Posts Tagged “coptic christianity”

Gospel of Jesus' WifeI blogged about the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” back when it hit the news four years ago. Since then, tests on the fragment showed it could have come from an actual classical manuscript. As I said both times, whether or not the fragment is “real” doesn’t really present any substantial challenge to anyone’s Christianity. The most it would have told us is that one group of Christians, in 4th century Egypt, thought Jesus had married. That’s all. Nothing more. Even so, traditionalist Christians raged and fumed about it, as though someone had tried to kill them or something. (That would be your Christian martyr complex at work.)

Well, Ariel Sabar of The Atlantic has done some investigating — not on the fragment itself, but into its provenance — and offers compelling evidence it was a hoax (WebCite cached article):

[Harvard professor Karen L.] King has steadfastly honored the current owner’s request for anonymity. But in 2012, she sent me the text of e-mails she’d exchanged with him, after removing his name and identifying details. His account of how he’d come to possess the fragment, I noticed, contained a series of small inconsistencies. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. But years later, they still gnawed at me.

The American Association of Museums’ Guide to Provenance Research warns that an investigation of an object’s origins “is not unlike detective work”: “One may spend hours, days, or weeks following a trail that leads nowhere.” When I started to dig, however, I uncovered more than I’d ever expected—a warren of secrets and lies that spanned from the industrial districts of Berlin to the swingers scene of southwest Florida, and from the halls of Harvard and the Vatican to the headquarters of the East German Stasi.

Sabar’s revelations are engaging, and I urge you to take the time to read it all. I’ll leave the story as is. The bottom line is that the likely forger was an East German, now living in Florida, who’d studied Egyptian antiquities for a time, and thus was in a position to pull of a hoax of this kind.

Professor King herself, in the wake of this, acknowledges the likelihood she’d been hoaxed (cached):

A Harvard professor who rocked the musty world devoted to studying early Christianity when she presented a tiny swatch of papyrus that referred to Jesus as married now concedes the fragment is probably a fake.

From the very start, she had hedged her bets and suggested it might have been a hoax, but given what she did — i.e. to broadcast it to the world in as public a way as a historian of religion could — belies that. What’s more, her total disinterest in the fragment’s provenance — which normally is of great importance to scholars when reviewing any artifact — suggests she feared it might be a hoax; purposely minimizing her knowledge of it helped her alleviate that fear. In other words, it’s a classic case of Sgt Schultz thinking.

I’m sure conservative Christians who’d been incensed with King’s publication of “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” back in 2012 are now crowing with glee. Bit I bet they weren’t as happy that the so-called “James ossuary” a number of years ago turned out not to be the “proof” of Jesus’ historicity they’d presumed it was (cached) … so I guess turnabout is fair play, no?

The bottom line is that this was a case of people investing more sentiment into something than it deserved. And I say that not because it ended up being a hoax. I say that because, from the very beginning, and without regard to its genuineness or phoniness, too many people made more of GJW than it deserved. Prof King took it too seriously as “proof” of the existence of some feminist Christian sect, and her critics took it too seriously as well, with their sanctimonious outrage that someone might provide potential evidence that early Christianity wasn’t as uniform — and consistent with the Biblical canon — as they’d like it to have been. People really need to fucking grow the hell up already.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Gospel of Jesus' WifeIt’s been awhile since it was a hot topic in the news, but the so-called “gospel of Jesus’ wife” is in the news again. The New York Times reports that, after some non-destructive tests have been done on it, the fragment is probably of classical or early-medieval origin (WebCite cached article):

A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published on Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery.…

The papyrus fragment has now been analyzed by professors of electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries. (Scientists at the University of Arizona, who dated the fragment to centuries before the birth of Jesus, concluded that their results were unreliable.)

The test results do not prove that Jesus had a wife or disciples who were women, only that the fragment is more likely a snippet from an ancient manuscript than a fake, the scholars agree. Karen L. King, the historian at Harvard Divinity School who gave the papyrus its name and fame, has said all along that it should not be regarded as evidence that Jesus married, only that early Christians were actively discussing celibacy, sex, marriage and discipleship.

The last time I blogged about the GJW, I’d commented on a rather rash Vatican dismissal of any possibility that the fragment could be genuine. Now that some tests have actually been done — which hadn’t been the case back when the Vatican pitched a fit over it — I don’t doubt they’ll still refuse to accept it might be genuine.

That’s a shame, because quite obviously, whether or not GJW is genuine, doesn’t mean Jesus had to have been married. It only means some classical or early medieval Coptic Christians wrote as though he had been. Sure, it seems a really bizarre idea to modern eyes, but there were lots of Christian groups that believed a lot of different things in antiquity, and a lot of those ideas were strange (even to other Christians). If you want to read a really weird account of Jesus’ childhood, for example, read the (possible) 2nd century Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In it, a young Jesus literally curses people to death. No Christians today take that seriously, but some Christian definitely wrote it, back in classical times. There really isn’t any rational reason for anyone … the robed denizens of the Vatican included … to get their knickers in knots over this.

Hat tip: Mark at Skeptics & Heretics Forum on Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Egypt sectarian violence / Christian, Muslim youths clash in Cairo / A dozen people have been killed in the clashes that occurred in the Cairo district of Imbaba (Aljazeera)Hosni Mubarak may be out of power, but all is not well in the Land of the Nile. Religious violence has become an increasing problem in Egypt and its new government is having difficulty dealing with it. Al Jazeera reports on a renewed eruption of religious strife in Cairo, in the wake of a woman’s conversion from Christianity to Islam (WebCite cached article):

Egyptian troops are out in force in central Cairo after weekend riots left 12 people dead and more than 200 injured.

