CNN Special on the Gospel of Judas

Last October, I traveled to Geneva to the Bodmer Library where the Gospel of Judas is housed.  My purpose?  To take part in the filming of a new documentary about the recovery, conservation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. 

It was an absolute thrill to see the Gospel of Judas firsthand, rather than on my computer in photographs.  The manuscript, although grossly damaged, was quite beautiful in its script and legibility.  I was surprised given all the rumors I had heard about its physical state. 

The filming was exhausting but very productive.  I was asked to take the audience through the Coptic text and explain what I think is going on with its translation and interpretation.  Aside from my contribution, there is also comment from Elaine Pagels, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, and Stephen Emmel.  The series consultants are Mark Goodacre, Joshua Garroway, and Candida Moss.

The film is finished.  It will air on March 15th on CNN at 9 pm.  It is the third film in a 6-part series on ancient relics associated with Jesus.  “Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery.”  The series blends science and archaeology to examine six Christian relics.  To retell “the greatest story ever told” using state-of-the-art scientific techniques and archaeological research, the series covers the Shroud of Turin, True Cross relics, the Gospel of Judas, John the Baptist relics, the ossuary of James Jesus’ brother, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  The first in the series premiers on March 1.  A companion book to the film, Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery, written by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, will be released on February 24.

Sad News: Professor Borg passed away yesterday

I am so saddened to hear that Professor Borg passed away yesterday.  He was one of my heroes early on when he first started publishing his trade books.  I was so honored last fall to meet him for lunch when he came to Houston to speak at the Christ Church Cathedral. If found him to be a kind and soft-spoken person with a powerful message of love for all.

If you have never read his books, try Reading the Bible Again For the First Time.  It is a book I always assign my undergraduates who enroll in my introduction to biblical studies course.

He was inspirational with his message of a liberal Christianity of the heart.  He will be missed.  A tribute to him can be found in the Religious News Service.

Rasimus writes a book review on Apocalypse of An Alien God

Tuomas Rasimus has just published a book review on Dylan Burns, Apocalypse of An Alien God.  It is a well-written piece meant for the general public, so it is very accessible and gives a current state of affairs in terms of scholars' thinking about Gnosticism. 

I agree with Burns and Rasimus, that the Gnostic impulse reflects revelatory traditions frequently found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought, although I don't confine this impulse to Sethian literature.  While Sethians were Gnostics, not all Gnostics were Sethians.

Here is the link to the book review published in Marginalia, Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Note: The Open Mind (edited by Jonathan Knight and Kevin Sullivan)

A new edited volume has come out in the Library of New Testament Studies from T&T Clark.  It is a Festschrift for Professor Christopher Rowland (Emertius, Oxford University) put together by his students and friends.  The book is appropriately titled The Open Mind

Chris' work was mind-opening for me years ago when I first read his fabulous book The Open Heaven and then his follow up Christian Origins.  His books were revelations to me, putting me inside of apocalypticism and mysticism in ways I had never thought about before. 

Chris showed me that mysticism is the vertical form of apocalypticism, while eschatology the horizonal.  One dealt with the revelation of God in the present, via direct immediate experience.  The other dealt with the revelation of God at death and the end of time.  This simple breakdown ended up forming the basic structure of my understanding of the ancient mind, and has remained in place for me for the last twenty-five years, informing almost everything I have ever written.

Contributors to the volume include myself, Vicente Dobroruka, Jonathan Draper, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Paul Foster, Charles Gieschen, Andrew Gregory, Jonathan Knight, Philip Munoa, Tobias Nicklas, Andrei Orlov, J.W. Rogerson, and Kevin Sullivan.  Topics range from my own discussion of the cognitive basis for the "universal" structure of ascent narratives to antecedents for angelic incarnations to cosmic mysteries in the Didache

This book is a lovely tribute to the work of a giant in our field, and shows how deeply he has inspired us. 

Weekly Apocryphote: June 8-14

Awaken your divine nature to God.  Strengthen your soul (to be) without evil...Seek what is permanent, what is not generated.  The Father of everything summons you...You have not come to suffer.  Rather you have come to escape from what binds you.  Release yourself, and what has bound you will be undone.  Save yourself, so that what is (in you) may be saved...Why are you hesitating?  Turn around when you are sought.  When you are summoned, listen.

