April 11, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, April 11, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Back in September of 2012, Smithsonian magazine put out a sensational news story and an associated television program in which it announced that an ancient document had been found that indicated that Jesus had a wife. In the background to that was Harvard Divinity school professor Karen King, who did announce that she had found or she had come across a document supposedly found in 1960 that is actually a fourth century early Christian papyrus that includes a reference, in the somewhat thirty words found on this very small document, that is a reference to Jesus’ wife, and that’s what led to the sensationalism. And as I said back in 2012, this is really sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. And there’s a huge story here, but why are we talking about it in 2014? Because yesterday, after months of embarrassing delay, the Harvard Theological Review finally put out an article in which it is addressed to the critics of this controversy suggesting—well, let me just quote from The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein. She says:
A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published on Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery.
Well that should tell you something; that the Harvard Theological Review, after months of excruciating embarrassment, released yesterday this major issue with a news report indicating—and The New York Times has it exactly right—that it likely isn’t a forgery. Now it tells you a great deal that they had to put out a news story saying that it likely (just consider that word) isn’t a forgery (just consider that word). In other words, this is a very embarrassing position in which a major academic institution now finds itself, and the story here is actually huge. It’s huge because what it really points to is a major development in terms of the secular academic establishment. Over the course of the last 30 or 40 years, especially after the mid-20th century discovery at Nag Hammadi of a vast trove of early Gnostic Christian documents, there’s been an effort to try to disprove that the early church had a theological orthodoxy. Instead, the claim is that early Christianity was marked by a radical religious pluralism, even in terms of the theological understanding of who Jesus is and why he came and what he did. And, furthermore, there is the accusation that the whole idea of Christian orthodoxy, of Orthodox Christian doctrine, was a far later development forced by political considerations, and that’s why liberals who hate the idea of theological orthodoxy believe that the discovery of an early heterodoxy or of a various pluralism of theologies would be advantageous to make their case. But as so often turns out, those that are discovered to be on the margins are there because the Orthodox Christian tradition pushed them to the margins, and actually, a closer look at this controversy reveals that that is exactly what is taking place. We’re not talking about the Gospels, the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We’re not talking about the New Testament that has been received by the church and honored by the church for two millennia. We’re talking about documents that were completely unknown until they were discovered, hidden away in fragments, a matter of mere decades ago.
Well, this particular edition of the Harvard Theological Review that was released yesterday does include, at least at the very front of the journal, a major article by Professor Karen King, the professor at the center this controversy, in which she defends the authenticity of her research and of this little tiny papyrus fragment and it’s thirty words. But what we also have is a vigorous academic debate within the journal, and in that debate, there enters the figure of Leo Depuydt of Brown University who writes also in the same issue of the Harvard Theological Review:
The following analysis submits that it is out of the question that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source. The author of this analysis has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.
So we have a vigorous academic debate going on within the pages of the Harvard Theological Review’s issue that was released yesterday. And Leo Depuydt of Brown University, a well-recognized scholar of the ancient world, says that it is beyond question that this is an outright forgery, and he has some very interesting evidence that he brings to the fore. The most important evidence is this: what you have here is, indeed, an ancient piece of papyrus. It appears that all the tests indicate it is ancient. You also have what is claimed to be ancient ink, but, here’s one of the footnotes in this research, as it turns out, the only way they can actually test the ink, in terms of its chemical composition, would be to destroy the papyrus, so they didn’t do it. They’re just saying there’s nothing that proves it is a forgery.
But the most important evidence for the fact that it is a forgery is that it includes—and remember, you’re just talking about a tiny little fragment here of thirty words—included in this particular papyrus and its words is an error. And it is precisely an error that is found in an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, one of these Gnostic documents. In other words, what we’re being asked to believe, in terms of the authenticity of this piece of papyrus and the document that is on it, what we’re now asked to believe is that it’s just a coincidence; that there is this same error in the document that occurs in this supposedly ancient fragment and in a modern online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. That’s why Professor Depuydt says, “All this leads me personally 100% convinced that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I don’t do 95% in this case.” He also says, “I find nothing in these documents”—he means the research reports published in the review. He says, “I find nothing in these documents that could change in any way the fact that I am personally 100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I have otherwise never deemed ink or papyrus text necessary or relevant in light of the evidence set forth below.” He goes on to say, “There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind personally that the text is a patchwork of words and phrases from the published and well-known Gospel of Thomas.” That’s a Coptic document. The dialect of Coptic, he says, is exactly what you find in the Gospel of Thomas.” In other words, this is a forgery, and here you have an Ivy League professor who says, “I’m not 95% certain it’s a forgery; I am 100% certain that it’s a forgery.” How does the Harvard Divinity School respond, in terms of the Harvard Theological Journal, “We don’t think it’s a forgery,” and that’s after months of investigation; months longer than they had originally promised.
