Posts Tagged “history”

Popular Mechanics / The Real Face of JesusChristians love to assume their religion is founded on historical fact. Specifically, they’re absolutely certain their Jesus lived and walked the earth in the first decades of the 1st century CE. This assumption is so compelling that we count the years in terms of Jesus’ supposed lifetime … i.e. our Year 1 is, supposedly, the first year he was on earth.

The reality of it, though, is that it’s by no means certain at all that Jesus ever actually lived. Many people find this surprising, but Jesus’ historicity has been a subject of scholarly review and conjecture for over a century now. While devout believers in Christianity are certain Jesus lived, the rest of us, and scholars especially, aren’t as sure, because the historical record of his existence is vastly less clear and compelling than Christians claim.

Despite the lack of scholarly certainty, this month’s National Geographic cover story proudly trumpets that Jesus definitely lived (Archive.Is cached article). Their evidence? The discovery of a tomb:

Just yards from the tomb of Christ [at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem] are other rock-hewn tombs of the period, affirming that this church, destroyed and rebuilt twice, was indeed constructed over a Jewish burial ground.

Nat Geo has made a big deal about the recent discovery of one particular tomb near the Holy Sepulchre. The problem is, in historical and archaeological terms, this finding doesn’t really tell us anything, and it certainly doesn’t prove Jesus must have lived. The site of that church was “found” by the (Christian) Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. When she was there in the 4th century, it’s possible she knew tombs were nearby, and that may have been why she picked that location. So finding a tomb in the area doesn’t mean anything.

The problem here is that Nat Geo is accepted as an authoritative publication. Many Christians looking to promote Jesus’ historicity are sure to use this article as ostensible “proof” that he actually lived. Unfortunately for them, it’s not “proof” of anything, other than that Christians would like to think he existed and will go to ridiculous lengths in order to say they’ve “proven” it.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist.

Photo credit: Popular Mechanics.

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When the Fail is so strong, one Facepalm is not enough / Picard & Riker / based on HaHaStop.ComI’ll grant that Dr Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and current Republican candidate for president, is probably a very smart guy in many ways. Correction: Make that “he must be” a very smart guy in many ways. You can’t do the sorts of operations he’s done without being intelligent. It’s just not possible.

That said, being smart doesn’t make one impervious to stupidity on occasion. Even the smartest people are known to be stupid, once in a while (WebCite cached article). For better or worse, that’s just human nature.

And Carson is no exception. Recently, Buzzfeed reported on an ancillary remark Carson had made during a 1998 commencement speech about the Egyptian pyramids having been used for grain storage (cached):

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson told graduates during a commencement address in the late ’90s that he believed the pyramids in Egypt were built by the biblical figure Joseph to store grain, and not, as most archeologists contend, as tombs for pharaohs.

At the 1998 commencement for Andrews University, a school associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Carson also dismissed the notion that aliens were somehow involved in the construction of the pyramids.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves.”

Let me be clear before we go any further here: The Egyptian pyramids were not built as warehouses — to hold grain, or anything else. They were, instead, tombs. They had some interior chambers, as well as tunnels or shafts to access those chambers which were usually filled in once the late pharaoh was interred, but overall, they weren’t hollow. This has been known for a very long time, and — aside from occasional wild, unsupportable claims by various cranks and pseudo-archaeologists — there’s really no question about it. Yes, even though Carson explicitly dismissed everything archaeologists have to say about them.

One wonders why someone smart would come out with such a demonstrably pseudohistorical claim … but one needn’t look far for an explanation. As Carson himself said, it was the Old Testament hero Joseph, Jacob’s favored son, who built it while he’d been in Egypt and had worked his way up from slave to pharaoh’s vizier due to his magical dream-interpretation ability. Joseph’s story takes up a significant portion of the book of Genesis (chapters 37 through 46). His dream interpretations told him there’d be seven years of plenty followed by seven more of famine; pharaoh put him in charge so he could prepare and allow Egypt to get through the famine without trouble.

Christian fundamentalists like Carson (yes, I’m aware he’s a Seventh-Day Adventist, but that sect is essentially a Protestant fundamentalist one) are convinced the Bible’s contents are historical and accurate, therefore, the patriarch Joseph actually did save Egypt (and subsequently his own people) by stockpiling large amounts of food. Having made this assumption, they further conclude that this event must have left some extant impression on Egypt … which is exactly what Carson said as he continued in his comments at the time:

“But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

Yes, it’s bizarre logic. But it’s precisely what I expect of fundamentalist Christians. They can’t help themselves, because they simply can’t imagine anything else! To them, everything that exists points to their Bible’s literal veracity, without regard to whether or not it actually does. They relentlessly intone the mantra that “archaeology confirms the Bible” even though, in fact, it does not do any such thing.

