore, is simple: where is the fragment now?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

If it walks like a duck: Ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'Patio' Tomb depicts commonly used Jewish images

I am delighted to be able to publish today a guest post from Wim G. Meijer about the images on the ossuary 6 in Talpiot Tomb B. Dr Meijer has been a reader of the NT Blog for a while and he has followed the story of the Talpiot Tombs with some interest. We have been corresponding in recent months about some fascinating observations that he has made about parallels with the images on Talpiot Tomb B, Ossuary 6, that shed light on those images. I encouraged Dr Meijer to write up his observations for the blog and I am delighted that he has now done so. Although this article is Dr Meijer's work, I would like to make clear that I find his observations enlightening and persuasive. His expertise is in a different discipline (Biomolecular and Biomedical Science), but I think his eye is sharp and his instincts right.

If it walks like a duck: Ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'Patio' Tomb depicts commonly used Jewish images

Wim G. Meijer, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland (

Tabor and Jacobovici identified ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'resurrection' tomb (Talpiot patio tomb) as early Christian based on the presence of a cross on the side of the ossuary and the depiction of Jonah as a stick figure with his head wrapped in seaweed, apparently being spit out by a giant fish. In addition, it is claimed that the fish head also contains a Jonah inscription. If true, this would be the earliest example of these Christian images ever identified. Furthermore, Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the presence of this Christian tomb 60 meters from the controversial ‘Jesus family tomb’ (Talpiot garden tomb) supports their conclusion that Jesus and his family were buried there.

Figure 1: The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary
 (top panel) and the ‘cross’ in
 the middle of the ossuary
 (enlarged) compared to replica 1
 of ossuary 6 of the Talpiot tomb
 (bottom panel)
A golden rule in science is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Have they provided such extraordinary evidence? I don’t believe they have. In what follows below I provide what I believe is compelling evidence that the images on ossuary 6 are standard Jewish images of the period, not connected to the emerging Christian movement. Therefore, in my opinion ossuary 6 is not from a distinctively Christian ‘resurrection’ tomb, but from a tomb belonging to a normal Jewish family.

A cross is also present on the ‘Yehosah’ ossuary from a tomb belonging to a priestly family.

The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary, described by Asher Grossberg in the Biblical Archaeology Review, was discovered in a cave tomb in south-eastern Jerusalem (Grossberg, 1996). The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary displays a clearly identifiable cross in the centre (Fig. 1), with similar dimensions as the one on Talpiot ossuary 6. Clearly the cross on ossuary 6 is not unique, but is it Christian? The ‘Yehosah’ tomb contained a further seven ossuaries bearing the inscription of names that are closely associated with contemporaneous priestly and Levite names. This includes the name ‘Tarfon’, which is mentioned in the Talmud as belonging to priests performing duties in the Temple. Grossberg thus concludes that the Yehosah ossuary is from a tomb belonging to a priestly family. The cross on the Yehosah ossuary is therefore most certainly not a Christian symbol. Based on ancient descriptions of the Temple, Grossberg argues that the central image containing the cross is a depiction of the second Temple.

The depiction on the side of ossuary 6 is strikingly similar to images of the second Temple.

Tabor and Jacobovici focused on the cross on the side of ossuary 6 as a Christian symbol, and have not paid much attention to the image as a whole. However, when the entire image is taken into consideration (Fig. 2), one can not help but notice the striking similarities between this image with that on a coin struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE). This coin depicts a structure with two columns on each side, which is generally believed to be the facade of the second Temple. These two columns on each side are clearly visible on the side of ossuary 6 (Fig. 2). The columns flank an arched, dome like structure in both images, with at the centre a square, which on ossuary 6 is freestanding, while the sides are merged with the sides of the domed structure on the coin. However, based on the similarities it seems clear that these two contemporaneous images depict the same: the facade of the Temple. This imagery was not only used in the 1st and 2nd century CE, but is still present in many synagogues as the Aron Kodesh, housing the Torah scrolls (Fig. 2). It is arguably one of the oldest and most enduring images in Judaism.

Figure 2: Comparison of the image on the side of replica 1 of ossuary 6 to a coin
 struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt and an Ark Kodesh of the Rachmastrivk
a Hasidim, Jerusalem.
In summary, comparison of the image on the side of ossuary 6 to contemporaneous images on an ossuary belonging to a priestly family and to a coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt strongly suggests that the image on the side of ossuary 6 is Jewish, and most likely depicts the facade of the second Temple.

The image of the ‘fish’ is similar to vessels on contemporaneous coins of the first Jewish revolt.

Figure 3: Comparison between Temple
 vessels depicted on coins of
 the first Jewish revolt to the
vessel on replica 2 of ossuary 6.
The front of ossuary 6 depicts what Tabor and Jacobovici argue is a depiction of a large fish spitting out Jonah. If so this would be the earliest known use of this Christian image. During the first Jewish revolt (66-70 CE), ending in the destruction of the Temple, coins were struck displaying vessels that experts agree were used in Temple services, in particular wine libation, as is suggested by the presence of a grape leave on the other side (Fig 3). The vessels depicted on these coins have a mouth that is as wide or wider than the widest part of the vessel, and have two handles in the middle at the widest point of the vessel, just below the neck. The similarity of these vessels to the image on the ossuary is striking: this too has a mouth (the tail of the 'fish') that is wider than the widest part, and has two handles ('fins') in the middle at the widest part of the vessel just below the neck. The ‘fish’ thus has the same characteristics as the vessels depicted on contemporaneous Jewish coins.

If Tabor and Jacobovici are correct about their ‘fish’, then the critical part of the ‘fish’ image, defining it as Christian, is its mouth spitting out Jonah as a stick figure and containing a Jonah inscription. I cannot help but wonder that if this part of the image is all important then why is the tail of the fish depicted on the side of the ossuary and not Jonah? Without Jonah, the inscription and the fish head, there is nothing in this half image that has any Christian significance. However, depicting just the very wide mouth of a vessel used in Temple services still makes this half image instantly recognisable as a ritual vessel.


If ossuary 6 is early Christian, as claimed by Tabor and Jacobovici, it would have contained uniquely Christian images that are not shared with or have similarities to images on Jewish objects. However, the images on ossuary 6 also occur on contemporaneous Jewish coins and an ossuary belonging to a priestly family, which most likely depict the Temple and a vessel used in Temple rituals. Therefore both Occam’s Razor and the Duck test lead to one obvious, inescapable conclusion: Ossuary 6 is Jewish and does not have any connection with the emerging Christian movement.


Grossberg, A. ‘Behold the Temple: is it depicted on a priestly ossuary?’ Biblical Archaeology Review 22,3 (1996) 46-51, 66.