The article that appeared yesterday in The New York Times quotes a professor at MIT Center for Materials Science and Engineering who used infrared technology to determine whether the ink showed any variations or inconsistencies. The professor, he is Timothy M. Swager, said, “The main thing was to see, did somebody doctor this up? And there is absolutely no evidence for that. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Dr. Depuydt, who is also quoted in The New York Times article, the Brown University Egyptologist and specialist in terms of papyrus, said that testing the fragment was irrelevant, and he said that the inspection of it would make no difference. He said he decided all that based on the first newspaper photograph that the fragment was forged because it included what he called gross grammatical errors and each word in it matched writing in the Gospel of Thomas. “It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence,” he said.
Here’s what’s really interesting in terms of the conclusion of The New York Times article:
And Dr. King [that’s Dr. Karen King at Harvard] said that her “big disappointment” is that so far, the story of the fragment has focused on forgery, not on history.
Well let’s assume for a moment that it’s not a forgery. Let’s just imagine that all these coincidences are just that; they’re just coincidences. Let’s just accept for a moment that this just might be an authentic document from the fourth century of the early Christian era. Dr. King says we need to do history, but what’s the history we would do? Well, the history we would do is to say that evidently this document found from the fourth century indicates that some people on the very margins of Christianity made the claim that Jesus had a wife. What would that tell us? It would tell us exactly the that; that there were persons on the margins of the Christian movement who made claims that have nothing to do with Orthodox Christian understanding, nothing to do with the church’s testimony of Christ, nothing to do with the Christ who is revealed in the Gospels. In other words, it would tell us that in the early centuries of the Christian church, there were heretics, which is actually what every church historian already knows. So if we’re going to do history, what this tells us is that here’s new evidence of heresy. It doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus. And, by the way, the more you look at the actual articles in the Harvard Theological Review, the more they actually make that case themselves. In other words, this isn’t about Jesus. This isn’t really even about theology. It’s not even about history. It’s about the effort of the secular academy to present scholarship that’s actually just sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. All those concerns back in 2012 turn out to be not only well-placed, but extremely relevant, and at the end of the day, even if you grant the entire case being claimed by the professor here in the center this case, Professor Karen King, what does it demonstrate? Well it demonstrates what we already knew: there were minority heretical voices in early Christianity. And there are now. The difference is now people want to claim the margin for the center and push the center to the margin. And for Christians, that’s the most important insight in terms of this story.
You’re going to be hearing a great deal of conversation about the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. That 50-year anniversary is truly important, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation, a very important piece of legislation that made major changes in American society and in the American conscience. A piece of legislation that in retrospect was absolutely necessary in order to protect the civil rights of all Americans, especially of African-Americans, who were routinely denied those civil rights all the way up to Congress’s passage of this legislation and President Johnson’s signing of the legislation into law. The 50th anniversary is bringing out all kinds of commemorations. One of them is at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library there in Texas, in Austin, Texas, the Texas State Capitol. The Johnson Library has been the focus of a great deal of this conversation and will be in weeks to come because it was President Johnson who pushed this legislation, pushed it all the way through both houses of Congress, and eventually signed it into law. In so doing, President Johnson said he was continuing the legacy of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy whose place he took after the assassination in 1963. It was political momentum out of that that led President Johnson to face the American people and the American Congress and demand that this legislation be adopted.
Two presidents, one present and one former, have been speaking to this. President Barack Obama, speaking to this, pointed out that President Johnson’s centrality to this story is very important. Former President Bill Clinton was speaking at the Johnson Library about this as well. President Obama praised Lyndon Johnson for knowing how to get things done—this according to report in USA Today—including civil rights laws that forged opportunities for millions and make possible the nation’s first African-American president. “Passing laws is what LBJ knew how to do,” he said. He said, “They swung open for you [speaking of the doors of this legislation], and they swung open for me. That’s why I’m standing before you today.” He spoke of President Johnson in very interesting terms. He said:
He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and argument. He could horse-trade, and he could flatter.
Well anyone who’s read major biographies of Lyndon Johnson, such as the massive multi-volume biography by Robert Caro, knows exactly what President Obama was talking about. President Johnson had been for years the majority leader, the Democratic leader in the United States Senate during a time of overwhelming Democratic majorities. He had the power to push just about anything through the Senate when he was the Senate’s majority leader. As president of the United States, he knew how to make Congress work. But President Obama here, speaking of President Johnson, seemed to be speaking rather wistfully, looking back to the past, perhaps wishing that he had the same ability to cajole Congress that Lyndon Johnson had. But that’s where knowledge of history might come in to correct that picture just a bit. Because even as we look back to that Civil Rights Act and say it was absolutely necessary, and even as we must understand the ordeal of conscience that made it necessary, the very fact that the American people had to be pushed by the force of law to recognize the civil rights of other Americans, that’s a haunting issue in the American conscience. But when you look back to President Lyndon Johnson and the legislative achievement, how did it happen? Well, in actuality, what President Johnson did would never be tolerated today. President Johnson engaged in raw political bargaining. He brought in Senators and he offered them judicial appointments. He offered them special budgetary considerations. Without any apologies, President Johnson twisted arms and gave away judgeships. He did whatever was necessary in order to get the vote, and he did get this massive and important vote through the Congress. What does this tell us? It tells us that in a Genesis 3 fallen world, politics is a dirty business. It is sometimes a crooked business, but sometimes in a dirty and crooked business, the right thing actually gets done. And I think even as there are many statements looking wistfully back at Lyndon Johnson—and, let’s admit it, he was a very colorful figure—the reality is that in today’s Washington, DC, that kind of presidential behavior would never be accepted by people in either party—unless, of course, it’s still going on today. Maybe the big issue is it’s going on in different forms today and perhaps not so well. What does that tell us? It tells us that sometimes politics can be crooked and ineffective; sometimes it can be crooked and effective. Sometimes it’s hard to know which to hope for.
