Sunday, June 4, 2006

C-J Editorial

Editor's Note (7/10/07): Just one day after this exasperated post was first published, the C-J printed my editorial under the title, "Divinity School Student Reflects on Da Vinci Debate." Yay!

Last week, I wrote an letter to The (Louisville) Courier-Journal which addressed a few of the glaring problems in other readers' responses to The Da Vinci Code. They haven't printed it yet, so I decided to post it here... I've got to have some kind of outlet on this subject! ;-)

As a graduate student specializing in biblical studies, I have been both excited and intrigued by the intense dialogue surrounding The Da Vinci Code, just as I was by that surrounding The Passion of the Christ and the recently published Gospel of Judas. Although these three present radically different portraits of early Christianity--which exhibit varying degrees of accuracy--they share one critical piece of common ground: they have stimulated an immense amount of interest in the origins of Christianity. Ideally, they should be viewed as stimuli for further research into the subjects they discuss, not as infallible sources of truth. After all, while a book/movie, another movie, and an unusual ancient manuscript are excellent starting points for religious discussion, it seems silly and intellectually irresponsible to identify any one of them as a key to the Christian faith, even if they make such claims.

Two comments included in The Readers' Forum's recent section on The Da Vinci Code ("'The Code' and the Complaints About It," May 23) call for an immediate response. One reader was concerned by recent studies indicating that a large number of Americans "changed their beliefs because of the book." The reader concludes, "Imagine two million adults changing their beliefs based on this fantasy." However, for reasons similar to those mentioned above, it is possible for The Da Vinci Code phenomenon to lead people towards a different understanding of Christianity apart from its own claims. I was still in college when the book first became popular--so popular, in fact, that one of the instructors in the religion department offered a course entitled "Early Christian Literature" which included it as one of the required texts. The class was packed, and although the course did not espouse many, if any, of Dan Brown's own theories, it exposed many students to obscure Christian texts which were not included in the final New Testament canon but nevertheless offer a great deal of insight into the diversity of Christianity's formative years.

A second reader justified conservatives' responses to the book by arguing that if a similar book were written concerning the foundations of Islam, "no one would publicize it for fear of having their print shop blown up. Some 'peaceful religion.'" This statement is a sad demonstration of the insensitivity and ignorance that has produced religious conflicts throughout human history. The small percentage of Muslims who kill in the name of Allah should not be viewed as a representation of all Islam, any more than the Christians who kill in the name of their God (and there are many, throughout the world) should be viewed as a representation of all Christianity. Historically, of the three religions which claim descent from Abraham, Islam has proven to be the most tolerant ruler, often offering Christians and Jews a protected status as "peoples of the book."

It is my sincere hope that the discussions over these and other similar issues, which will continue through the summer and beyond, can be conducted in a spirit of love, acceptance, and understanding. Although this is often difficult, we should not forget that according to almost every source, these were the primary concerns of Jesus himself. Let us follow this exemplary example.

Matthew Burgess, MAR '07
Yale Divinity School
New Haven, CT 06511

Sunday, May 28, 2006

More of the Da Vinci Debate

This is an article which recently appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; I found it through the BAR Companion. I think it's an astute treatment of the tremendous positive side of The Da Vinci Code, which often gets lost amidst scholars' critiques of Brown's scholarship and conservative Christians' bitter diatribes against a perceived threat to their faith. Whether it's right or wrong--and it most likely falls somewhere in between--this book has created a tremendous amount of interest in Christianity's formative years. And I think that's great.

So what is true in "The Da Vinci Code?"

As scholars of religion who study the New Testament and the history of Christianity, we often are asked this question at cocktail parties and on airplanes. With 46 million copies of the book sold, and with the impending release of the movie starring Tom Hanks, that curiosity is not likely to abate.

Whatever "The Da Vinci Code" has done for the publishing industry, it has been an unexpected boon for serious religious scholarship. The book's success has caused people far removed from the classroom or from university libraries to ask questions like, "Who wrote the gospels in the New Testament?" and, "How did the New Testament get put together?" and, "What role did women play in Jesus' ministry and after his death?" and, "What happened to women later in Christianity?"

In short, it has popularized the study of the New Testament as a historical text, and it has brought the feminist study of religion out of the closet.

