October 02, 2012
The Credulity of the Vulgar

It’s always fun to read about evaluations of evidence issuing from the Vatican. The church hierarchy likes to give the impression that the church is a family with the normal family strife but a solid underpinning of universal love. This is based in part on the Christian tendency to deny the personal shadow and pretend to live entirely in the consciousness. As a result the shadow material is projected onto the nearest and most appropriate targets. "No, it’s not me that’s lying, it’s you!" Which might explain the level of discontent required to bring the pope’s butler to leak secret documents that embarrass a member of the pope’s inner circle, whom many others in that group felt had become a liability.

Thus, I admit, when the Vatican weighs in with its impressions of the findings of professor Karen King at the Harvard Divinity School I tend to arrive with some preconceptions. When the editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano, a paper considered to voice the positions of the Vatican, opines that “Substantial reasons would lead us to conclude that the papyrus is actually a clumsy counterfeit” one wonders whether the statement was mistranslated and he actually means “transubstantial reasons”. “In other words,” he says, “in any case it is a fake”.

When I read such pronouncements I can’t help thinking of Gibbon’s description of the Donation of Constantine, a fraudulent document used by the church in various ways on occasions from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries CE. This document claimed to be part of the will of Constantine I, who established the Christian church as that of the empire, providing that wealth and power in the here and now in which church theorists disclaimed interest. Constantine is supposed to have left the entire Western Roman Empire to the pope, plus a bunch of what we now call the Middle East to support the people ruled by the popes. The document was immediately assailed as a forgery, but not until 1439-1440 was the fraud definitively proven by an Italian priest and Renaissance humanist.

As Gibbon says:

Fraud is the resource of weakness and cunning; and the strong, though ignorant, barbarian was often entangled in the net of sacerdotal policy. The Vatican and Lateran were an arsenal and manufacture, which, according to the occasion, have produced or concealed a various collection of false or genuine, of corrupt or suspicious acts, as they tended to promote the interest of the Roman church. [...] The popes themselves have indulged a smile at the credulity of the vulgar...

On the substance of the matter, the document seems to be genuine. What I find odd is how threatened the Vatican appears to be. So what, there’s a second-century document talking about Jesus being married? All that means is that there was a tradition in that regard, which we know is true.

Gibbon’s masterpiece, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", is largely an account of the rise of Christianity. In it he tells the story of the creation of the Christian Bible in the third century CE. Essentially, a large convocation of cardinals and bishops, carefully selected, met to vote on various writings as to whether they were or were not canonical. After much wrangling choices were made, and orders went out to the farthest reaches of the Empire that every copy of certain books not in the canon was to be destroyed. Books like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary were lost for centuries, and only discovered in a cave in Egypt in the 1940s. Called the Nag Hammadi gospels, these books were a revelation to scholars who knew of their existence through references from books that weren’t burned but had never seen their contents. They detail traditions that were much more Gnostic and therefore did not fit into the hierarchical system of earthly wealth and power that the popes were developing. Included in those accounts are traditions in which Jesus calls Mary Magdelene his most important apostle because she understands his teachings better than anyone else.

Believing Christians should recall that every document we have, including those in the Bible and those not for one reason or another, was written at least 50 years after the events they recount, and in many cases hundreds of years. Much forgery went on, as people realized that by inserting words into the Bible they could get others to believe blindly. Much mistranslation took place as the text went from one language to another and another. We have, in fact, no solid data establishing any particular truth about the matter; not only about whether Jesus was married but about any events in his life, given the contradictory accounts available to us. Thus believers can choose to believe whatever improves their lives.

Which, to my mind, was the original point of creating the myth, so the whole thing works out pretty well.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at October 02, 2012 03:35 PM
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