Zostrianos 130.19-131.19; translation is mine

John's Gospel and Intimations of Apocalyptic, edited by Catrin Williams and Christopher Rowland

In July, four years ago (wow has it been that long ago?) a number of us met at Bangor University to discuss new directions in research on the Gospel of John and apocalypticism.  The conference was in response to John Aston's book Understanding the Fourth Gospel, and the fact that the apocalyptic dimensions had not received the kind of study that Aston suggested would be valuable.  How is the text pervaded with themes concerning the apocalyptic or revelation?  How does the Johannine narrative offer intimations of another world, another reality, without a direct theophany typical of so many apocalypses (p. ix)?

I dealt with centuries of mistranslations of John 8:44 and argue in my contribution to this book that this text reveals a long-kept secret that the early Johannine community believed that the devil had a Father who is the Jewish biblical god.  This god is not Jesus' Father.   "Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father in the Catholic-Gnostic Debate."  I also examine 1 John and show that this letter is written to domesticate the early community's original understanding of John 8:44.  This understanding of the Gospel of John forms now the basis of my understanding of Johannine Christianity, and will resurface in my chapter on the fourth gospel (John and the Dark Cosmos) in my book The Ancient New Age.

If you are interested in the Gospel of John and its intersection with revelation, this volume contains some really "new" ideas and I highly recommend it. 

Authors and Table of Contents:

  • Christopher Rowland and Catrin Williams, Introduction
  • John Ashton, Intimations of Apocalyptic: Looking Back and Looking Forward
  • Benjamin Reynolds, John and the Jewish Apocalypses: Rethinking the Genre of John's Gospel
  • Ian Boxall, From the Apocalypse of John to the Johannine "Apocalypse in Reverse": Intimations of Apocalyptic and the Quest for a Relationship
  • Jörg Frey, God's Dwelling on Earth: 'Shekhina-Theology' in Revelation 21 and in the Gospel of John
  • Catrin Williams, Unveiling Revelation: The Spirit-Paraclete and Apocalyptic Disclosure in the Gospel of John
  • Christopher Rowland, 'Intimations of Apocalyptic': The Perspective of the History of Interpretation
  • April DeConick, Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father
  • Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, The Ruler of the World, Antichrists and Pseudo-Prophets: Johannine Variations on an Apocalyptic Motif
  • Loren Stuckenbruck, Evil in Johannine and Apocalyptic Perspective: Petition for Protection in John 17
  • Judith Lieu, Text and Authority in John and Apocalyptic
  • Robert G. Hall, The Reader as Apocalyptist in the Gospel of John
  • Robin Griffith-Jones, Apocalyptic Mystagogy: Rebirth-from-above in the Reception of John's Gospel
  • Adela Yarbro Collins, Epilogue


Transtheism or Numinalism

I am continuing to think about this word that we don't yet have to describe a religious point of view that sees all conventional religions as inadequate human constructions, that have not been able to communicate the experience of an ultimate reality that transcends us.

Love this randomly generated abstract cloud of words associated with Transtheism!

Love this randomly generated abstract cloud of words associated with Transtheism!

While this must be enough already (I have published two recent blog posted on the subject), it isn't because it remains unresolved for me.  It is an important concept, and I need to be able to talk about it in a way that distinguishes it from other talk about religion. 

For instance, it is different from mysticism because mysticism is the practice of the mystical, when certain activities are undertaken to experience the divine directly.  It is different from perennialism because it doesn't advocate that the world's religions are expressions of the same reality.  In some ways we are dealing with the opposite position, that religions have done a poor job and have yet to express that reality in any really meaningful way.

I am thinking now about these possibilities:

1. Transtheism

The view that the ultimate reality is beyond the gods that the conventional religions advocate.

2. Numinalism

The view that the ultimate reality is the numinal, something that can't be captured by conventional religions.

Religion as timeless

I have been thinking quite a bit about the humanities lately, and what makes the humanities distinctive from other fields of knowledge and ways of knowing.  Why should we care about the humanities at all, since studying humanities' subjects can't create new technology, cure cancer, or build skyscrapers? 