Clashes between Muslims and Copts have raised fears that more sectarian strife could erupt in the country which remains under military rule three months after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power. …

The bloodshed began on Saturday evening when word spread around the Imbaba neighborhood that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam had been abducted and was being kept in the Virgin Mary Church against her will.

About 500 ultraconservative Salafi Muslims gathered at the church, calling on Christians to hand over the woman.

Both sides traded gunfire, firebombs and stones, witnesses said.

Soldiers and police fired shots in the air and used tear gas to separate the sides but stone-throwing went on into the night.

Al Jazeera offers an excellent video report, but for some reason there’s no option to embed it, so I can’t do so here.

The idea that religious conversions must be met with violence is, quite obviously, absurd. No one is required to be happy about a conversion, but to hold her in a church and then exchange gunfire and Molotovs over it, is beyond rationality. It just goes to show that Egypt has a long way to go before it matures sufficiently. That’s ironic, since her civilization is among the oldest on the planet, meaning its people have no excuse for not having grown up enough to deal with things like this.

Note that the uptick in Muslim/Christian violence predates the revolution that toppled Mubarak. On January 1 of this year, a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 21 people.

Photo credit: Snapshot from Al Jazeera video.

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A police officer guarded a church in Nag Hammadi. (Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)(Note as of 5/9/2011: This post is well over year old, and things have changed mightily in Egypt. Two updates are below.)

Although Egypt is a majority-Muslim nation, it has a significant Christian minority, which has been there for about as long as there have been Christians … Christians have been in Alexandria since the middle of the 1st century CE, and many early Christian document discoveries have been made in Egypt. Arguably the dominant Christian church of Egypt, known as the Coptic Orthodox Church, has a more continuous and older pedigree than the church of Rome. Even after the Muslim conquest of Egypt which took place c. 640 CE, Christianity has maintained a presence there. Depending upon whom you ask, between 10 and 20% of Egypt is Christian.

There has, of course, been trouble between religious groups in Egypt, through its history. Christians themselves were known to have committed some violence of their own (e.g. their butchering of Hypatia of Alexandria, the destruction of the Serapeum in the same city, etc.). It’s no surprise that some of that violence crops up in Egypt now and again.

Except that … if you listen to the Egyptian government anyway … it doesn’t happen, even when it does. The New York Times reports on this strange paradox (WebCite cached article):

A few weeks ago, on the day that Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve, a Muslim gunman opened fire on worshipers as they walked out of church, killing 7, wounding 10 and leading to the worst sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt in years. In the days that followed, there were riots and clashes. Stores were wrecked. Homes were burned.

The government responded by sending in heavily armed police officers, banning the news media and insisting that the Jan. 6 attack was retaliation for a rape.

“There are initial indications connecting this incident to the consequences of accusing a young Christian man of raping a Muslim girl in one of the governorate’s villages,” the Interior Ministry said after the attack.

That’s right. This may have been religious violence, but it wasn’t religious violence. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, knowwhatImean?) The Egyptian government has tried to cover up the real story:

The one thing the government would not do was admit the obvious: Egypt had experienced one of the most serious outbreaks of sectarian violence in years. Instead, it said talk of sectarian conflict amounted to sedition.

But the evidence, provided in newspapers, was irrefutable: 14 Muslims arrested, 28 Christians arrested, Christian shops burned, Muslim houses burned.

“We are now facing a sectarian society and street,” wrote Amr el-Shoubky, a political analyst and columnist, in an article under the headline “The New Sectarianism: The Alienation of Christians,” which appeared in the daily newspaper Al Masry al-Youm.

Despite the fact that pretty much everyone knows what really happened, the government still will not change its tune:

“The crime of Nag Hammadi is just an individual crime with no religious motives, just like the crime of raping the girl,” Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the Parliament speaker, said in Al Ahram, a state-owned newspaper.

Egypt’s society may look homogeneous on the outside, but as the Times explains, it is — in reality — anything but homogeneous:

In daily life secular divisions can be subtle. People work together, study together, but then go their separate ways. The neighborhoods are integrated, but private lives are segregated. Tension grows as young men talk about cellphone videos showing Muslim girls with Christian boys, or as Christian parents complain that their children are forced to study the Koran in public schools.

The group outside the warehouse slowly acknowledged that there was little mingling in Nag Hammadi. “We are separated,” said Essam Atef, 32, a Christian who manages the pharmaceutical business. “If there is a wedding, you offer congratulations, and if there is someone sick, you might visit, but we are both on our own here.”

All the men agreed.

What the government of Egypt is doing, then, is just what Egyptian society does, itself, which is to “keep up appearances.” Society pays lip-service to the notion that Muslims and Christians get along well, but in truth, they’re segregated. In the same way, the government tries to make it seem as though there is no sectarian or religious strife, when in fact, it is most assuredly there.

Update 1: The situation in Egypt has changed markedly since February of 2010 when I first posted this. The government was not able to stifle reporting on the New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, and the uprising which is going on as I type this has triggered changes in the Mubarak regime. See this update post for more on the changes in Egypt.

Update 2: The uprising ended with the resignation of Mubarak, but religious violence continues to erupt in Egypt. Here’s another post on the matter.

Photo credit: New York Times / Shawn Baldwin.

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