Monday, November 18, 2013

When two worlds collide: SBL & the Day of the Doctor

There will be lots of doctors walking around in tweedy jackets this weekend in Baltimore but sadly, most of them will be obsessing about their papers at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting this weekend and not about the matter of real interest to the rest of the world, the fiftieth anniversary of the longest running science fiction show of all time, Doctor Who, the first episode of which aired on 23 November 1963.

I've long realized that the two things would collide, Doctor Who's fiftieth birthday and this year's SBL Annual Meeting, and for many of us it has been an source of great anxiety.  Doctor Who is, of course, used to sharing the limelight with other momentous events.  That first episode, "An Unearthly Child", went out the day after JFK's assassination, also the day of C. S. Lewis's death.

I must admit that for a long time I was worried that I might just have to find some quiet corner somewhere and stream the anniversary episode, "The Day of the Doctor", on my laptop wearing my headphones.  In fact, I couldn't be sure if fate would dictate that I might have to give a paper or chair a session at the moment the fiftieth was airing.  Luckily, that did not come to pass.

So what are the options for those who are at the SBL for watching "The Day of the Doctor"?  As I see it, here are the options:

(1) Hardcore fans who are lucky enough not to be on the SBL programme will want to watch the live simulcast of "The Day of the Doctor".  The ideal way of doing this will be to go to one of the screenings in the cinemas.  Sadly, there are not many of these, and they are all sold out.  And the nearest one to Baltimore is Fairfax, VA, a good hour's drive from Baltimore.

(2) Another possibility would be to watch the live simulcast on BBC America.  However, posh American hotels are not known for their good access to cable, and BBC America is typically a "second tier" channel and so you are unlikely to get it in your hotel room.

(3) I'm grateful to Heather McMurray at SBL headquarters for the good news of another option for watching the fiftieth live -- the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, Oriel Grill bar, has BBC America. Monica Floyd, the concierge, is putting them on notice for possible SBL watchers on Saturday, Nov 23 at 2:50pm.

(4) For those who simply can't do the simulcast because of other commitments, there is still some hope.  BBC America shows the episode again in the evening of Saturday 23rd, so if you can find a TV with BBC America, you'll be OK.  Or, I suppose, you could find a way of downloading and viewing it the same evening.  It will go on iTunes at some point, perhaps as early as Saturday evening.

(5) And then there are the Monday night cinema showings.  The good news here is that whereas there are only eleven cities showing the simulcast on Saturday, there are hundreds showing the episode on Monday evening.  The nearest to Baltimore is Owings Mills, which is about a 25 minute drive.

Luckily, I was able to go for option 1, and was at my computer the second the tickets went on sale, and it was a matter of great relief.  I have also gone for option 5 for my second and more relaxed viewing with friends too, for good measure.

Good luck finding the best way of watching the fiftieth!

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Tomb of Jesus" Volume from Eerdmans - Charlesworth Interview & Errors in the Blurb

Over on the EerdWord blog, there's a new video interview with James Charlesworth (on Youtube here) in which he discusses the forthcoming volume The Tomb of Jesus and his Family, the proceedings of the conference in 2008 in Jerusalem relating to the Talpiot Tomb.  Regular readers will know of my own interest in this tomb and my scepticism about the claims of Simcha Jacobovici that this tomb can be identified as the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

Charlesworth himself is non-committal in the interview.  He mentions the range of views covered in the volume and although he includes among the possibilities that it belonged to "Jesus' clan", he does not associate himself with this view as he has done on previous occasions (James Charlesworth on the "Jesus Family Tomb" and James Charlesworth on the "Jesus Family Tomb": follow-up).

Charlesworth also mentions the controversy that surrounded the Jerusalem conference in 2008 (see The Talpiot Tomb Controversy Revisited, Simcha Jacobovici responds to his critics and Charlesworth on the Talpiot Tomb Symposium) and he counsels greater co-operation and friendliness in the future.  He does not mention Simcha Jacobovici in the interview.

The interview was presumably filmed at SBL last year.  It looks like the same room as for my interview on Thomas and the Gospels.  The book itself is due to come out in December this year, after several delays.

I do want to quibble with the book's blurb, which features a couple of errors:
About twenty-five years ago archaeologists discovered a tomb near Jerusalem that contained a family's ossuaries — limestone bone boxes commonly used in ancient Near Eastern burial customs — inscribed with some familiar New Testament names: Mary, Joseph, James, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus. The Discovery Channel produced a film investigating "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," raising interest among the public and specialists alike. Could this actually be the tomb of Jesus and his family? [emphasis added].
The blurb appears on EerdWord, Youtube and the Eerdmans Website.  Quibbles:

  • Minor quibble: the tomb was excavated in 1980, which is 33 years ago, a little more than "about twenty-five years".

  • Major quibble 1: the tomb does not feature the name "Mary Magdalene".  If it did, it would have been a really remarkable find for the study of Christian origins.  The name is not there.

  • Major quibble 2: the tomb does not feature the name "James". Although Jacobovici and Tabor have argued that the James ossuary came from the tomb, this is a controversial and problematic claim that cannot simply be stated as fact.

The list of (Anglicized) names should really be given instead: Jesus? Son of Joseph, Mary, Mariam (or Mariame) and Mara, Joses, Matthew, Judas son of Jesus.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed on History Channel, Wednesday

History Channel now has a website devoted to its new six-part documentary series about the Bible:

Bible Secrets Revealed

The site features the "sneak peak" previously mentioned and details about the first episode, Lost in Translation.

See also the interview with Robert Cargill, consulting producer on the series, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The series premieres this Wednesday, 13 November, at 10pm.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor, O. P., 1935-2013

I was so sorry to hear of the death of Jerome Murphy O'Connor earlier today.  Not only was he a fine scholar, but he was also a kind-spirited, sweet-natured and generous human being, who always had time for for people.  I was only lucky enough to meet him on a couple of occasions, one time in London as he was exiting an art gallery as I was entering it.

Everyone spoke well of him.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor was a gifted writer, whose prose was always lucid and lively.  His scholarly insights were fascinating, even surprising (like his suggestion that Paul's wife died in a house-fire, or that the Galatians may well have had extraordinarily large moustaches).

See also comments from James McGrath, John Byron, Jim Davila, Jim West, James Tabor and many others.

A sad loss for the guild.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed Intro

Here's the first couple of minutes of the forthcoming History Channel series Bible Secrets Revealed:

This is taken from the Prometheus Entertainment website. Robert Cargill is consulting producer on the series and has more on his blog.  The series premieres next Monday 11 November on History Channel at 10/9C.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Death of François Bovon

I was very sorry to hear today of the death of Prof. François Bovon of Harvard Divinity School. (HT: several Fb friends & Jim West).

Update (4 Nov.):  A Message From Dean Hempton on the Passing of François Bovon (HT: Annette Yoshiko Reed on Fb).