There are two things that immediately come to my mind.  First the humanities is about history, it is about knowing our past, its impact on our present, and how it will shape our future.  The sciences and social sciences are not about our history.  It is not that they don't have a history, but the scientific method and most social scientific approaches are about observing our present and recording those observations.  While cultural anthropologists might be concerned about recording the past of a particular group under study, this is a very local project.  The humanities is about remembering and understanding our past with the distinct desire to apply what we have learned to our present situation, with the hope that we won't make the same mistakes over and over again.

Second the humanities is about knowledge that is "everlasting", rather than progressive knowledge.  Science knowledge improves with time.  As we learn more about the cosmos, physics changes, sometimes with knowledge that shifts the entire paradigm like the theory of relativity.  The same is true of social science, which improves upon itself constantly. 

But subjects in humanities don't really get out-dated nor are they improved upon in the same way as scientific knowledge.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare.  You like him or you don't.  I would make the same argument about philosophy which engages, for instance, logic and morality in only so many ways.  In this way, the knowledge of the humanities is like art.  It is what it is.  It tells us about ourselves.  It is ancient and modern at the same time.  Or timeless, whatever you prefer. Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, captures the essence of what I am saying.

To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world…this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.”

Religion fits here.  Religion is not about progressing to the best religion.  Religions don't really replace each other (although some may suggest this like Christianity did when it advertised itself as Judaism's replacement).  While some religious ideas are certainly out-dated, by and large, religions today operate the same way they have since as far back as we can trace. 

Even before any sort of complex language, Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead with grave goods in fetal positions, and some people think that they piled up bear bones as religious offerings to powerful spirits.  These religious ideas and practices are as valid today as they were in prehistoric times.  We still concern ourselves with religious burials, and, while we don't pile bear bones up on altars, we certainly place other offerings there, like the body of Jesus.

So I want to spend some time thinking about religion as an art, as timeless.  What aspects have that timeless quality that mirrors our humanity no matter the age?  If we can get a grip on them, I think we come a long way to understanding why human beings are religious and why religion is not going away.

Graduation congratulations

Graduation was this past weekend at Rice.  Rice has a wonderful tradition of the new doctors being hooded by their mentors.  It was a very special ceremony for me, hooding my first too students, who are now on their way as new PhDs., Dr. Franklin Trammell 2007 and Dr. Grant Adamson 2008.

Here are some photos commemorating their graduation.  Photos were taken by various members of their families.

Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

Four of Rice Religious Studies PhD graduates: Dr. Jonathan Chism, Dr. Franklin Trammell, Dr. Daniel Brubaker, Dr. Grant Adamson, and me.

What words do we have to describe transcendent religion?

I want to thank all of you who have responded to my request for a word to describe a particular worldview that sees all religions as inadequate human constructions of our experience of a transcendent sacred, rather than divine revelations of God to different local populations (pluralism/universalism/perennialism).  I need this word for a new book project (after The Ancient New Age) where I am describing three options that have been emerging in the modern world to deal with religious intolerance.  The third is the option without a name, at least yet!

Here are a few of the terms that have filtered up to the top for me in our blog chat:

1. transuniversalism

I like this option since it could be used to define a perspective that values a universal transcendence that is beyond all conventional religions.  It has the sense of something beyond/at odds with conventional religious universalism. It also has the feel of something transcending the universe.

2. transnuminalism

This option is beautiful, really stunning, since it indicates a transcendence of the numinous, that the numinal is beyond religious prescription. The problem here is that the word "numinal" is not accessible without knowing Otto's description of the sacred.  So the word is not going to be transparent to most readers.

3. transreligionism

This was favored by many of you, and I like it too.  There is one difficulty with the word and that is that it suggests a position that is against religion period.  While people who hold this position view conventional religions as inadequate, this doesn't mean that they are against religion altogether.  It means that they are against the view that religion is a sacred cow, and that scriptures are divine revelations.  Many people who hold this perspective still want to be part of religion, but not as it is conventionally done.

4. transcensionism

I like this word very much.  It captures the transcendent aspect really well since the word actually means the act, process or instance of transcending.  What I don't like is the sound of the word.  It is difficult to say, especially with the -ism on the end. 

Again, I encourage your comments, whether by post here or email, as I continue to try to find and then put into place, into the scholarly discourse, a word for this way of being religious.