"The Da Vinci Code" story contends that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship that produced offspring, and that Constantine and the Church imposed their version of Christianity by suppressing most texts written about Jesus, and by oppressing the "divine feminine." It would take an extremely selective reading of a very few texts to support these ideas -- to say nothing of the lectures that the book's hero, a Harvard professor of "religious symbology," manages to sandwich between improbable escapes.

But the book also says that, for centuries, Jesus' followers regarded him as entirely human. Today, when most Christians recite the Nicene Creed affirming both Jesus' humanity and his divinity, this seems equally far-fetched. But from the late third through sixth centuries, Christians did indeed debate how Jesus could be human and divine at the same time. What to make of the debate's revival in the pages of Dan Brown's best seller?

As one reviewer on wrote, "With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed ... or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again going online to research Brown's research -- only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me."

The Web is a terrible source for historical research, and Brown's research is hardly "impeccable," but his novel may well inspire future generations of scholars.

As Karen King, who actually is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, popularizing works like "The Da Vinci Code" "may lead people to be more critical, questioning, inquiring and engaging with religion. Boy, do we need that. Any kind of work that emphasizes a critical, constructive engagement with religion can only be good for us."

Too many Americans distrust religion as an academic subject. Secularists think it has something to do with preaching. Believers worry it's an attempt to debunk their faith. But it is neither. It's an attempt to understand one of the most important phenomena in contemporary life. In a country where 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian, and in the middle of a war charged with religious overtones, it's a subject that should be taught in the high schools, along with English, math and history.
Instead, out of some misinterpretation of the First Amendment, it's barely mentioned.

We both grew up going to church, where we were taught to regard the Bible as if a Jerusalem publishing house issued it in 33 A.D. It wasn't until college that we learned that the earliest gospel in the New Testament, the gospel of Mark, was written at least 30 years after Jesus' death, included no resurrection story, and even may not have been written by Mark. As the Gospel of Judas reminds us, early Christians disagreed about who Jesus was, what his message and his death meant, and who properly understood these meanings. Many "Christianities," rather than one single "Christianity," flourished. Is it scandalous to say so? One top Vatican official has called for a boycott of the movie, but many other Christians and Catholics do not oppose it because they know that to study the forces that shaped the history of Christianity is to understand it better. And, perhaps, care about it more deeply.

The popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" attests to American ignorance about the history of Christianity -- and a profound desire to learn about it.

So, what is true in "The Da Vinci Code"? Did Jesus actually have a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene? If Mary was the first to see Jesus resurrected in the New Testament, why is she not considered an apostle?

We'll see you in class.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Tabor on Jesus

I know that it's been several weeks since I've posted anything on this site, but the various activities associated with the end of the academic year have made things a little crazy. However, I'm now back in Louisville for the next few weeks, so I should have a little more time to kill publishing meaningless little sermonettes on all kinds of biblical topics. In the meantime, I wanted to share an interview I discovered through the Biblical Archaeology Society's Companion. The subject is James Tabor, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who has written a controversial new book entitled The Jesus Dynasty (which I'm currently reading... hence the interest).

James Tabor, 60, chair of the religious studies department at UNC Charlotte, is the author of "The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity" (Simon & Schuster, $27). Based on early Christian documents and archaeological discoveries, the new book has put Tabor in the national spotlight for its controversial look at Jesus and Christianity.

" `The Jesus Dynasty' presents the Jesus story in an entirely new light," he writes in a preface. "It is history, not fiction. And yet it differs considerably, sometimes radically, from the standard portrait of Jesus informed by theological dogma."

The content, he says, may be "the greatest story never told."

"It will thrill and excite many," he writes, "upset and anger others, but also challenge its readers ... to honestly weigh evidence and consider new possibilities."

Reading Life Editor Jeri Krentz recently talked to Tabor about his work. Here's the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q. How much time did you spend writing "The Jesus Dynasty?"

My teaching career spans about 35 years. In some ways, I started then.

This book is my "Jesus book." Many of us that work in the field of Christian origins ... come to a point toward the end of our career that we decide to look back and say, "OK, what about this man Jesus that we study?"

It seemed that my research was at a point where I could present some things that were fairly resolved, in my mind at least.

Q. You told a reporter that you hoped to capitalize on the interest in early Christianity sparked by Dan Brown's best-selling "The Da Vinci Code."