Friday, November 01, 2013

Britney Spears Musical about Jesus?!

Thanks to Helen Ingram for this one.  If it were April Fool's Day, I'd think this was a particularly fine prank.  But it seems to be true -- there's a musical that uses Britney Spears's music to tell the story of Jesus!  Details in this article in the NME:

New musical SPEARS will tell story of Jesus Christ through Britney Spears songs
Preview of show to be held in New York on November 7
A new musical will tell the story of Jesus Christ using the songs of Britney Spears. 
Spears The Musical: The Gospel According To Britney is currently being developed for the stage, with a preview of the show to be held for funders in New York on November 7. The production will give an account of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus by using Spears hits such as 'Stronger', '...Baby One More Time' and '(You Drive Me) Crazy'. 
Speaking about the project on the musical's official website, creator Pat Blute said: "These are Britney's lyrics. These are Jesus Christ's images. The Britney Spears you see is not Britney Spears. Remember that. The Jesus Christ you read is not Jesus Christ. These are manifestations. Accounts through the media, through the words of followers, of friends, of foes, of villains, of heroes, of liars, of biases.
Here's the official website:

SPEARS: The Gospel According to Britney

I, for one, will definitely be going to see this!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed, History Channel

Candida Moss in Bible Secrets Revealed
Over on his XKV8R blog, Robert Cargill announces a new six part documentary to air soon on History Channel.  He writes:
I’m pleased to announce that a new documentary series will begin airing on History beginning Monday, November 11, 2013 at 10:00pm / 9:00 Central
The series is entitled, Bible Secrets Revealed, and is produced by Prometheus Entertainment for the History channel. 
The titles of the six episodes and their schedule of appearance are as follows: 
“Lost in Translation” – November 11, 2013
“The Promised Land” – November 18, 2013
“The Forbidden Scriptures” – November 25, 2013
“The Real Jesus” – December 2, 2013
“Mysterious Prophecies” – December 16, 2013
“Sex and the Bible” – December 23, 2013 
The documentary features dozens of the world’s top biblical scholars, religious studies scholars, archaeologists, and historians, who offer different points of view while addressing some of the more difficult readings in the biblical and extra-biblical texts. 
It is also worth note that portions of the documentary were filmed on site during the 2013 season of archaeological excavation at Tel Azekah.
There is a 30 second trailer available here:

Bible Secrets Revealed: Sneak Peak

The picture above is a screen grab; here are two more faces you may recognize:

Bart Ehrman in Bible Secrets Revealed

Francesca Stravrakopoulou

I have not yet seen this myself, though I was interviewed for the programme last summer here in North Carolina.  It looks like we will also see James McGrath and Robert Cargill (who was also a consultant) among many others.

Update (4.29pm): Robert Cargill provides a list of some of the scholars who will be appearing in the series.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath, Richard Bauckham

On Sunday, I posted some comments on Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson's forthcoming book and documentary, Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel".  It led to a very interesting comments thread in which the possibility came up that their "lost gospel" might in fact be a section from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor featuring a Syriac text of Joseph and Aseneth as well as the correspondence that prefaces it.  In response to this, Richard Bauckham has sent the following comments, which I am here promoting to a post of its own.  I have also made this available as a PDF here.

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath

Richard Bauckham

I think there can be no doubt that this ‘lost Gospel’ is a section of The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor. The relevant section is Book I chs. 4-6, where chapter 6 is ‘The History of Joseph the Just and Asyath his wife,’ while chapters 4-5 are two letters that introduce it. The recent English translation of Pseudo-Zacharias (2011) does not include books I-II, mainly because these are not ecclesiastical history and consist mainly of material found also elsewhere. The editors do note that others are working on these books.

I do not read Syriac, and so, in the absence of an English translation, I have consulted the Latin translation by E. W. Brooks (CSCO 3/5, 1924). In the first of the two letters the unnamed writer says that he found in a library a work in Greek called ‘the book of Asyath.’ He says he read only its ‘historia’ (the Greek word apparently used in the Syriac text) and did not understand its ‘theōria’ (Greek again). Since the Greek language is difficult and alien for him, he asks his learned correspondent, a certain Moses ‘Ingilae,’ to translate it into Syriac for him, and to explain both its ‘historia’ as a whole and something of its ‘theōria’. Moses replies, saying that he has read the ‘historia’ of the book and, if I’m understanding the text correctly, that the ‘theōria’ contained in it is (‘to put it briefly’) the truth that our God our Lord the Word became incarnate by the will of the Father and became human and was joined to a soul with its perfect senses ….

And there the text breaks off without finishing the sentence. You can imagine what fun Jacobovici and Wilson will have with that suspiciously lost ending.

The words historia and theōria are obviously here used in the way they were in the Alexandrian tradition of biblical exegesis, where every Old Testament narrative (historia) is expected to have a corresponding Christian allegorical meaning (theōria). Since Joseph and Asenath tells a story about Old Testament characters, it was natural for Moses and his correspondent to suppose it must have an allegorical meaning, which to them would be much more interesting than the literal reading. I suspect that Moses took Asenath (or Asyath, as she is called) to represent the church, the bride of Christ, and Joseph to represent the incarnate Christ, while his heavenly alter ego, the archangel, is the pre-existent Logos. (Moreover, I think he may have been right. I strongly suspect that Joseph and Asenath is not a Jewish work, at least not in the form we have it, but a Christian work with allegorical meaning. But this is hardly relevant to the present argument.)

Jacobovici and Wilson have evidently supposed that the talk of historia and theōria in the two letters means that the story is a cover for a coded meaning, which is the true history of Jesus. They have missed the fact that Moses and his correspondent are speaking merely about the usual sort of allegorical exegesis that in the Alexandrian school was applied to any such narrative.

There seems to be nothing special about the Syriac version of Joseph and Asenath in Pseudo-Zacharias, apart from the fact that Asenath is called Asyath. But it’s not too difficult to see roughly how Jacobovoci and Wilson are interpreting it. Joseph, I guess, is a cypher for Jesus, a thoroughly human figure who nevertheless has a kind of heavenly counterpart in the chief archangel. In the story Asenath’s name is changed to ‘City of Refuge,’ within whose walls many nations are going to gather. Since ‘Magdalene’ derives from migdal, tower, this change of name refers to Jesus giving his wife Mary the new name Magdalene, to symbolize the role she is to have in the Christian movement. Note that the blurb for the book refers to ‘the towering presence of Mary Magdalene’! In the story, Joseph and Asenath have two children: Ephraim and Manasseh. That Mary Magdalene is the ‘bride of God’ reflects the last section of Asenath’s psalm (21:21). I expect the strong political dimension in the description of Jacobovici and Wilson’s book refers to some kind of reading of chapters 23-29 of Joseph and Asenath. None of this sounds to me any more far-fetched than Barbara Thiering’s so-called pesher reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Since Jacobovici and Wilson say that the lost gospel has 29 chapters, they must be well aware that the Syriac work in Pseudo-Zacharias is the well-known Greek Joseph and Asenath. What they find special in Pseudo-Zacharias must be the two letters with their cryptic suggestion of a hidden meaning that has something to do with the incarnation of the Logos. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel"

While I was noodling around on the internet to remind myself of the exact titles of Marcus Borg's and Burton Mack's Lost Gospel books last night (see Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"), I came across something that may be of interest to students of Simcha Jacobovici's work.  Regular readers will know that I have often reflected critically, but I hope fairly, on the claims the filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has made about Christian origins, which include having discovered the tomb of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son Judas.