I need some help with a word

I am in need of some feedback on the creation of a word to describe the view that conventional religions are inadequate human attempts to concretize our experiences of the sacred and holy, which transcends us all.  This perspective calls people to a universal spirituality that surpasses conventional religions.  

I don't want to use transcendentalism because it is used to describe a specific American literary and philosophical movement.  Neither do I want to use the word universalism because it is already in play to mean all sorts of things, and not this.

So what are the choices and what sounds the best? 

Please leave me a note with your preference or another idea that might work better.

1. transcendentism

2. transcensionism

3. transcendism

4. transcendalism

5. transreligionism


Cognitive Round Up: Why God Won't Go Away

As I have written before, as a historian I have become disenchanted with traditional approaches which perceive history to be what happened due to particular linear causes and effects, almost entirely social in nature.  So I have begun rewiring my historical approach so that it views history as something made to explain the present.  History emerges within a cognitive and cultural network, and therefore is reflective of local cultural affairs as well as universal ways of thinking.  I call this approach, Cognitive Historicism.

I have begun to read seriously materials written about the cognitive end of things.  So every so often I will be posting a book note featuring these cognitive readings.  Hopefully they will inspire you to start reading in this direction.

Today I start with Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine Books: New York 2002).  The authors are brain researchers who have conducted now-famous experiments using SPECT camera photography to map brain changes in meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who engage in repetitive rituals and meditation to achieve self-transcendent and unitary experiences.  These authors argue that religious experience, especially the transcendent state of Absolute Unitary Being, is not a hallucination or a delusion.  It is the result of the normal operations of the brain when sensory information to the operation association area is interrupted and the area becomes deafferented, when it is forced to operate on little or no information.  This results in the softening of the boundaries of the self and opens the door of the mind to unitary states of consciousness.

These authors do not understand their observations to lead to reductionism: that religious experience is only imagined because God is a figment of the firing of our neurons.  Instead they argue that all of our experiences, whether it is the experience of eating a piece of pie or encountering God, are all in our minds.   And this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.  Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness.  There simply is no other way for us to experience anything except through the brain’s neural pathways (36-37). They write, “If God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain” (53).

Do the mystics experience something real that is outside material existence?  Science and common sense has always said no.  But the inquiry of these authors has led them to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the realness of something divine (140-140).  They draw this conclusion based on how they understand the brain’s ability to differentiate between things that are real and not real (143) and the reality of both our external objective world and our inner subjective sense what is real (144).  While they began their research with the assumption that all that is really real is material, they found that all perceptions exist in our minds, whether physical or otherwise (146).  If we are to dismiss spiritual experience as mere neurological activities, we must also distrust all of our own brain’s conceptions of the material world.  If we trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is only in the mind (146-147).

Weekly Apocryphote: May 12-19

Woman with mirror, Louvre CA587  

Woman with mirror, Louvre CA587


Unless you become like the things that actually exist, it is impossible for you to see them. Yet this is not how it is in our world.  We see the sun without being a sun.  We see the heaven and the earth and everything else, but we are not them...But when we see things in the spiritual realm, we become those things. We see the Spirit, we become spirit...In our world, you see everything except yourself, but in the spiritual realm, you see yourself.  And what you see, you will become.

Gospel of Philip (translation is mine; with occasional adjustment of person and tense for aesthetics)

Sexism and the Gospel of Jesus' Wife

I was impressed when I read Eva Mroczek's critique of the sexist rhetoric that surrounds the scholarly discussion of the fragment that mentions Jesus' wife.  Very impressed. 

I was also concerned because I have written on feminist issues on this blog in the past, and have endured public shaming for it.   I knew there would be backlash from Eva's feminist assessment, and that it would get personal very fast.  Which it has, overnight (for instance HERE). 

My opinion is that we really need to slow down with this fragment.  And we need to back off making the analysis of this fragment personal and gendered, whether intentional or not.

Sexism is insidious as I argued in my book Holy Misogyny.  Because of this, sexism is difficult to detect, and when it is, we immediately move to proven strategies to make sexism disappear as if it were not there in the first place. 

The worst part of this strategy is that we often project the sexism back on the offended party, in this case a woman, as if she were the cause of the sexism.  She has either made it up, not been able to take a joke, made a mountain out of a mole hill, or just plain doesn't know what she is talking about.  Shame on her.  This is the oldest strategy in the book.  But it is still used because it is so effective in shutting people up and making the dominant majority feel better about itself.