One thing I’ll give Carson credit for: He did disparage other crank theories that the pyramids had been built by extraterrestrials. That’s been widely claimed by “New Agers” and other assorted nutcases, because they simply can’t imagine the ancients had been capable of building anything so big, and because they keep saying no one knows how the pyramids had been built. In fact, though, the Egyptians really did build them, and we do know precisely how they were built … from primary sources, no less!

Now, Carson might have said this back in 1998 — 17 years ago. So it wouldn’t seem very relevant now. And I wouldn’t have blogged about it. But with the passage of time, Carson hasn’t relented. Having been asked about the Buzzfeed story, CBS News reports he’s sticking by his weird Christian-literalist theory (cached):

Ben Carson stood by his long-held belief about ancient pyramids in Egypt, that they were used to store grain, rather than to inter pharaohs.

Asked about this Wednesday, Carson told CBS News, “It’s still my belief, yes.”

Yes, folks, this is a man who wants to be president. Either he genuinely believes this, in which case he’s clinging to an erroneous notion in order to back up his own irrational metaphysics, or he’s just saying it in order to appeal to Christian fundies who make up a large proportion of GOP primary voters so that they can back up their own irrational metaphysics … but either way, it’s not good.

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baby cryingPope Francis is, in a lot of ways, refreshing. As I’ve noted a number of times, he frequently walks to the beat of a different drummer. Sometimes he steps on the toes of his own Church, but other times it’s someone else he pisses off. The latest example is of this latter sort. This past weekend, as CNN and many other outlets report, he dared refer to the Armenian Genocide which kicked off in 1915, a century ago now (WebCite cached article):

Pope Francis risked Turkish anger on Sunday by using the word “genocide” to refer to the mass killings of Armenians a century ago under the Ottoman Empire.

“In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” the Pope said at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacres.…

His use of the term genocide — even though he was quoting from the declaration — upset Turkey.

The nation recalled its ambassador to the Vatican for “consultations” just hours after Francis’ comments, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Earlier, Turkey summoned the ambassador from the Vatican for a meeting, Turkish state broadcaster TRT reported.

As a matter of national policy, Turkey has denied the Armenian Genocide since it occurred, and never tolerates anyone suggesting it did happen. Not only do they deny the word “genocide” applies (using any number of specious, convoluted semantic arguments to do so), they’ve downplayed each and every specific aspect of this atrocity, making it seem as though it was “no big deal,” that not many people were killed, and some of the Armenians killed had rebelled, and that some Turks were killed, too. Note that most of these arguments resemble those used by Holocaust deniers, who are similarly fact-deprived and deluded.

Turkey was so angry over this, that country recalled its ambassador to the Vatican over this … as though this were some kind of meaningful event. If I were Pope Francis, I’d say, “Good riddance! Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out!” Perhaps it’s appropriate that the Turks used this childish tactic; the Vatican pulled the same stunt a few years ago, recalling their nuncio to Ireland after Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny criticized the Holy See after the Cloyne Report‘s release.

At any rate, it’s long past time the Turks grew up, accepted what happened a century ago, and admit their ancestors tried to wipe out the Armenian people. There’s no reason for them not to own up to it; after all, 100 years later, no one who took part in this genocide is still alive to be tried for “crimes against humanity.” If Canada could apologize for the residential school system, and if the U.S. could apologize to Hawai’ians for seizing their kingdom, then Turkey certainly can grow up, suck it up, admit the truth of its own past, and stop childishly denying historical reality.

Photo credit: e OrimO, via Flickr.

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A historical event that Jefferson County schools would not be able to teach kids (In case you were taught by Jefferson County schools, or for some other reason don't recognize it, this was the fall of the Berlin Wall) / PsiCop modification of Sue Ream photo, via Wikimedia CommonsConservatives have strange ideas about how teaching works. For instance, a lot of them think teaching evolution in science classes — which is currently the only known scientific explanation for our planet’s diverse life forms — is a form of persecution against Christianity and part of an effort to abolish that religion. Also, a lot of them think teaching kids things like slavery will cause kids to hate their country or something. They also worry that teaching kids about things will somehow force them to do them; e.g. teaching kids about communism will convert them to communism.

