Thursday, April 10, 2014

Test results for the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife"

Newspapers and blogs are announcing the long awaited results from the tests performed on the papyrus fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife (see here for earlier story). 

According to Harvard Magazine the tests reveal that both the ink and the papyrus are ancient, perhaps from the eight or ninth century of the common era. While this certainly indicates antiquity, it should also be noted that the carbon 14 dating could not demonstrate that the fragment was from the fourth century, as some were claiming. Here is the relevant section of the article. 

Because the fragment is so small, carbon-dating it proved troublesome. Researchers at the University of Arizona called into question their own results—which dated the papyrus to several hundred years before the birth of Christ—because they were unable to complete the cleaning process on the small sample of papyrus with which they were working, and felt that might have led to spurious results. A second carbon-dating analysis undertaken by Clay professor of scientific archaeology Noreen Tuross at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dated the papyrus, and a separate one (also believed to be of ancient origin) with text from the Gospel of John to approximately A.D. 700 to 800.

The debate surrounding this fragment is certainly not over. Even if the papyrus and the ink are from 700-800 CE it doesn't mean that this fragment is "authentic." It's possible that it is an ancient forgery. Moreover, even if it is authentic, the fragment is so small and incomplete that it is impossible to conclude that it offers any proof that Jesus was married. 

I said before, it's quite possible that the fragment is authentic and represents thoughts about Jesus from someone in antiquity. But this doesn't automatically suggest that Jesus had a wife. When this find was first announced I praised Karen King for the way she presented it to her peers. But the situation quickly deteriorated when  it was also announced that she had already filmed a special segment for the Smithsonian Channel. This was, in my opinion, a bit premature since there had not been adequate time for peer review and subsequent scientific testing. If there is a moral to this story it's that we should be careful how we present our discoveries. While no presentation of research is immune from criticism and potential flaws, allowing time for the community of scholars to weigh in cannot be overstated. 

For those with access to Harvard Theological Review, you can read Karen King's long awaited article here.


Christopher Rollston still doubts its authentic and here's why:

As for the laboratory tests, the carbon tests on the papyrus demonstrate that the papyrus is ancient. That’s no surprise. Just as modern forgers of ostraca use ancient pottery sherds for their logia, so also a modern forger of a papyrus inscription would use some ancient papyrus (which, although certainly not as readily available as pottery, is still available….with or without ancient ink). It should be emphasized that papyrus was often reused (note the phenomenon of palimpsests) and so the putative date for the papyrus itself (prior to the Common Era) is not an important issue at all, neither for authenticity, nor against authenticity. It is an absolute non-issue. Also, the fact that the “ink” used on this is consistent with the chemical composition of ancient ink is also not necessarily evidence for antiquity. After all, the chemical composition of ancient “ink” has been known for some time and the chemicals available in antiquity are certainly still available today. Thus, the chemical composition of the ink is not necessarily an argument in favor of authenticity. Also, it is also possible for someone to scrape off (e.g., from a papyrus) ancient ink from the words of some mundane ancient inscription….and then add a little water to the dried ink which had been scrapped off and then resuse the ink. Some people (including some scholars) assume that modern forgers are not all that bright (and thus would not be that clever in forging something). In contrast, I believe that modern forgers (at least from the final quarter of the 20th century and on) are quite sharp…..and for good reason they try to be very clever: after all, there is much money to be made and modern forgers knows this….so, as for this piece, I remain very suspicious of its authenticity. Perhaps it’s ancient….but I doubt it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Commentaries without a Library

Every student needs good resources, but access often depends on having a library. But there are ways to access commentaries on Google Books, if you know how to do it. In the video below Tim Bulkeley of Sansblogue demonstrates how to get the information you need.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Not original therefore not inspired? The story of the woman taken in adultery.

One thing that confronts every first year Greek student is the existence of variant readings. These are verses in the New Testament that either don't appear in our earliest manuscripts or, if they do, read somewhat differently.

Many readers of English Bibles have probably noticed a footnote now and then with the statement "this verse doesn't appear in our earliest manuscripts." See John 5:4 and Mark 16:9-20 as two examples.

Probably one of the most famous variants is the passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Although this is one of the best known stories in the Bible, it wasn't originally in John's Gospel till centuries later. No one is exactly certain of its origins, but we are certain that it wasn't part of John. In fact, it even appears in Luke 21 in at least one manuscript.

Nonetheless, although the inclusion of the story is late, most text critics agree that the story seems to be an authentic tradition about Jesus. And thus it remains in John where it's been for centuries and will do so, unless some get their way.

Apparently there are some who want to see the story of adulterous woman confined to a footnote in John's Gospel (see here). But even more interesting is the suggestion by Denny Burk is that the story is not inspired. Here's what he says.

What many people do not know is that the story was not originally a part of John’s gospel. A scribe(s) added the story centuries after John’s Gospel was written for reasons unknown to us, and it is therefore not inspired by the Holy Spirit. The story remains in our English Bibles more for tradition than for anything else.