Although the details are fairly scant at the moment, it seems that Jacobovici has something truly sensational lined up.  This book, The Lost Gospel, has been announced by Pegasus Press and is set to appear on 15 April 2014.  Although this will be just in time for the Easter market, it is probably worth pointing out that there is many a slip between cup and lip and it may be that the book does not make that deadline.  After spotting the book on Amazon, I did a bit more googling and found further references to it with different publishing dates.  It was projected for 3 March 2011 (Overlook press) and 30 March 2010 (Harper Collins Canada).

I must admit that any book that announces a "lost gospel" is bound to gain my interest.  So what do we know about it so far?

The book's subtitle is Jesus' Marriage to Mary Magdalene, Bride of God. and the book blurb tells us a little more (emphasis original):
In a startling follow-up to the New York Times bestseller The Jesus Family Tomb, a historical detective story that unravels a newly translated document filled with startling revelations and fascinating detail about the life and times of Jesus. 
Gathering dust at the British Museum is an ancient manuscript of the early Church, written by an anonymous monk. The manuscript is at least 1,600 years old, possibly dating to the first century. This revelatory book provides the first ever translation from Syriac into English of a profound document—some twenty-nine chapters in length —that tells us the inside story of Jesus’ social, family, and political life. 
The Lost Gospel takes the reader on an exciting historical adventure through this highly informative ancient manuscript.  The authors were easily able to decode the basic symbolism, but what the authors eventually discovered is as surprising as it ground-breaking: the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene; the names of their two children; the towering presence of Mary Magdalene (who was a Gentile priestess), a serious plot on Jesus’ life in 19 C.E. prior to the crucifixion; an assassination plot against their children; Jesus’ connection to political figures at the highest level of the Roman Empire—Emperor Tiberius and his protégé Sejanus;  and a religious movement that antedates that of Paul—the Church of Mary Magdalene.    
None of these discoveries are the authors’ claims: they are what this ancient manuscript reveals now that it has been decoded. Part historical detective story, part travelogue about a journey into the heart of an ancient world, The Lost Gospel reveals a secret that's been hiding in plain sight for centuries.
This is really intriguing.  The blurb to some extent retains the sense of mystery and sensation, but there are a few clues about the identity of the manuscript.  It was found in "the British museum", it is anonymous, it is Syriac and it is dated to the fifth century.  My guess is that the line "possibly dating to the first century" refers to the theorized date of the work to which the fifth century Syriac manuscript witnesses, but that is not clear.

The content does not correspond to any early Christian work I am aware of, so it is definitely one that lots of us will be watching with interest.

I must admit that after reading the book's blurb, I was so intrigued that I googled for more.  It is co-authored with Barrie Wilson of York University, Toronto, who has the following on his website:
Watch for
Book and documentary - Spring 2014
An exploration of a mysterious document prized by early Christians that takes us into the political ambitions and connections of Jesus along with his human and family side.
Who would become "King of the Jews" - Herod Antipas who so coveted the title? Jesus who was crucified for this claim? Herod Agrippa?
Who was Pontius Pilate and what were his connections to Rome?
How were Jesus and those closest to him imaged by his early followers on the world stage, outside the confines of Middle Eastern politics?
And just who were Jesus' closest companions?
This document takes us well beyond the canonical gospels shaped by Paul’s theology and answers questions they fail to address.
So the Spring 2014 date is here confirmed -- and there is the additional news that a documentary is planned to accompany the book.  It may well be, then, that a big media event is planned to publicize "the lost gospel", with TV documentary, book and website.

Wilson's blurb is tantalizing.  It is mainly composed of questions, but if the "mysterious document" indeed features Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa, Pontius Pilate and "Jesus' closest companions", it will be well worth studying.

There is not much about it yet on the Associated Producers' website, though there is the following statement, which confirms news of the documentary associated with the book:
Upcoming is “The Bride of God” co-written with Professor Barrie Wilson. Harper Collins is the publisher, Discovery Science and Vision Canada will air the companion film.
I also noticed, while googling, that there were quotations on the internet (including in this blog, which I had forgotten about!) from older versions of Wilson's website, so I took a closer look and found the following details:
. . . . . Lurking in the British Museum is an ancient Syriac manuscript dating from the 6th century but translated from much earlier Greek writing. Scholars have known about it for almost 200 years but have not known what to make of it. No translation exists based on the Syriac text. We provide a first-ever translation from the Syriac.
More importantly we use decoding techniques employed by early Christians themselves as they sought to understand biblical writings. They saw scripture differently than we do. An ancient Syriac introduction to manuscript – never before translated – tells us that the writing we examine contains an embedded meaning.
As we let this ancient writing speak for itself, it opens up a fascinating, hitherto unknown world. The results are startling:
  • The full humanity of Jesus and what it means for understanding his family life and sexuality.
  • Roman politics and why Jesus had to fear for his life, constantly on the move to avoid Herod Antipas who successfully caught and executed John the Baptist.
  • Pontius Pilate and his connections to the Roman Emperor Tiberius and to the real power behind the imperial throne, Sejanus.
  • A different theology of redemption than the more familiar one promoted by Paul (as a sacrificial atonement for sin).
  • A new early Christian movement alongside the ones led by Paul, by James and by the Gnostics.
  • Strange archeological depictions of Sun Gods and Zodiacs that have hitherto defied analysis.
More than any other writing, this manuscript places Jesus on the world stage, as a major player within the Roman Empire. 
The site went on to say "This book will be tied into an episode on a 7-part History Channel documentary series, "Secrets of Christianity," to air likely early 2011," but it looks like they decided not to include it in that series (which has six parts) and to save it for next year.

Since Wilson's website speaks about the document having been known for almost 200 years, there must be some who are more familiar with this document than I am.  In the mean time, and since I am ever the optimist, I look forward to hearing more in due course.

Nevertheless, if there are some grounds for caution, one might see them in the idea that this work will provide "the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene".  Since there are no ancient sources that speak of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, it is not clear at this stage how a newly discovered work could provide "confirmation" of this.  The note that she is a "Gentile priestess" is curious and, one would have thought, makes it unlikely that the work goes back to the first century, so too the idea that they had two named children.