When a woman comes forward with the observation that something is offensive and sexist, instead of shaming her, maybe we could try to listen to her instead.  It may raise our personal awareness about how we all are a part of a society built to maintain sexism.  And it may prompt us to be inspired to try to do something about it.  

Weekly Apocryphote: May 5-11

A quotation of the Gospel of Philip in the comment of my post yesterday reminded of the time years ago when I would present a weekly apocryphote as food for thought or contemplation.  The idea is like those weekly calendars that display a pretty picture and a bible quote to illuminate us.  Here, on this blog, the forgotten and forbidden are called forth instead.

Week May 5-11

"Redemption is an ascent.  It is (ascending by) the degrees which make up (God's) Wholeness...It is an entrance into what is silent, where there is no need for voice nor for knowing nor for thinking nor for enlightenment, but (where) all things are light, needing no illumination." 

Tripartite Tractate 124.14-15, 19-25.  Translation mine.

Is Heaven for real?

Is Heaven for real?  A blue-eyed Jesus riding a horse.  Serenading angels.  A bunch of dead relatives hugging.  That is the real heaven according to the four-year old boy Colton in the book and movie, Heaven is for Real. Critic Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair makes the following observation: "What baffled secular me is why the film’s vision of heaven, which seemed almost boringly conventional—the handful of scenes illustrating Colton’s experiences look like the kinds of celestial imagery you’d see in a child’s Bible or on the walls at Mormon visitor’s center—is troubling to Todd and the members of his church."

My reaction.  What else would you expect from the mind of a four-year old whose father is a Christian minister?  As for troubling, when isn't a near death experience troubling, especially when it is reported back in images familiar to a four-year old? 

Does the fact that Colton's report reflects the mind of a four-year old mean that he made this all up?  It is more complicated than a yes or no answer.  Why?  Because this is a classic example of what cognitive linguists refer to as cognitive frames. 

No, I am not talking about some new google glasses that augment our thoughts like borg hardware.  I am talking about an organic process that is already in place in our brains.  Our brains create thoughts, create our noetic reality, based on a mental operation that cognitive linguists call framing.  That is, there are certain clusters of ideas that are activated when we experience certain things. 

Think about a hamburger.  What do you see?  Smell?  Taste?  We all know what hamburger means.  It is a cluster of things, and items in the cluster can be changed out, yet still we identify it as a hamburger.  It is a meat patty, usually beef, sandwiched in a bun.  Now is it a hamburger if I add cheese?  Bacon?  Mushrooms?  What about bison instead of beef?  Turkey? Sausage? Tofu?  When does it stop becoming a hamburger and start becoming something new?  An innovation?  A cognitive blend, when the conventional hamburger frame has shifted to such an extreme that a new idea, a new culinary delight, emerges?

Now we can apply this to religious studies and biblical studies in many fruitful directions.  Scholars are already seeing the app here.  I will probably return to this idea in the future on this blog and discuss some of these new directions in scholarship, where cognitive studies is meeting the bible.  But today I just want to comment on its implications for religious experiences like Colton had.

Cognitive frames are what makes the difference for religious experience.  Why do some people report encounters with Jesus and an afterlife that matches Christian conventions that a four-year old knows like we see in the Heaven's for Real?  Why do other people report encountering other types of gods and realms in their religious experiences?  Because everything we experience we experience through our bodies and brains, and our brains are wired in very specific ways.  We all, no matter who we are or where we live, experience the world through mental frames.  Some of these frames are universal, like our experience of verticality or containers.  Others are defined more culturally, like a blue-eyed Jesus sitting in heaven. 

My point is that we experience our world as our brains and bodies allow us.  They define and limit whatever that raw experience actually may have been.  It is not a matter of after-the-fact interpretation that we lay on the raw experience.  It is a matter of experiencing the raw as what we already know (albeit with occasional innovation when our frames shift).  We can't do otherwise. 

So is heaven for real?  Yes, for Colton it was.  But his heaven may not be real for everyone.

