Every once in a while, some ancient artifact is discovered that doesn’t fit some people’s idea of history or theology. So what do they do? Attack the messenger!
I experienced it myself with the Talpiot Tomb, just outside of Jerusalem. Here is a 1st century tomb that had a man buried in it named “Jesus son of Joseph," it says so on his ossuary, the limestone coffin that he was buried in. So what do the so-called “experts” do? Do they investigate the possibility that this is Jesus of Nazareth? No, they keep the whole thing a secret and don’t even publish an archaeological report until 16 years after the find. But there’s more.
Next to “Jesus son of Joseph” there were two Mary’s buried: one was called “Maria” and the other, in Greek, “Mariamene”, a name used for Mary Magdalene and no one else in the entire corpus of Greek literature. Buried next to the two Marys there was a “Yose”, a rare name rendered “Joses” in the gospels as a “brother of Jesus” (Mark 6:3). So what do the experts do? Do they consult statisticians to determine whether this is the Jesus family tomb? No, they just shrug their shoulders and say: “Can’t be!” When Professor James Tabor and I say that it could be, we are mocked by a tsunami of bad mouthing.
But this is always the case with archaeology involving Jesus, sex and marriage. When the greatest New Testament scholar of his generation, Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University, published an ancient text that hinted at Jesus baptizing naked (“The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark”)…Smith was accused of being a forger and a closet homosexual. The tactic is “science” by mud slinging.
The latest example of this genre is the most recent article in the Atlantic Magazine (July/August 2016) by Ariel Sabar. Back in 2012, Professor Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, revealed a Coptic papyrus in which Jesus refers to a woman, apparently Mary Magdalene, as his “wife”. This didn’t feel too good for some. But what could they do? They couldn’t attack Professor King by saying that she is simply an ignorant journalist, like me. After all, she is the first woman in 295 years to hold the Hollis chair at Harvard. They couldn’t say she didn’t consult anyone, because she did: top professors from around the world. So what could they say? Maybe because she is a female, they decided not to pull the Morton Smith gambit i.e., they didn’t call her a forger. Instead, her critics insinuated that she was naïve, stupid or both, and was duped by a forger.
Professor King didn’t give up. She consulted more colleagues and ran a battery of additional scientific tests on the inscription, including crucial tests on the ink. She published her findings in a peer-reviewed journal. Everything spoke to the authenticity of the “Jesus Wife Papyrus.” So what did her critics do? They argued that another papyrus, found in the same batch, must be a forgery, so the Jesus Wife Papyrus must be a forgery too. It was forgery by association. The tactic is clear: first, you attack another papyrus (no scientific tests necessary) then you state that one papyrus is like another and, therefore, presto: Jesus wasn’t married. Illogical, but it’s what happened.
The amazing thing is that Professor King herself never claimed that Jesus was married. She claimed that the papyrus proves that some people “believed” that he was married. She claimed that the papyrus was not proof for or against the idea of Jesus’ marriage. In fact, Professor King was so upset by her critics that, at some point, she suggested that Jesus wasn’t one or the other. Clearly, you don’t have to be the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, to realize that Jesus was either married or not.
In any event, the whole thing was kind of swept under the academic and media rug. Nonetheless, the papyrus continued to be a huge elephant in the room…even though it’s no bigger than a postage stamp. The whole idea just hung there in the air: Jesus was married: the gnostic gospels say so, the Talpiot archaeology says so and now this early gospel says so. Then, to the rescue, comes the Atlantic.
Some 600 years after Jesus and Mary Magdalene walked the earth, Pope Gregory stated that Mary Magdalene is one and the same as the “sinful woman” mentioned in the gospel of Luke (7:36-50). From that moment, she became permanently identified as a reformed prostitute. Suddenly, she went from apostle to whore. The tactic works.
Now that the Jesus Wife Papyrus is associated with YouTube orgies, academics and theologians will feel that they don’t have to engage in any science whatsoever in order to discredit it. Even Professor King has stated that the kinky sex convinces her that the papyrus is “probably” a forgery. Imagine what she would have thought if the collector’s wife was teaching in a nunnery. In such a case, King would now be sure that the papyrus is authentic. Mud slinging worked in ancient times… and it still works now.