Some might find grounds for caution also in the idea that the authors had to "decode the basic symbolism" in the manuscript.  The "discoveries" in the manuscript are revealed "now that it has been decoded".  The idea that ancient manuscripts require "decoding" is a favourite element in popular historical fiction like The Da Vinci Code, and the metaphor is regularly used in Jacobovici's own work (see, for example, the Da Vinci Code and the Talpiot Tomb).  However, it is worth noting that there is some reported substance to the claim here in that the manuscript features an introduction stating that the document has "an embedded meaning".

All in all, though, I am looking forward to hearing more about this exciting find and -- as always -- I will approach the claims made with an open mind.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"

Regular readers will know that I am not averse to finding an excuse to talk about the rich potential for analogies between scholarship on Christian origins and Doctor Who (e.g. recently The canon of Doctor Who and the canon of the New Testament).  This is one of those occasions where reflection on the one world provides a helpful way of thinking about the other.

Those familiar with the world of Doctor Who will know that this has been a momentous week for the longest running science fiction show ever.  One of the tragedies of 1960s British television is that the BBC routinely failed to save television programmes after they had been broadcast.  Many programmes were wiped and some were simply binned.  For the last generation or so, obsessive fans and collectors have been frantically trying to find lost copies of programmes missing from the archive, especially Doctor Who.  This week was truly momentous in that nine lost episodes of Doctor Who were announced as having been found, returned to the BBC, and digitally remastered and released.  The star of these episodes is Patrick Troughton, the second doctor, who earlier played Paul of Tarsus (1960).  The nine episodes comprise two stories, "The Web of Fear" and "The Enemy of the World", both of which are classics.  I am savouring the new episodes.

I have sometimes thought about the analogies between the lost episodes of Doctor Who and the lost writings of early Christianity.  There is something extraordinarily exciting when early Christian writings are rediscovered, an excitement that for scholars of early Christianity parallels the excitement felt by Doctor Who fans when lost episodes turn up.  The most recent hoard was true bounty too.  It was a cache that enabled us to watch two almost complete stories for the first time.  Previously, only episode 1 of "Web of Fear" and episode 3 of "Enemy of the World" were available, but now we can watch both serials almost in their entirety.

It's rather like the way that for many years we had only a few fragments of the Gospel of Thomas.  P.Oxy. 1, 654 and 655 were three Greek fragments of Thomas discovered in Oxyrhynchus at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.  Like episode 3 of "Enemy of the World", and episode 1 of "Web of Fear", we previously had only a fraction of the Gospel of Thomas available.  Then, just as all the rest of "Enemy of the World" and most of "Web of Fear" turned up this week, so too the whole of the Gospel of Thomas turned up in the big cache of finds in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

When you have only fragments of texts, or only parts of a story, you find it all the more tantalizing to want to see more.  And when you do see more, there is nothing quite like it.  The excitement of rediscovering an authentic piece of something so special knows no parallel.

There is also something of an interesting contrast here.  My academic friends and colleagues like to tease me about Q, the hypothetical source behind Matthew and Luke's double tradition material, against which I have been a vocal opponent.  They like to suggest that perhaps one day Q, like the missing episodes of Doctor Who, will also turn up.  They can, of course, fantasize all they like, and I thoroughly enjoy the teasing, but there is an interesting point here.

One of the reasons that students often struggle with the concept of Q is that it is a hypothetical work, unattested in antiquity.  It is solely a scholarly construct.  In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, we knew of such a text from antiquity because people like Origen mentioned it.  We knew of the existence of the work by citation even though for many years there was no detailed textual attestation to its content.  Just as in the case of the Doctor Who missing episodes, we knew that it had once existed, but it had been lost.

Q is not like that.  It is important to remember the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical".  A work is rightly described as "lost" when we know that it once existed, when it leaves some kind of trace in conversations among those who witnessed to its existence.  But there is no reference, as far as we can tell, to Q, in antiquity.  We can't find anything, anywhere that attests to its existence.  It is a solely a scholarly construct, based on the notion that Matthew and Luke accessed Mark independently, a postulate that requires a hypothetical writing to have existed.

This is not to say, of course, that Q is problematic because it is hypothetical.  If Q were the best way to explain the close textual agreement in the double tradition between Luke and Matthew, then that would be sufficient reason to postulate its existence.  My point here, though, is to remember what kind of theory the Q theory is.  It is a theory about a hypothetical source.  It is not a theory about a lost source.

Although the rhetorical appeal of titles like The Lost Gospel (Burton Mack) and The Lost Gospel Q (Marcus Borg) is obvious and to be expected, it is worth underlining that Q is not really a "lost gospel" at all.  It is a scholarly construct.  Moreover, the attraction of trying to find "lost" writings , an attraction I very much share, should not obscure the fact that there is a world of difference between a writing we know to have existed and a writing we have constructed as a scholarly endeavour.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Jimmy Carter, Jesus and "the Matthew effect"

I have discussed the Matthew effect here before whereby a a piece of research, an idea, a quotation, a story gets associated with a more famous, more prominent person.  There's a famous example of it in our field, the misattribution of a saying to Schweitzer (about looking into the well and seeing our own reflection) that was actually said by George Tyrrell.

There was another example of it circulating on the internet not long ago, where a saying was misattributed to the Dalai Lama.  Today I saw another great example of the Matthew effect in a quotation attributed to Jimmy Carter (right).  The quotation is actually extracted from an interview with John Fugelsang.  Here is the quotation in context:
Who would Jesus vote for in this election? 
I don’t know. I don’t think he would vote for either of the two major party candidates. I think Jesus would be third party all the way, if he did vote. I bring up the fact that Jesus never lived in a democracy quite a bit, because when you hear people say, “Jesus said to help the poor, but he didn’t say the government should do it!” I always respond, “Yes, but Jesus didn’t have democracy.” If you want your tax dollars to help people over here instead of blowing them up over there, then vote that way. And if you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t.
I actually prefer the original quotation from Fugelsang in which one may hear an allusion to Matt. 25.31-46 (Sheep and the Goats).  Also, the term "government" makes better sense here than "country".  In order for the briefer, pseudo-Carter version to work, ". . . But don't ever say" has to be adjusted to "then stop saying", but otherwise the saying is clearly the same.

There's a nice analogy here for Christian origins scholarship in another way too.  It is sometimes said that simpler, briefer, terser sayings are likely to be more primitive than longer sayings, and this works as a common criterion in historical Jesus research, especially as it is practised by the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan.  However here, as also in early Christianity, the briefer, terser version can be later than and dependent on the earlier, more detailed version (see further Thomas and the Gospels, 145-50).

