Faking a Bundle
Robert Hart on Lucrative Careers & Pseudo-Biblical Scholarship
It was the late 1970s. Collars, lapels, and ties were wide; Jimmy Carter was President; double-knit was still ugly because it was still visible; and I was a young college student unable as yet to grow a decent beard. With a certain amount of naiveté, I sat in my first ever philosophy class.
The instructor (not a professor) lectured on the basics of philosophy before making the most flawed statement I have ever heard: “Then there is the whole idea of matter as something that is evil, which is what we see in Christian teaching.” Never before had I encountered professional and highly refined nonsense (which, I later came to see, is a hallmark of academia when it sinks into higher illiteracy). The punch line, by the way, is that this same instructor taught comparative religion.
This was my first real encounter with the problem of the uninformed informer, whether a journalist or an educator. In the academic world, the uninformed informer presents a special kind of problem, one that is compounded when commercial interests are added. This is especially true when an entire career has been built on a shocking, challenging, and revisionist thesis, authenticated by book sales or television specials rather than by scholarly rigor.
Take, for example, the Australian writer Barbara Thiering, author of Jesus the Man, who earned a Ph.D. from Sydney University and lectured there on Semitic studies until her retirement. Her academic career was based on her reputed expertise on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet even Geza Vermes, no champion of traditional Christianity, wrote about her work:
What is the “pesher technique?” Basically, it’s the theory that the New Testament can only be understood correctly when it is first translated from Greek into Hebrew, and then subjected to the code of interpretation used by the Essenes of Qumran. It is this method that supposedly unlocks the real meaning of the New Testament.
What might be the weaknesses of this thesis? For one thing, we would have to accept Thiering’s unique dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is about fifty years earlier than what is generally accepted. We would also have to assume that Thiering’s own translation of the Greek into Hebrew was exactly, word for word, what the apostles and other New Testament writers had intended.
There are other technical and scientific objections, but also problems evident to common sense. For example, we know that the books of the New Testament were written mostly for Gentile converts to Christianity. These Gentiles, living in such places as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Berea, Thessalonica, the regions of the Galatians, and so on, not only were ignorant of Hebrew; they would never have heard of the Essenes. Nonetheless, we are supposed to believe that, in order to understand the Epistles and Gospels written specifically for their instruction, they would have needed a special—dare I say Gnostic?—knowledge of the Essene Hebrew code and how to unlock it.
Thiering would also have us believe that the apostles courted the death of martyrdom for reasons that had nothing to do with actual faith in anything supernatural, such as Christ’s Resurrection. For her pesher method proves that the apostles did not really believe in miracles at all, not even the Resurrection they proclaimed at the peril of their lives. And their converts, unless they knew Hebrew and the Gnostic method, could not begin to grasp the real meaning of all the things the apostles wrote and sent to them—sent, I might add, in times of official persecution to the death. It seems like a pointlessly dangerous effort when you think about it.
Nonetheless, Thiering’s work was given enough serious consideration for her to build a career upon: employment for many years by the University of Sydney, sales of her book, and even a documentary expounding her ideas. The latter, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and called Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was later shown on the Discovery Channel and sold (at the time) as a VHS tape. The promotion for the documentary called her work a challenge to the faith that every Christian needs to take seriously.
Pagels Sells a Lie
Thiering is hardly the only misinformed informer on Christianity; this kind of thing has become all too common. The Da Vinci Code, while not produced in a quasi-academic manner, is a related phenomenon, but a more relevant example is that of Elaine Pagels, whose life work and commercial success have stemmed from her claim to have discovered suppressed Christian writings, as she describes in her book Beyond Belief:
The trouble is, the “suppression” she writes about never occurred, and no one needed to explore file cabinets in Harvard to find these Gnostic works. One need only to have read some of the fathers of the Church, or to have taken any standard course in church history, in which Gnostic movements have always been part of the subject matter.
But Pagels’s claim of suppression is necessary for her to sell her product. Therefore, the elaborate tale was created. It is a cornerstone of her career to present the Church as having tried to silence the very texts that it, alone, preserved (simply for the sake of teaching its own history). Pagels has simply invented a lie, or fiction if you prefer, which she repeats twice in Beyond Belief:
The only problem with this story is that it never happened. Athanasius did write the Easter Letter of 367, to be sure, but it contained none of the things that Pagels claimed it did.
Sensationalism and junk science about Jesus Christ have increased in recent years in the related marketplaces of books and television. For example, in 2006, The Judas Gospel was sensationalized as both a book and as a television special on the National Geographic channel. The English translation of the book has since been discredited, as it became apparent that Judas had been inaccurately described as a “spirit” or a “god” where a proper translation would have called him a “demon.” But if the book and TV special were to achieve commercial success, it was necessary to recast the traitor into a loyal disciple. It sold better.
Not to be outdone by National Geographic, the Discovery Channel produced a heavily publicized special called The Lost Tomb of Jesus for broadcast at Easter time in 2007. Directed by Simcha Jacobovici, who has gone on to work for the History Channel as The Naked Archaeologist (just a name for the show), and produced by Titanic director James Cameron, this “feature documentary” was advertised as making the case that “the 2,000-year-old ‘Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries’ belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth” and as revealing “new evidence that throws light on Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene.”
In fact, the “discovery” of the tomb had taken place many years earlier, in 1980. The “evidence” amounted to nothing more than a collection of very ordinary names among Jews of the period, such as would be listed in most families. The methods of genuine science were not allowed to interfere, as Michael Medved pointed out in USA Today in March 2007:
(It may be worth pointing out that Medved and the two archaeologists he quoted are Jewish, not Christians with a personal ax to grind.)
There was also a book, The Jesus Family Tomb (co-authored by Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino), to go along with the TV special, and even an article in Newsweek on the subject. Medved noted that this was not coincidental: “Could this sudden flurry of interest possibly relate to the upcoming Easter holiday?”
The need today is to exorcise the TV producers and booksellers from some of the academic hideouts that have been providing a basis for their popular credibility and aiding their commercial success. It is not enough to criticize their methods after the fact, or to hold them in disdain behind the scenes.
I look back on that philosophy instructor who taught comparative religion, and feel sorry for her that she missed the bus. If only she had worked to commercialize her crazy idea, it might well have paid off and put her in fat city. Real scholars would have unloaded their scorn and derision in properly objective words, but she could have cried all the way to the bank.
And, even though I was very young, I think I gave a good answer in that classroom all those years ago. “That’s not Christian teaching.” The instructor replied, “Defend that statement.” I replied that Genesis teaches that all of God’s creation is “very good,” that the Church has always believed in the holiness of sacraments that involved such matter as water, oil, bread, and wine, and that, above all, “the Word was made flesh.”
She was visibly annoyed, and continued her lecture with, “As I was saying. . . .”
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Faking a Bundle” first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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