I do want that market. That (book) has fanned such an interest in people. They have a desire to know and maybe they're not satisfied with just what they've heard in theological approaches to Christian faith.

Q. "Nightline" aired a story about your work on April 7. What was that like?

(Over UNCC's spring break), I was digging in Israel ... and ("Nightline" co-anchor) Martin Bashir came over with his crew. We did three days of intense interviews.

At one point he said, Dr. Tabor, I take it you don't really believe that Jesus is God, that he was born of a virgin, that he was raised from the dead, that he's in heaven. Are you trying to destroy Christianity with your book?

I said to him: Martin, every one of those statements are theological. People believe these things. They're welcome to believe them. I don't want them not to believe them.

But the book is history. None of those kinds of statements can be examined historically. I'm dealing with what can ... we really know historically.

Q. Can you explain what you mean by the Jesus "dynasty"?

The Jesus dynasty is another way of saying Jesus' family -- not meaning his own offspring, but his brothers, male heirs to the throne of King David.

Q. You paint a picture of Jesus. You say, for example, that he probably was a stonemason, not a carpenter.

He was poor. Very poor. I think he was a peasant. But I don't think he was illiterate.

He's obviously bright, intelligent. He's of this lineage that's actually quite impressive, but the indication is that the family doesn't have much money. They're laborers, so he's doing manual labor.

It's more likely that he's working in stone (rather than wood). Many of us now are looking around at how buildings were made at that time and realize wood is so minimal.

Q. And what about Mary and Joseph?

Joseph is a puzzle. He's mentioned at the birth stories and never mentioned again. There's a tradition in the church that Joseph likely died. Maybe he was older. We don't know for sure.

But Mary, as I take it -- and because of Roman Catholic dogma, people disagree on this -- I believe that she had other children, that she had six other children, four boys and two girls.

She's a Jewish mother with a full family living in a little village. We have to imagine her doing all the things that women in households would do. Struggling to make ends meet and raising her children with all the hardships that come with that.

But again, we don't know.

Q. That's obviously a controversial part of your book.

As a historian I feel obligated, even though it's touchy, to say if that he (Jesus), like all other human beings, had a father; is there anything more we could say?

And, in fact, there is one name that comes up. He's referred to as a Roman soldier. So I explore what we know about that.

If somebody wants to say, "Look. I don't think he even had a father," then, fine. You can't investigate those kinds of things from 2,000 years ago.

But my assumption is that humans have mothers and fathers both, so that's what I follow up on.

Q. And Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist?

I try to resurrect, to use a loaded term, two people, John and James. On one side is John, who's a bit older than Jesus, and on the other side is James, who's his younger brother.

I think they've both been forgotten. James is forgotten more than John because John is mentioned fairly prominently. But John is mentioned almost like one who comes on stage, points to Jesus, walks off stage and you hardly hear from him again.

In his time, I don't think it was that way. I think he (John) is Jesus' mentor, his teacher. I think they're a team.

I also introduce a notion that I think people just aren't familiar with -- but scholars know it -- and that is that in Judaism during that day, they were expecting two messiahs, not one. One was to be a priest, which John was, and the other was to be of the Davidic lineage, a king, which Jesus was.

I have a chapter called "The Two Messiahs," in which I talk about how John and Jesus together are seen as a team ... with Jesus baptizing in the south and John in the north.

Q. You make the point that Christianity today differs from the message spread by Jesus' successors. What do you mean?

It all has to do with theological beliefs: that he was preexistent, that he's divine, that he was born of a virgin without a father, that he died on the cross for our sins.

These are statements of Christian belief and dogma, mainly developed by Paul.

Jesus himself didn't talk about that, especially in the early sources. He talked more about what is the right way to live.

Q. You write that your research "challenges many sacred dogmas of Christian orthodoxy." Are you prepared for a backlash?

I'm not out to storm the citadel of Christian faith.

A crucial point in my book is what happened when Jesus died and was buried and how did the tomb get empty. I present what I think is possibly likely from a historical viewpoint: that maybe the family took the body and reburied it.

But someone at that point could say, "I don't think that. I think God raised him from the dead." There's nothing at that point I can really say other than, "I don't think that."

Someone could say, well then, you're not a Christian. By somebody's definition, I might not be.

But Christians never seem to be able to agree on who's a Christian. They've been fighting for 2,000 years as to who qualifies.