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Candida Moss takes on Bill O'Reilly

This is so impressive.  Three cheers to Professor Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame University!  For those who don't know, Candida wrote a witty and intelligent review of Bill O'Reilly's new book Killing Jesus for the Daily Beast the other day.  O'Reilly invited her onto his Fox News show tonight and she showed us how it's done -- calm, collected, polite, respectful and yet authoritative, intelligent and showing killer instinct!

You can find the clip on Mediaite here or over on Youtube here:

Very nicely done indeed, Candida.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Was Jesus the first person to tweet?

From my room on Toronto, I caught on CBS news this morning Cardinal Ravasi's claim that Jesus was the first person to tweet.  His sermons, the cardinal said, were "brief and full of meaning".

Funnily enough, I talked about this in a segment of my online office hours a couple of years ago, Would Jesus tweet?

Actually, this has given me a great idea for the next NT Pod.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

York Christian Apocrypha Symposium 2013

I am on my way to the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium 2013 in Toronto.  Today (Thursday) is arrival day for the speakers, but the conference gets going on Friday and continues through to Saturday afternoon.  

The organizer, Tony Burke, has put together an excellent symposium and you can read the details here:

2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium
The 2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium, “Forbidden Texts on the Western Frontier: The Christian Apocrypha in North American Perspectives,” will take place at York University September 26–28, 2013. 
The event is organized by Tony Burke (York University) in consultation with Brent Landau (University of Oklahoma). It brings together 22 Canadian and U.S. scholars to share their work and discuss present and future collaborative projects . . . 
Tony Burke has been previewing the symposium on his Apocryphicity blog.  He has added profiles of speakers over the last few months.   I look forward to seeing some of you there.  It looks like it is going to be an excellent symposium.  For those who can't make it, I should say that I will be taking my blogging machine and I hope to get the chance to chat about the conference here on the NT Blog.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How accurate is that replica, and why does it matter?

After discussions of the Talpiot Tombs resumed recently in the blogs (see James McGrath, Talpiot Tomb Latest and Talpiot Tomb Representation and Rhetoric), I have found myself reviewing some of the materials and looking back at old contributions.  The fact that some time has passed since the excitement of March-April 2012, when details of and theories about Tomb B emerged, actually helps one to get the kind of perspective that only time can provide.

One thing that has become clearer to me with the passage of time is the importance of distinguishing between the evidence itself and the project leaders' interpretations of the evidence.  Because the academy at large has been broadly critical of the project leaders' theories, it is easy to give the mistaken impression that we are not genuinely fascinated by the materials that they have uncovered.  If we have not underlined that sufficiently in the past, it's worth doing it again here -- the new finds in Talpiot Tomb B are fascinating and well worth studying. Nevertheless, our interest in the evidence does not, of course, commit us in any way to accepting the project leaders' interpretations of the evidence.

And there is a difficulty here.  A lot of the evidence has got bound up with the interpretations of the evidence.  Thus, the CGI composite image of the "fish" should only be used as an illustration of Jacobovici's and Tabor's theory.  It should not be used, as it was back in March 2012, as if it were an actual photograph.  It represents the theory.  It is not part of the data set.

It is clear now also that both ossuary replicas are best understood as attempts to represent Jacobovici's and Tabor's theory about the tomb.  As such, they are very useful.  In order to see this, we need to play down the language about the accuracy of the replicas, and especially Replica 2 (e.g. recently in the video interview with Prof. Puech).  While there are important points of contact between the replicas and the artifacts that they are modelling, there are also important points of divergence.

Let me illustrate.  I pointed out the other day that one of the ways that Replicas 1 and 2 differed was in the depiction of the border of the ossuary -- see here:

Replica 1 (left); Replica 2 (right), bottom left facade
Replica 1 is far more accurate here than Replica 2.  Replica 2 simply produces regular triangles without any attention to what is actually on the ossuary.  It is as if someone has just said "Do me some regular triangles in the border".  Replica 1, on the other hand, attempts to depict what is actually on the ossuary.  Take a look. I can only find two published photos that feature that part of the ossuary, one on the Jesus Discovery site and one on James Tabor's blog, but notice how on each you can see that the triangles are not even, and the bottom one protrudes over the border.  This is the clearest one:

Bottom left of ossuary 6 showing triangle protruding over border, as in Replica 1
Here, then, Replica 1 is more accurate than Replica 2, and we should treat the claims about the great accuracy of the replica with a touch of caution.

However, the point of this post is not solely to point to the problems with the claims of the accuracy of "the replica", but to reflect on what this tells us about how the filmmakers are looking at the photos.  Allow me to explain.

We already know that the alleged "Jonah" inscription does not feature on Replica 1 but appears clearly on Replica 2 (See A Tale of Two Replicas, and see now also with helpful illustrations in Unfaithful Representation: The Second Replica and A Comparison of the First Replica on Steve Caruso's blog). The reason that that is interesting is that it illustrates the value of the replicas for showing how those involved in the project are seeing the evidence.  The replicas function not so much as facsimiles of artifacts but instead as models of theories.

The point can be further illustrated by looking at the issue of the shading on certain areas of Replica 2.  Several of us have been saying for some time that the lines in the ball-shaped object at the bottom of the image do not represent Jonah's seaweed-wrapped head, as James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici argue, but rather they are the artist's typical means of shading his image (e.g. Juan V. Fernández de la Gala).  The same shading appears all over the ossuary, in the borders and in the image itself.  Here is the relevant area:

Close-up of bottom of image on Ossuary 6 (source; also here

Notice the shading in the ball area at the bottom.  It's the same shading that we see here at the top of the same image:

Close-up of top of image on Ossuary 6 (source)
That's not seaweed wrapped around the top of the image; it is the artist's way of shading in his image, helpfully illustrated in this reconstruction by Juan V. Fernández de la Gala:

Juan V. Fernández de la Gala's illustration (source)
What Replica 2 illustrates, however, is that Jacobovici and Tabor appear not to be paying attention to the shading at the top of the image.  Replica 2 depicts the shading at the bottom of image:

Close up of Replica 2 showing the shading at the bottom of the image (source)
This is where they are attempting to depict Jonah's head wrapped in seaweed.  However, at the top of the image, the shading is left blank:

Close up of Replica 2 showing the lack of shading at the top of the image (source)
What the replica does is to illustrate the theory that this is an image of Jonah and the fish.  The shading of the "tail" is irrelevant to that theory, just as the shading in the border triangles is irrelevant, so they are left blank.  It is the same issue as the alleged "YWNH" inscription, that the elements relevant to the model are illustrated and the elements that do not fit the model are not illustrated.

For what it's worth, I don't think that there is anything wrong with providing helpful illustrative models of theories.  In fact, I think it's a really useful way of proceeding because it helps one to explain the theory as clearly as possible so that scholars can assess it.  The point is to be clear in this context about what the replicas are -- they provide illustrative models for a theory.