First Annual Alumni Awards Dinner

Last Friday evening we started a new tradition in the Religious Studies Department at Rice.  We held our first ever Alumni Awards Dinner.  We recognized all of our graduating PhDs and also an alumna, Leonora Montgomery, who was the first woman to graduate from our department with her PhD in 1984. 

This year the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality hosted a symposium and exhibition "The Women of Rice: Our Legacy and Labor".  This event launched a campus-wide initiative to document and archive the contributions women have made and continue to make a Rice.  To this end, the Religious Studies Department is honoring Leonora Montgomery, the first woman to graduate from our program with a PhD. 

In the 1940s and 50s, when she would have been the age of a typical graduate student, she was not in graduate school.  Admittance to PhD programs for women at this time was very limited and rare.  But Dr. Montgomery did it anyway, just later. She entered our graduate program in 1974 and graduated in 1984.  She worked with Professors Sellers, Nielsen and Martin.  Her dissertation title is: "The Ethical Imperatives which Emerge from a Theological Perspective on Disintegration at the End of Life." She was 61.  But this is only the beginning.  A year later she was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She did not stay local.  She became an international pastor, serving five english-speaking churches in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Wiesbaden and Heidelberg.  After serving abroad, she returned to the Houston and served three local churches.  She retired from the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church.  She has served on the Board of Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Commission, the Wellesley College Unitarian Universalist Chaplaincy Advisory Board, and on several boards of Houston's social service agencies.  She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard in 2012 for her dedication and service to the Unitarian Universalist faith.

So congratulations Dr. Montgomery.  And also to our new doctors of philosophy:

a.    Grant Adamson, Christ Incarnate: How Ancient Minds Conceived the Son of God: mentor: April DeConick

b.    Dustin Atlas, Out of the In-Between: Moses Mendelssohn & Martin Buber’s German Jewish Philosophy of Encounter, Singularity, & Aesthetics: mentor, Jeff Kripal

c.     Daniel Brubaker, Intentional Changes in Qur’an Manuscripts; mentor: David Cook

d.    Jonathan Chism, “The Saints Go Marching”: An Analysis of Political Protest Activism among Pentecostals in the Church of God in Christ in Memphis Tennessee, 1955-1968; mentor: Anthony Pinn

e.    Enoch Gbadegesin, Comparative Analysis of Gift Exchange among a Pentecostal Christian Denomination and an Indigenous Religious Tradition in Ile-Ife, Nigeria; mentor: Elias Bongmba

f.      Chad Pevateaux, What Mystics May Come: Forming more Perfect Unions from Pragmatism to Posthumanism; mentor: Jeff Kripal

g.    Franklin Trammell, (Re)growing the Tree: Early Christian Mysticism, Angelomorphic Identity and the Shepherd of Hermas; mentor: April DeConick

Comparing Religions, by Jeffrey Kripal

Click book cover to purchase at Amazon

Click book cover to purchase at Amazon

Are you looking for a new book to teach world religions and the comparative study of religions?  Then I recommend checking out Jeffrey Kripal's new textbook just published by Wiley.  Comparing Religions is not the usual presentation of the world's religions in their own trenches, chapter by chapter, although Professor Kripal does cover the main dimensions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Sikhism, and Confucianism.

Rather this book breaks out of the trenches and begins with a serious discussion of what the comparative process is (or should be).  Then it proceeds to talk about the stuff of religion that really makes up religion but which we rarely talk about.  Think stories and mythic performances, the Super Natural in a scientific world, charisma and miracle, consciousness and soul bodies, the religious imagination and the paranormal, sex and transgression, exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, reductionism, religion and violence, religion and human evolution.  And you can begin to imagine this book.

Professor Kripal is at his very best in this exceptional introduction to the study of religion. After a self-reflexive journey through the religious realms of myth, ritual, nature, science, sex, charisma, soul, salvation, and the imagination and its paranormal powers, we are guided to put it all back together with an eye to religious tolerance, freedom, and pluralism. This book is the red pill. Ingest it and you will be enlightened.

What are the facts about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife?

Jesus' Wife Fragment, photo from Harvard website HERE

Jesus' Wife Fragment, photo from Harvard website HERE

Gospel of John Fragment, photo from Harvard website HERE

Gospel of John Fragment, photo from Harvard website HERE

After last week, we now know that there are more questions that need to be answered about the Jesus' Wife fragment before we can assess it fully.  At least there are for me. 