I didn't write the book with the intention of "Let's see how I can shake everybody up." At each one of those crucial junctures, someone is free to say, "My faith takes me further than that."

But my history doesn't.

There's somewhere in the book the statement that good history is never the enemy of true faith. I guess that's more or less my position.

Q. Do you want to say anything about the historical Jesus that you have come to know?

I've given my life to trying to understand this person, Jesus of Nazareth. I find him so moving ... the most fascinating and interesting and compelling character in Western history.

I try to present that in the book. Out of all the Jewish teachers of his time, he seems to just get so many things right. There are other rabbis I study. But with Jesus, it seems like every parable, every story, just has a perennial ring to it that grips you.

I find myself, at age 60, still just utterly taken with him.

Saturday, April 1, 2006


Last week, I was very excited to learn that my proposal for the Christian Apocrypha section of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)'s Annual Meeting in November was accepted. I'll probably be thrilled until the beginning of the summer, when I realize that I have no idea what I'm doing and become terrified! Here's the abstract which I submitted to the review committee.

The world of early Christianity is a shadowy realm, filled with historical, cultural, and theological pitfalls that threaten all who attempt to unlock its secrets. One of its most enigmatic residents is James, commonly known as "James the Lord's brother" or "James the brother of Jesus" following the description provided in the Letter to the Galatians. Although this figure receives scant treatment in the gospels' descriptions of Jesus' ministry--so scant, in fact, that there has been an extended debate concerning the nature of his familial ties to Jesus--he bursts onto the scene in the latter portion of the New Testament, as a leader of the community in Jerusalem, a contemporary (and possibly an opponent) of Paul, and the author (real or imagined) of a letter that was ultimately adopted into the Christian canon of scripture. He is also associated with other early Christian literature, particularly the texts which scholars frequently characterize as "Jewish Christian" in nature. This paper will ask whether these and other contemporary sources are sufficient to identify James as a source of legitimate authority for some early Christian communities--and if so, what their choice of this particular source might reveal.

If this sounds interesting to you, let me know... I'll probably force you to read a few drafts. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Here Comes Judas!

This is a story I received as part of the Biblical Archaeology Society's weekly e-newsletter, the BAR Companion. I'll be interested to see future developments on this front in the coming months...

Another Take on Gospel Truth About Judas
Manuscript Could Add to Understanding of Gnostic Sect
By Stacy Meichtry
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 25, 2006; Page B09

The first translation of an ancient, self-proclaimed "Gospel of Judas" will be published in late April, bringing to light what some scholars believe are the writings of an early Christian sect suppressed for supporting Jesus's infamous betrayer.

If authentic, the manuscript could add to the understanding of Gnosticism, an unorthodox Christian theology denounced by the early church. The Roman Catholic Church is aware of the manuscript, which a Vatican historian called "religious fantasy."

According to scholars who have seen photographs of the brittle manuscript, it argues that Judas Iscariot was carrying out God's will when he handed Jesus over to his executioners. The manuscript could bring momentum to a broader academic movement that argues Judas has gotten a bum rap among historians and theologians as well as in popular culture.

The manuscript's owner said he has cut a deal with the National Geographic Society to release the English translation with a multimedia splash after Easter.

Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, president of the Vatican's Committee for Historical Science, called it "a product of religious fantasy."

In an interview, he said the manuscript would not have any impact on church teaching.

"We welcome the [manuscript] like we welcome the critical study of any text of ancient literature," Brandmuller said.

He said that despite some reports to the contrary, the drive to improve Judas's reputation does not have the support of the Vatican.

"There is no campaign, no movement for the rehabilitation of the traitor of Jesus," Brandmuller said.

Brushed onto 31 pages of papyrus in Coptic, an Egyptian script, the manuscript has become tattered after spending centuries buried beneath the sands of Egypt and decades on the gray market.

According to Mario Roberty, a Swiss lawyer who owns the manuscript, the document, known as a codex, has undergone restoration and translation by researchers led by the Swiss Coptic scholar Rodolphe Kasser.

"They've put each page under glass. It's incredibly brittle and in bad shape," Roberty said in a phone interview from Geneva.

Results of the research, Roberty said, will be released after Easter, when Christians around the world traditionally mark the official version of Jesus's death as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Roberty would not discuss the contents of the codex, and a National Geographic spokeswoman in Washington, Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, would not comment at all. But scholars independently following the project have begun to anticipate some of its findings.