Nevertheless, the issue over the replicas, like the issue earlier over the CGI composite image (originally simply called a "blow up"), is that a fascinating and highly worthwhile project of excavation, exploration and analysis has become inextricably linked with a particular theory about the project, a theory that many of us regard as untenable.  In other words, it is a project that is driven by an interpretative model that has serious problems.

Unfortunately, the analysis of the finds is difficult because any resistance to the project leaders' theory is interpreted not as honest, rigorous, critical analysis of the evidence, but as irrational reflections that proceed from some kind of reactionary, theological agenda.  But this is why I refuse to engage in the kind of playground games that the project leaders like (see Response to Simcha Jacobovici's "Pants on Fire") and instead prefer to reflect critically on the evidence.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Philip Esler Appointment at the University of Gloucestershire

News of Philip Esler's appointment at the University of Gloucestershire:

University announces new Portland Chair in New Testament Studies
The University of Gloucestershire has announced the appointment of the eminent theologian, author and academic, Professor Philip Esler, to one of its most distinguished posts -  the Portland Chair in New Testament Studies. 
The Portland Chair is an important part of the University’s theological tradition, which dates back to its foundation in the 1840s.  The Chair is supported by an endowment from the Kirby Laing Foundation, which has also endowed chairs at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen. 
The Chair leads the University of Gloucestershire International Centre for Biblical Interpretation, and the position must be filled by a distinguished scholar who has an interest in the theological interpretation of the Bible. 
Professor Esler has been appointed to the Portland Chair in succession to Professor Andrew Lincoln.  Professor Esler was born in Australia, and trained as a lawyer.  He attended Magdalen College, Oxford in 1981 to study a D. Phil in the New Testament.  He became the first Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2005, and in 2010 became Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. He is a member of the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature. 
His new role will include undertaking research and writing for publication, supervision of research degrees, mentoring staff, contributing to teaching programmes in theology and religious studies, and acting as an ambassador for the University and School of Humanities  . . . .
More at the link above.  Great news for the University of Gloucestershire and its students!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Q and Q reading the Critical Edition of Q!

Many thanks to AKMA for for this one.  I had said:
"Anyway, I love this cartoon in which those two famous Qs read the British magazine Q.  It would be even better if they were reading the Critical Edition of Q, but you can't have everything."
And now, here are Q and Q reading Q!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Q is for . . . . Q and Q reading Q

We reached the stage of my New Testament Intro class today when we were looking at the question of Q.  It's tough to teach because one has to explain to puzzled students why Q is a credible theory, and why it is the dominant one in the field.  Luckily for me, I have an "out" in that I am sure there never was a Q, and I can explain why the standard arguments for its existence are problematic.

I sometimes wonder how far famous fictional Qs like Desmond Llewelyn's Q in James Bond or John de Lancie's Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation make our Q feel rather exotic.  Perhaps it's a problem for the Q theorists because the most famous Qs are fictional.  Perhaps it's a help to them because it gives their hypothetical source a certain frisson.

Anyway, I love this cartoon in which those two famous Qs read the British magazine Q.  It would be even better if they were reading the Critical Edition of Q, but you can't have everything.  The cartoon dates back to 2010, from Neil Cameron's excellent A-Z of Awesomeness, previously mentioned here.

NT Pod 66: Oral Tradition and the Game of "Telephone"

It's been far too long since we've had an NT Pod!

I've put out a new episode tonight, NT Pod 66: Oral Tradition and the Game of "Telephone".

It relates to something that has come up here before, the question of whether the game of "telephone" (known in the UK as "Chinese Whispers") is a good analogy for the early Christian traditioning process, discussed in a post on The Gospels and the Telephone Game.  See too Missives from Marx.

You can listen to the NT Pod online or subscribe in your preferred reader or subscribe via iTunes.  You can also find the NT Pod on Facebook, or follow the NT Pod on Twitter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Response to Simcha Jacobovici's "Pants on Fire"

I am grateful to Simcha Jacobovici for taking the time to respond to my blog post A Tale of Two Replicas in which I detailed the differences between the two replicas of Ossuary 6 from Talpiot Tomb B and asked some questions about them.  I have been blogging and writing about the Talpiot Tombs for several years now and although I have sometimes received indirect responses from members of his production team, this is the first time that Jacobovici has responded himself.  I had always assumed that he did not read my blog, especially as I have often engaged with his theories about the tombs, so it was a honour to receive a public response to my most recent post.

Jacobovici's post is entitled Pants on Fire.  Although the primary reference is presumably to the rhyme, "Liar, liar, pants on fire", from the school playground, it is also a clever and amusing allusion to Jacobovici's characterization of his critics as underwear bloggers, and I am apparently a member of this group.

Most of Jacobovici's post is general abuse, some of it quite funny, some of it puzzling, most of it presumably intended to provoke a reaction.  I am grouped together with others like Prof. Robert Cargill and we are regarded as "personal and hysterical", "masquerading as scholars", "enforcers of Pauline theology" (?) who make "libelous statements".  It is "pseudo-scholarship" that aims "to rewrite history in Orwellian fashion".  Jacobovici ends the post by planning to take a shower "because I feel slimed by these guys".

Although most of the post is in that vein and so of limited use in the actual discussion, there is some content.  I am pleased to see my basic contention verified, that there were indeed two separate replicas made of the ossuary in question, and that there were significant differences between them.  Replica 1 was produced first and Replica 2 later, in April 2012.  Prof. James Tabor kindly clarifies the matter further in a useful comment to my post, and he expresses some surprise that I had not realized that there were two different replicas.

I suppose that I in turn should express some surprise at Tabor's and Jacobovici's surprise.  They have consistently talked about the museum quality replica as if there were only one and before posting on the topic, I reviewed everything that I could find.  I could not find any statement anywhere about the production of a second replica, in the media, in the blogs, in correspondence, in the official website.  They repeatedly and consistently talk about just the one replica.  And from the reactions more broadly to my post, I can tell that no one else seemed to realize that there was more than one replica.

However, it turns out that I had in fact missed something, and for this I apologize.  About half-way through a lengthy post on another subject on 4 January 2013, nine months after Replica 2 was produced, James Tabor mentions the two replicas, and provides a picture of each, with a view to making some insinuations about Amos Kloner.  I had missed that paragraph in my research.  Mea culpa.  And it turns out that while Jacobovici himself had not talked about the two replicas (again, subject to correction, as always), he did re-blog Tabor's blog post in which that paragraph appeared, at the same time, ninth months after its production.

The point of my post, though, was to draw attention to differences between the two replicas and to ask some questions about them.  Tabor confirms my point that the "fish in the margins" were adjusted between the production of the two replicas, apparently in response to scholarly critique of the way that they had been represented (the critique was by Robert Cargill, though neither Tabor nor Jacobovici mention this), and it is useful to know that.