This is not surprising since it is a new find and it takes time to work out all the facts and details.  The scientific analyses are just being made public, as are the first historical examinations of the fragment on the Harvard website HERE.  We know that it is written on authentic ancient papyrus from the seventh or eighth centuries and that its ink appears to be lamp black, also ancient.

I have kept a low profile on my blog about this fragment because I do not think that the blog is the best venue to vet manuscript finds like this.  Why?  Because the distribution of knowledge happens too quickly on blogs, before we have had time to really sort through everything, test our hypotheses, ask more questions that our hypotheses raise, and change them as necessary.  People make fast claims to be the first like a "news flash", sometimes very bold and sensational, and then, because blog posts are public, reputations end up on the line.  So it becomes personal very fast. And this can crowd out the truth which most often is slow in coming after a long process of reflection and revising.

In terms of this fragment, I don't have a dog in the fight.  Whether it is an authentic ancient document (or not) is not really too important to me since the fragment does not reveal anything to us that we didn't already know.  We knew that Jesus and Mary were lovers and spousal partners in the minds of some people in antiquity because we find this referenced in the Gospel of Philip and Valentinian Gnostic mythology. 

Recently there have been claims made that the fragment is definitively a forgery because it belongs to a cache that contains also a fragment of the Gospel of John.  This Johannine fragment appears to be a modern forgery because the way its line breaks were copied reflects the line breaks in a modern critical edition by Thompson.  This argument is bolstered by the claim that the inks and handwriting are the same on the Jesus' wife fragment and the John fragment, and that both are written in a Coptic dialect that ceased in the sixth century.  Our fragments are written on papyrus from the seventh or eighth centuries by their carbon date.

So I have some questions.

1.  The analysis I read on the Harvard website that compared the Johannine fragment with the Jesus' Wife fragment says explicitly that "the ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from, the ink used for the Gospel of John manuscript" (HTR p. 164).  So the ink is not the same on both documents as some bloggers have been claiming.  So what does different inks mean? 

2.  As for the handwriting, I cannot find any paleographic analysis that compares the Jesus' Wife fragment with the John fragment.  Because I am not a paleographic expert, I don't know if it is the same hand or not.  Have I missed a published report on this?  And if it were the same hand, does this have to mean that the Jesus' Wife fragment is a forgery?  We have plenty of examples of archives copied by the same scribe. 

3. I have questions about the Gospel of John fragment.  Aren't the line breaks found in Thompson's edition also the line breaks on the actual manuscript pages?  I don't know the answer to this because I haven't had time to find photos of the manuscript itself.  Does anyone know?  If it is, then could we have someone copying from the ancient manuscript itself?  And if so, couldn't the copy have been made anytime from antiquity to the present?  And which way did the copying go?  Which manuscript of John was the first one?  The fragment pictured above?  Or the manuscript transcribed in Thompson's critical edition?  Do we have any other examples of manuscript copies from antiquity that have same line breaks?  I know that it is unusual, but is it unique?

4. The John fragment is not an exact copy of the manuscript found in Thompson's critical edition.  The preposition EBOL is found instead of ABAL.   What does this difference mean?

5.   The blogs also make reference to the dialect, arguing that since the dialect died out by the fifth or sixth century, it shouldn't be found on seventh or eighth century papyrus.  Thus it is a modern forgery.  Let's think about this.  Here we are talking subakhmimic which is quite common, especially in fourth and fifth century Coptic materials.  How might subakhimimic text end up on seventh or eighth century papyri?  It got copied from a fourth or fifth century document in the seventh or eighth century.  This says nothing about it being a modern forgery.  It just says it probably wasn't originally composed in the seventh or eighth centuries, but may reflect a copy of something earlier.

6. Have all the documents in the collection (I keep seeing references to six) been analyzed?  Are they related in any ways other than the fact that they were collected or sold together?  How are the hands related?  The ink?  The papyrus?  Where exactly did this collection come from? I am still very unclear about its history, so I would like to be enlightened with some facts about the collection itself. 

I sincerely apologize if I have gotten the facts wrong here, but because there is so much information distributed via blogs and web, I am having a difficult time sorting out fact from fiction.