Shea’s Law #1983724 states “Every discovery of the Latest Real Jesus tells you absolutely nothing new about the historical Jesus and everything about the obsessions and gullibility of the Discoverer.”
Case in point: Karen King and the Discovery of Jesus the Married Messiah:
‘In 2012, the Harvard scholar Karen King announced what she believed to be an extraordinary discovery: a second-century papyrus fragment with a text hinting that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as it became known, tapped into a plot point from “The Da Vinci Code” that had already helped King’s academic treatise on Mary Magdalene become a best seller with a mass audience.
‘This “gospel” was worldwide news — before skeptical papyrologists and grammarians, in one case drawing on the research of an amateur Coptic obsessive working in his Macomb, Mich., basement, showed it to be a complete fake. King was mum on who the stranger from Florida was who had given her the fragment, but the writer Ariel Sabar, using sophisticated tools like Google, uncovered that it was one Walter Fritz, a former director of the Stasi Museum in East Germany with a fake Egyptology degree whose businesses included charging for online videos of his wife having sex with other men, and who, more than three weeks before King’s bombshell announcement about the papyrus, had registered the web domain gospelofjesuswife.com.
‘“Veritas,” Sabar’s exhausting, madcap, unforgettable book about this fiasco, is for enthusiasts of ancient Christianity, as well as anyone who likes watching snooty academics brought low and readers of idea-driven capers, whether by Daniel Silva or Janet Malcolm. It’s a barely believable tale, crazier than a tweed-sniffer in the faculty lounge.
‘The book’s flaws are those of a journalist who Goes Big. It is 34 percent too long. Sabar often overreaches, as when he dips a toe, then plunges, into the psychoanalysis of his subjects: His treatment of the erotic life of Fritz, a pathological liar who may or may not have been raped by a priest, is as suspect as the cliché that King’s “trailblazing instincts traced in part to her childhood amid the soaring mountains of southwest Montana.” There’s lot of this breathy melodrama, useful for the screenplay I hope is coming.
‘Sabar offers too much detail, but his point is that King offered suspiciously little. He digs up facts that she considered irrelevant. Her strong reputation was built working the borderland of history and literary interpretation, and in this case one line (“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”), on a fragment the size of a business card, was so ripe for juicy interpretation that it shut down her historian’s instincts. Here was a major new document that, like her earlier work, undermined orthodox notions about Christian celibacy and sexuality.
‘King’s postmodern ideology, Sabar argues, primed her for corner-cutting. If, as she wrote, history “is not about truth but about power relations,” and historians should abandon “the association between truth and chronology,” what did it matter if this second-century text was shown to be written on eighth-century papyrus, with 21st-century ink? She evinced no interest in the real Fritz, the source of her humiliation: “I don’t see the point of a conversation,” King told Sabar, when he offered to tell her what he’d learned.
‘There was a lot King didn’t see. To test the papyrus, she engaged a friend who had been an usher at her first wedding, with whom she regularly spent New Year’s Eve. She was blind to the conflict of interest. Another tester, who gave the second of two favorable early reports, was the brother-in-law of King’s close academic ally, who solicited him for the job. Complicit were the editors of The Harvard Theological Review, which published these results, and Harvard’s press office, which flogged them to the world with the avidity of Hollywood publicists. King was abetted by a world of academics and higher-ed bureaucrats who forgot that, if we are wise, we should be most gratified to learn when we are wrong.’
People are continually manufacturing Latest Real Jesuses to suit the cultural priorities of their age. Albert Schweitzer, the great Social Gospel Protestant, went on a Quest for the Historical Jesus and discovered that Jesus was basically a Social Gospel Protestant. Frank Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows in the 20s, just as the stock market was soaring and Calvin Coolidge was declaring that “The business of America is business.” Turned out Jesus was the first businessman. In the 30s, the Nazis discovered that Jesus was actually an Aryan with no relation to the Jews, while the Commies discovered Jesus was the first Marxist. In the 60s we got Jesus the Hippie with Godspell and in the 70s we got Jesus the Rock God in Jesus Christ Superstar. In the 80s, Jesus reappeared as a health and wealth preacher in the age of Gordon Gekko. In the 90s, gay playwright Terence McNally discovered Jesus was gay in Corpus Christi. By the early Millennium, he was back to being straight and married off to Mary Magdalene by Dan Brown, who overcame a vast Vatican Conspiracy to hide all this. Any similarities between this scenario and a sex-obsessed, X Files paranoid culture in the grip of a priest scandal is purely coincidental.
Karen King’s “discovery” was just more of the same for our age of obsession with the sex lives of the famous.
One thing we can be grateful for in this particular teapot tempest is that it inspired this magnificent moment from Jon Stewart. Note, O Butthurt Conservative Catholic perpetually complaining that “the liberals” are always eager to promote any story that contradicts the gospel, that Stewart is neither conservative nor a Christian, yet does not leap on board this story with utter credulity. He gives it exactly the skepticism it richly deserves. Also note the utter tone deafness of Qhristian pagans at FOX with whom Stewart has a field day.