Peter Williams, Warden, Tyndale House, Cambridge, follows up the claim made in September that Jesus may have had a wife with a provocative title, “Jesus’s ‘wife’ found dead,” Evangelicals Now (November 2012).
The translation of this document was titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” and it created an incredible response in the media. Many focused on the title and made certain assumptions and claims, while others were much more cautious in their assessment of this document. As is often the case with these sorts of sensational stories, there was an immediate buzz, and then it faded into obscurity. It is helpful to take a look at something like this once the dust has settled a bit. That is what Williams does in this brief article.
Williams traces the response to this document and concludes that “after nearly a month of scrutiny by scholars on the blogosphere, it appears that the fragment is almost certainly a fake.” Rather than letting this go and losing the opportunity for learning lessons, Williams concludes by stating some things we (Evangelicals) learned:
First, we see a number of layers of spin in this tale. Dr. King’s original decision to call the media and to label the fragment a ‘Gospel’ just set the ball rolling. Soon media reports copied each other, and started to suggest that this was a discovery to revolutionise or challenge Christian teaching. By the time this arrived at popular perception, the transformation was complete: a piece of historical evidence suggested that Jesus actually had a wife. The majority impression given by the media was that this was an authentic piece, and the message that, even if genuine, the fragment was of little historical consequence was not heard. Public attitude will have been affected for the worse.
So we are reminded that the secular media appear incredibly powerful at getting false messages across which it is hard for us to redress.
Secondly, it could have been worse. To her credit, from the beginning Dr. King released high resolution photos and the technical information she had. This enabled quick scrutiny. Had the person responsible for the fake been better at his or her job the story could have had yet more negative impact. As it was, it’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown of The Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.
It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.
It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.
What are we to make of these lessons learned? First, it is encouraging to know that Evangelicals, those who affirm the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, and who also affirm the historicity of the God-man, Jesus Christ, are on the front-lines of defending the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.
Second, that Evangelicals have the “technical expertise” and the “intellectual firepower” to engage in these subjects is what people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer and others, including our own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, moved towards in the 1940s when they pursued a new direction, different from the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists. It was/is also at the heart of numerous Evangelical seminaries, including our own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Third, even as these Evangelical scholars can engage in and provide leadership to these academic discussions, humility is absolutely essential. That attribute is a mark of both the Lord Jesus and those who truly understand, proclaim and defend the gospel. Apart from humility, one can win an argument, displease God (cf. Isa. 66:2) and undermine the gospel we proclaim.
Fourth, our ultimate aim as we defend the faith is that God would be glorified. Our goal is to make much of God, not of self. This can and ought to be done in all situations and circumstances, even like these in which a claim is made that Jesus had a wife.