Burk's comments raise an important question. How old does a tradition about Jesus need to be to be considered inspired? Burk's assumption seems to be that since we don't know where the story about Jesus and the adulterous woman originated we therefore cannot consider it inspired and I assume, therefore, authoritative. In fairness, Burk does say that he thinks it communicates a truth consistent with biblical truth. But does he mean the story of the woman is not "biblical."

While I am not seeking to blow open the New Testament canon, I do think Burk and those like him have an overly narrow view of what is "biblical" and what is inspired. Even if it wasn't written by the author of John and is perhaps very late does this mean it is no longer inspired?

What do you think?  Is it inspired? Should we remove the story?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Ever Evolving Story of Noah's Ark

*This is a re-post from September 2011, but somehow it seemed appropriate to bring it up again as the Noah movie hits theaters this weekend.*

There seems to be a lot about Noah's Ark in the news lately. I began to notice more than a few stories popping up so I did a quick news search and was surprised at all that I found.

But before we began exploring these links, I wonder if I am the only one who finds it odd that people have transformed the story of Noah and the flood into a quaint children's story? We wallpaper the nursery with pictures of Noah's Ark, create toys with action figures and produce story books that feature cute pictures of animals. Heck, we even have birthday cakes made to look like the ark.

But has anyone really thought about the story before doing all this? The story is about the destruction of the world. All but eight humans are wiped out along with a significant portion of the animal kingdom. Is this the kind of story that we want to hold up to children as something to celebrate? I know it is in the Bible, but so is a lot of other stuff. For instance, I don't see anyone making an Elijah action figure that can kill all the prophets of Baal. Or how about Joshua committing divinely inspired genocide? Somehow making the story of Noah into a children's bed time story and wallpaper design is like creating a Ford's Theater play set or a Titanic for the bathtub.

But as I said, there is a lot of news about Noah's Ark and I think, as you will see, it proves my point. I hope you find these stories informative if not oddly interesting.

First off, lets not forget that the Answers in Genesis people are building a life size Noah's Ark that will be part of a new theme park called Ark Encounters. I suspect that this will be a water park and wonder how successful it will be. After all, if this is going to be a 'biblical park' then all but eight of the admission paying guests will be wiped out each time the gates open. Of course, the folks in Kentucky will have to compete with the other life size Ark that is being built in Holland. Something tells me that the folks in Holland have a bit more experience with floods than those in Kentucky.

Keeping the fun in the story of Noah's worldwide disaster is the online game developer Make Fun Inc. They are producing a game about Noah's Ark for Facebook. Tired of all those games on facebook that you can no longer block? Well here is another one. Players participate in such tasks as gathering wood (no mention if it is Gopher), pitch and clearing trees (doesn't sound environmentally friendly). You also need to farm and harvest food for the long journey ahead. And since there are ten levels your Christian facebook friends will be haunting you with this game for sometime. There is no indication of what happens when you complete all ten levels. Perhaps all of you friends on facebook get flooded?

Not into games or amusement parks? How about a resort? A couple in Utah is building a Noah's Ark getaway retreat for families which features a rainbow room and a restaurant where you can dine at the captains table with Captain Noah. The restaurant is probably a good move since I suppose any meals based on Noah's Ark would have a good supply of meat. Of course, once the selection is offered twice it is off the menu for good.

Of course not everyone has decided to cash-in on the story of Noah. Some take the story very seriously like Larry and Mary Graybill who spent $50,000 and 15 months building a copy of Noah's Ark a tenth of the size of the original. Their goal is to prove that the story of Noah is true. You can even watch a video of the Ark launching.

You have probably heard about the Chinese and Turkish explorers who claim to have found Noah's ice encased Ark on the top of Mount Ararat. Well now there is a movie in which you can witness the treacherous journey made by these explorers. Think Survivor meets National Geographic.

Finally, not every explorer looking for the Ark has been successful. Some have even disappeared. Enter Donna D'Errico, Bay Watch Babe, who is off to help find Scottish Ark hunter

Donald Mackenzie who disappeared a year ago while looking for the Ark on Mount Ararat. One hopes that Miss D'Errico will be prepared for the frostbite weather of Ararat since it is certainly not the same as a California beach.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Craig Keener on Divorce and Remarriage

Craig Keener is a careful New Testament scholar who is committed to living out the things he teaches and preaches. Here is his take on divorce and remarriage.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ancient Papyri Discovered in a Cardboard Box

Usually when one thinks about finding ancient manuscripts we think of remote locations in the desert or in barely accessible mountain caves. But a recent discovery was made at Luther College when a student found nine fragments of papyri that are 2000 year old.

It seems the papyri was purchased in the 1920s by a professor who then brought it back to the college. The professor died many years ago and the papyrus was in a cardboard box waiting be "rediscovered."