My key question related to the replica shown to Prof. Émile Puech.  Since it is on video, there is no doubt at all that the replica is informing the discussion.  It is clearly Replica 2, the replica that features an apparent attempt to spell out "YWNH" (Jonah), in contrast to Replica 1, which does not have it, and which was produced before the "YWNH" inscription theory had emerged.  Jacobovici does not comment on this issue, the relationship between Puech's statement and Replica 2.

A further issue does arise from this about how accurate the "museum quality replicas" really are, but that's a blog post for another day.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Replicas

The recent renewed discussion of the Talpiot Tombs, brought about by Simcha Jacobovici's post featuring an interview with Professor Émile Puech of the École Biblique in Jerusalem (See Simcha Jacobovici and the Talpiot Tomb again), and followed up by Prof. Puech's own statement on the affair , has sent me back once again to the photographs, the blog posts, the media reports and the articles that I have in the past spent such a long time looking at.  But this time I spotted something new, what I am calling "A Tale of Two Replicas".

Throughout the discussions of the Talpiot Tomb, right from the first, Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor and others involved with the "Jesus Discovery" project (website here) have talked about and publicized what they call "the museum quality replica" of ossuary 6 from Talpiot tomb B.  But here's the curious thing.  It's not one replica.  There are two different replicas. As far as I am aware -- and I think I have read everything -- they have never admitted that they produced a second replica to replace the first.  (Please correct me if I am wrong).  And when one notices what changes between the two replicas, there is some cause for concern.

Here is the first replica.  This one was on the first version of the Jesus Discovery website and dates back to when the site was first published in February 2012, as you can see from the capture.

Replica 1 (February 2012)
Here is the second replica, which dates back, as far as I can tell, to April 2012, and which replaced the first on the Jesus Discovery website.  This is the one you see there now.

Replica 2 (April 2012)
If you think they look pretty similar, you would be right.  But there are some telling signs that illustrate beyond doubt that these replicas are different.  Let's take a look at them side by side:

Replica 1 (left) and Replica 2 (right)

There are several tell-tale signs.  Notice how in Replica 1, there are some lines drawn inside the square shaped object to the right of the vessel / fish, whereas in Replica 2, these lines are completely absent:

Replica 1 has a drawing inside the square which Replica 2 lacks

Notice also how the top left tip of the vessel / fish is next to the pointed part of a triangle in Replica 1 but next to the flat part of a triangle in Replica 2:

Triangle border differs next to top left of vessel / fish 
Similarly, notice how at the bottom left of Replica 1, the triangular shape protrudes across the border whereas in Replica 2, the triangle is neatly inside of its border:

Replica 1: triangle protrudes across the border in contrast to Replica 2

Similar observations could be repeated for other elements in the two replicas, but I am sure that you get the basic point.  Now one of the reasons that this is worthy of comment is that the replica (singular) has always been called "museum quality" and its accuracy has been praised.  Yet, far from this being one, accurate "museum quality" replica, it is two contrasting replicas, in which attention to detail is far from the order of the day.

It is not just the question of accuracy and representation that is at issue here, or the apparent failure to flag up the differences between the two replicas.  It is that Replica 2 makes several changes that may be the result of engaging with criticisms of the project.  Let me attempt to explain what I am getting at.

Replica 1 appears in all the publicity for the documentary, book and website from February to March 2012.  Replica 2 first appears, again as far as I can work out, and subject to correction, on April 3 or 4 2012, in Jerusalem:

Simcha Jacobovici shows off Replica 2 in Jerusalem, 3/4 April 2012
In between the release of Replica 1 and Replica 2, there had been a lot of criticism about the project's claims including, among other things, the idea that there are drawings of little "fish in the margins".  Robert Cargill demonstrated that the little oval shapes had been "inked in" so as to make them appear like fish.  Now notice how the "fish in the margins" changed between the two replicas. In Replica 1, before the criticism had appeared, they were presented as fish, with very clear, long tails:

Replica 1: "fish in the margins close up" (screengrab from Steve Caruso)
In Replica 2, which appeared after the criticism had been made, these shapes resemble more closely the actual shapes on the ossuary.  The tails have gone:

Replica 2: "fish in the margins" now appear more like ovals

Now, since Replica 2 appeared some time after Replica 1, I began to wonder whether there were also any changes in the way that the alleged YWNH ("Jonah") inscription appeared.  Does the alleged inscription differ at all between Replicas 1 and 2?  There is, indeed, a major difference in the way this appears between Replicas 1 and 2.  Here it is in Replica 1:

Close up of alleged "Jonah" inscription on Replica 1
This replica appears to have been produced before the "YWNH" inscription theory had emerged.  The lines really look like random lines.  Notice in particular what would become the letter "nun" -- it is here completely broken, just as it was in the CGI composite photograph and all the pictures up to this point (Do the lines in the "fish" head spell out Jonah?).  No one looking at this picture would for a moment think it was spelling out "Jonah".

However, in Replica 2, the transformation of these lines is remarkable.  Now the inscription could indeed be taken to spell out "Jonah".  Notice how the "nun" is now one single, connected line.  It is no longer broken.  The "he" is given the appearance of stopping with one thick line forming the top of the letter, and only a thin line going on to the border.  And the "yod" has a little loop on it just as it does in the "tracing" of the letters that appeared when the alleged inscription first came to light.  Here's a close-up:

Close up of Replica 2, showing YWNH lettering clearly marked

One can see the whole of Replica 2 in high definition here, if you want to take a closer look.  Notice also that there are no extraneous lines here.  Everything appears to be doing service in the representation of "YWNH".  Here's the tracing of the letters as it appeared on James Tabor's blog:

Yellow tracing of the alleged letters, James Tabor's blog, April 2012
In each, the "yod" has a loop, the "nun" is unbroken and the top line of the "he" does not extend all the way to the border.

I don't know what to make of all this, but I thought in the interests of analyzing Talpiot Tomb B, and the claims made by those involved with the "Jesus Discovery" project, it would be useful to lay out what I have found by analyzing the two contrasting replicas, and to see if others also see what I am seeing.  Why is it that the "fish in the margins" are recrafted in between Replicas 1 and 2?  Why is it that the "YWNH" inscription suddenly becomes clear only in Replica 2?

It may be worth adding that the replica shown to Prof. Puech in the video released last week is clearly Replica 2, which has a version of the "YWNH" inscription that we see above, and not the ambiguous representation of Replica 1:

Simcha Jacobovici shows Émile Puech Replica 2
As we have seen above, it is only Replica 2 that has a representation of the "YWNH" inscription that conforms with the interpretation of those involved in the project.  Did the representation of "YWNH" on Replica 2 influence Prof. Puech's reading?