Working from photographs of the codex, Charles Hedrick, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Missouri State University, has translated six pages into English, including the codex's title, "The Gospel of Judas."

Some of the manuscript's passages echo descriptions in the New Testament of Jesus's arrest, recalling how Roman authorities aimed to "seize [Jesus] in the act of prayer" and how Judas "took some money and he delivered [Jesus] over to them," Hedrick said, quoting from his translation.

Although Judas cooperates in the arrest of Jesus, Hedrick said, the codex does not depict him as a villain.

"Judas is not a bad guy in this text," Hedrick said in an interview. "He is the good guy, and he is serving God."

Hedrick and other scholars said the codex was produced in the 4th or 5th century and reflects the theological traditions of a 2nd-century sect of Gnostics, a community that believed true spirituality derived from a self-knowledge, or "gnosis." Figures depicted as sinful in the Old Testament, such as Cain and Esau, were typically extolled under Gnostic theology.

As early as the year 178, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a heresy watchdog of the early church, targeted the community for declaring that "Judas the traitor . . . alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal."

"They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas," Irenaeus wrote in "Against Heresies." Scholars say it's possible Irenaeus was reading an earlier version of the soon-to-be-published transcript, but that point is speculation.

William Klassen, author of "Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?," considers the forthcoming manuscript an asset to scholarly efforts to rehabilitate Judas's historical image.

Many scholars believe that Judas -- whose name literally means "Jewish man" -- was a victim of anti-Jewish slander that pervaded early Christianity in its struggle to break away from Judaism.

"It's important to look at this Gospel of Judas very carefully, because this is evidence that in the late 2nd century, in the time of Irenaeus, there was a group who held up the banner for Judas," Klassen said.

Other scholars are withholding judgment until the codex is publicly authenticated.

Michael White, director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, said researchers will be hard pressed to authenticate the codex if the history of its discovery is not clearly documented.

"They have to file artifacts of that sort with the government's archaeological oversight board," White said.

According to Roberty, such documentation is unavailable because the codex was smuggled out of Egypt before he purchased it in 2001.

"The manuscript itself was illegally exported because it had been stolen in Egypt," said Roberty, adding that he planned to eventually return the manuscript to Egypt.

James Robinson, a retired professor of Coptic studies at Claremont Graduate University and general editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi Library, vouched for the document's authenticity based on his experience in trying to purchase the codex as early as 1983.

"I don't know of any scholar who thinks this is fake," said Robinson, who is not involved in the National Geographic project.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

In the beginning...

I suppose I should begin this blog with a bit of information about myself, and some allegedly worthwhile but actually quite superfluous reasons why I felt the need to join the millions of other individuals who've decided that they have so many important things to say that they need to post them in some kind of public forum (where, of course, no one will ever bother to read them). I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, with a major in History and a minor in Religious Studies; I am currently a first-year student in the Master of Arts in Religion program at Yale Divinity School, with a concentration in Biblical Studies. My principal academic interests revolve around the religious and social climate in Palestine and the Roman Empire at large at the onset of the Common Era--in short, the conditions that produced the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the widespread movement that evolved following his death. A few favorite topics that fall under this ridiculously large umbrella include the development of messianism in Jewish and Christian circles, early Christianity's adaptation to the Greco-Roman political, cultural, and religious nexus, and noncanonical texts of all types (and the "heterodox" movements that produced them). Of course, given the broad scope of my program, I love lots of other things, too... if you can put the adjective "religious" in front of it, I'm interested.

I decided I couldn't go another minute without clogging up the information superhighway because:

1) I've discovered that it's fairly difficult for young graduate students in my field of study to publish and publicize their work through traditional channels such as conferences and journals. These resources are limited, and therefore are most often restricted to specialists holding terminal degrees. This is my attempt to circumvent the system and get some of my own thoughts and ideas out there.

2) I think this will help me become a better student and scholar. I've always felt that my own learning was most effectively stimulated through effective dialogue with others. So, in addition to this blog, I'll attempt to blackmail most of my friends and relatives into reading it--with the hope that it will make us all more enlightened individuals.

Well, there you have it... I'll try to update frequently. I hope that you enjoy reading these as much as I think I'll enjoy writing them!