Finally, last month the Pew Research Center came out with a massive study entitled, “Worldwide, Many See Belief in God as Essential to Morality.” The subtitle: “Richer Nations Are Exception.” The researchers were James Bell, Katie Simmons, and Russ Oates, and their report is indeed pretty massive and is also very interesting. As it reveals, there is a huge disparity among nations in terms of the populations that believe that belief in God is necessary in order for there to be a stable morality. And as you look at the data, there are surprises here, but they’re actually quite few. In other words, it’s really pretty predictable. In North America, Northern Europe, the more secularized portions of the globe, you’re more likely to find people who don’t believe that belief in God is necessary for morality. Also, no surprise here, the younger you going in the demographic, the more likely you’re going to find secular people who do not believe that belief in God is necessary for morality. If you go to the global South, virtually anywhere south of the equator, if you look at anywhere in terms of the developing world, you find overwhelming majorities who will say explicitly, if you don’t believe in God, there is no stable morality. Very, very interesting. The Pew Research actually puts it out in terms of graphs and charts showing that Europe and North America, most secular, least likely to believe that belief in God is necessary. Then you compare it to the areas that are most likely to insist that if you don’t believe in God, you can have stable morality. The Middle East runs first in terms of that region.
Responding to this research, CJ Werleman, writing at Salon.com, says it’s nothing less than scandalous that so many people, especially so many Americans, a vast majority of Americans still believe that belief in God is necessary for a stable morality in order for a society to be moral. As Werleman writes, “A comparatively eye-popping 53% of Americans essentially believe atheists and agnostics are living in sin.” Well here’s the problem—both with the way the research is presented and in the way the media have largely responded to it. What’s the problem? The question really isn’t whether individuals must believe in God in order to behave in morally acceptable terms, but the real problem here is the way the research is presented and the way the media has reported it. The key question here from a Christian worldview perspective is not the question as to whether individual atheists or agnostics can behave morally. The fact is obviously they can. The big question, the most interesting question from a Christian worldview perspective, is about society at large. Can a society hold onto any form of moral stability if indeed the vast majority of its inhabitants or population do not believe in God? That’s the key question. Can you hold onto a stable morality? It’s not a question as to whether individuals can be moral, in terms of living relatively upright lives according to the moral code adopted by a society. The fact is, the obvious answer to that is, there are people with greater and lesser rates of theistic belief or Christian affirmation who behave well within the society. Christians should not be in the position of arguing that all atheist and agnostics necessarily misbehave. There is clearly a link between worldview and behavior, but the reality is there are many people who behave better than their worldview. And, by the way, we should be thankful for that. The big question is how you actually have a morality without a divine revelation; how, indeed, you have a morality without a self-existent God who establishes what is right and what is wrong; how you have a morality if, indeed, it’s nothing more than an evolutionary-negotiated human construct. If it is just merely, from the secular worldview, a human construct, then you actually don’t have any absolute right or absolute wrong.
The really interesting worldview question is this: How is it that every single human being seems to have an innate sense of the fact that there is a right and wrong? Where does that moral sense come from? Evolution simply is inadequate on its face to explain the fact that that is a universal human experience. The second thing is if that is a universal human experience, if to be human is to understand that moral nature of the universe, how is it that we understand what is right and what is wrong, how is it that we even have confidence that there is such a thing as right and wrong, if this is merely a cosmic accident? The reality is we can’t.
So from a Christian worldview perspective, the interesting question is how do you have morality if you do not have God? We must not let that get translated into the controversial and unhelpful question: Can unbelievers act acceptably in a moral sense in the society? Clearly, they can. Clearly, that’s not the important question. The Christian worldview gets to the deeper issue. How do you even know what is right and wrong? How can you meaningfully use those terms and engage in that kind of moral consideration if there is no God who determines what is right and what is wrong? Because of there is no God, there is no stability to those concepts, and if you don’t have stability to the understanding of what is right and what is wrong, then there’s no stability to the morality, and society after society will make that point abundantly clear.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember, tomorrow morning a new release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question for an upcoming episode at 877-505-2058. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.