Luther sophomore Brittany Anderson of Sparta, Wis. was examining the papers of the late Orlando Qualley, longtime professor of classics, the first vice president of Luther College (1934) and the first dean of the college (1946-64), when she came across the nine ancient documents among Qualley's letters and journals donated to the college in the 1980s.
The papyri-one of which, a libellus, is especially rare-date from the first to the fifth centuries A.D. and were apparently purchased by Qualley from an antiquities dealer when he was part of a University of Michigan archaeological excavation at Karanis, south of Cairo, in 1924-25.
Decius issued a decree that year ordering all inhabitants of the empire to offer a sacrifice to the gods as a show of loyalty. A libellus was a document given to a Roman citizen to confirm the performance of such a sacrifice. Christians were forbidden by their beliefs from performing these sacrifices and were thus subject to arrest, torture and execution for refusing to obey the emperor's decree. Pope Fabian was among those who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by the Roman authorities.
Decius issued a decree that year ordering all inhabitants of the empire to offer a sacrifice to the gods as a show of loyalty.
A libellus was a document given to a Roman citizen to confirm the performance of such a sacrifice. Christians were forbidden by their beliefs from performing these sacrifices and were thus subject to arrest, torture and execution for refusing to obey the emperor's decree. Pope Fabian was among those who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by the Roman authorities.
Several are accounting documents, but papyrologist Graham Claytor immediately identified one as a libellus dating from the first great Roman persecution of Christians beginning under Emperor Decius in the year 250.

See the full story here

Here is a video link about the story.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Father Abraham: Camels or Marlboro ?

By now many of you will have seen the headlines about how the Bible is full of errors because archaeologists, using radiocarbon dating, have demonstrated that camels were not domesticated until the 10th century. This discovery, they claim, demonstrates that the Bible is full of errors since the stories of Israel’s patriarchs include camels as part of the narrative (Gen 24: 61-64) and the stories of the patriarchs take place many centuries before.

didn't give the story much thought when the headlines first appeared last week for the simple reason that this is very old news. Biblical scholars have long recognized that the stories in Genesis contain anachronisms, and camels are just one of them.

For instance, Gen 21:34 states that “Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines.” However, there is no mention of the Philistines as a people group in any written sources nor is there any archaeological evidence for them in Canaan until several centuries after the time of Abraham.

Similarly, when Lot is kidnapped by some local kings we read in Gen 14:14 that Abraham pursued them as far as Dan, which is in the north of Canaan/Israel. The problem, however, is that the city of “Dan,” at least according to biblical chronology, doesn't yet exist since it was named after Jacob’s son “Dan,” who will not be born until much later in Genesis. Furthermore, according to biblical chronology, the city of Dan was not established until the time of the Judges when the tribe of Dan moved north (Judges 18). Thus while archaeology has demonstrated that a city existed there during the time of Abraham, it wasn't called Dan.

Both of these examples demonstrate that Genesis contains anachronistic details which are, in my opinion, more significant than whether or not Abraham had a pet camel or not.

But does this mean that the Bible is full of errors? Yes and no. It all depends on one’s starting point. If we assume that Moses wrote the book of Genesis (I do not) and assume that he provided us an accurate historical picture of what happened over the numerous centuries that Genesis covers, than yes I suppose the Bible is full of errors. If we insist that everything the Bible says was written from a literal perspective and intended to be understood that way, then I guess there are errors and you should stop reading here.

But if we acknowledge that Genesis, indeed much of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, was written much later than the events reflected therein, then the appearance of camels is not really a problem. The anachronistic details reflect that Genesis was written and edited at a much later date than the time of any of the people mentioned in Genesis. So, if a person writing/editing Genesis several hundred (or more) years after the events in Genesis includes a detail about camels it’s because in his own day camels were already domesticated and in heavy use. He didn't know that they weren't domesticated in Abraham’s time and thus assumed that they were always used that way. And the city in the North was known as “Dan” for centuries and since he knew no other name what else would he call it? He didn't know his details were incorrect and it’s not clear how he could have researched and confirmed his assumptions.

A good modern example of this situation is movies. Although movie directors try to have everything historically accurate, things have a habit of slipping in. For instance, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly plays a Gibson Es-345 guitar at the high school dance. However, that guitar was not yet invented in 1955. In Titanic Jack talks about fishing on Lake Wissota. The problem here is that the lake is man-made and wasn't created until 5 years after the Titanic sank.

The point is that in an age that offers much more access to historical knowledge we still get things wrong. It doesn't make the stories in the movies any less compelling. It just means that when we describe the past the results will invariably be tainted by our own time period and anachronistic details will slip in. (See more movie anachronisms here).

All in all, I think the phantom camels of Genesis are a tempest in a teapot. The archaeologists have merely confirmed what we already suspected. But it doesn't change anything about what the Bible tells us about the nature of God and the way God deals with humanity. The story of God’s choice of Abraham doesn't depend on whether or not he owned camels or whether he knew the Philistines or had traveled to Dan. The truth of the story is about how Abraham was chosen to be a blessing to all nations, not to camels. 

For a more responsible approach see the article in Time