That the teaching of history, in particular, doesn’t work the way conservatives think it does, should be rather obvious. For instance, my 4 years in university learning medieval history didn’t make me into a crossbowman, swordsman or jouster, even though I learned about medieval military methods and read about a lot of tournaments.

An example of the outright-fucking insanity that erupts when conservatives get their hands on history curricula can be seen in this report by the New York Times on recent actions by the Jefferson County, Colorado school board (WebCite cached article):

A new conservative school board majority here in the Denver suburbs recently proposed a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” In response, hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools across the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado, streamed out of school and along busy thoroughfares, waving signs and championing the value of learning about the fractious and tumultuous chapters of American history.

“It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.”

The Times article explains that the board’s conservative majority (3 to 2) has been stirring up trouble for several months, including driving out a 12-year superintendent. They’re really angry, and appear to have fallen for the prevailing conservative myth that public schools are nothing more than Marxist indoctrination camps.

In addition to the false notion that teaching kids about civil disobedience will force them all to become perpetually “civilly disobedient,” they appear to forget that civil disobedience has been used to promote conservative ideals and even to bring about changes that American conservatives approve of. Have they forgotten so soon about things like a western Rightist’s decades-long unrepentant refusal to obey federal law (cached) — a sterling example of civil disobedience if ever there was one? Or about the “Brooks Brothers riot” (in which Rightists working for G.W. Bush campaign used civil disobedience to try to derail the 2000 election recount in Florida)? Or have they forgotten about protests around the world, especially in eastern Europe, that toppled many communist regimes in 1989? Or even that many of their own number want the incumbent president removed from office, and wouldn’t object to civil disobedience or even revolt in order to make that happen?

My guess is, they’re blissfully unaware of this. They tend to be authoritarian, and demand unthinking adherence to authority. That they sometimes, themselves, object to some authority figures just doesn’t register with them all that often. In other words, they’re hypocrites — fiercely decrying civil disobedience if they find it inconvenient, but using it like a tool whenever they feel as though they can. Wah wah wah, little babies.

Photo credit: PsiCop modification of Sue Ream photo, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jesus weptWhen I heard Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s screaming, tantrum-throwing prime-time gadlfy, was writing a book about the life and death of Jesus Christ, I groaned inside. Lots of people over the years have attempted to write about the historicity of Jesus, so it’s not as though the topic has never been handled. I’ve read a lot of those books, and most of them are poor attempts at historiography. Based upon reviews of Billy’s book I’ve seen, by scholars like Candida Moss, the Fox News host’s effort is no exception.

O’Reilly’s contention is that Jesus was killed, because … <drumroll please> … he objected to Roman taxation.

That’s right, folks. Billy-boy’s Jesus was a first-century tax protester, ergo he was killed.

Think about that for a moment. Just stop, and think about it. For a moment.

There’s a very simple and very obvious problem with this claim. It shouldn’t take most Americans long to come up with it.

Go ahead. Stop. Think. I’m sure it will come to you.

In case you haven’t got it by now, I’ll explain: According to the gospels (well, three of them anyway!), Jesus was clearly, explicitly, and specifically not a tax protester! Allow me to quote from the Billster’s own Catholic Bible:

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Mt 22:15-22)

They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to him to ensnare him in his speech. They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?” Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” They brought one to him and he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They replied to him, “Caesar’s.” So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ They were utterly amazed at him. (Mk 12:13-17)

They watched him closely and sent agents pretending to be righteous who were to trap him in speech, in order to hand him over to the authority and power of the governor. They posed this question to him, “Teacher, we know that what you say and teach is correct, and you show no partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” Recognizing their craftiness he said to them, “Show me a denarius; whose image and name does it bear?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” So he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were unable to trap him by something he might say before the people, and so amazed were they at his reply that they fell silent. (Lk 20:20-26)

Given that Jesus was reported by three gospels to have said this, how can anyone rationally conclude that Jesus objected to the Romans’ taxation? Clearly, he did not! The Billster’s effort to turn Jesus Christ into a classical-era prototype teabagger is laughable, transparent, absurd, and — perhaps most importantly — directly contradicts what Christian legend tells us about Jesus.

Before anyone asks … no, I haven’t read O’Reilly’s book. And no, I have no plans ever to read it. (The same goes for Reza Aslan’s book that I blogged about back in July.) I’ve long since soured on books that claim to dig into the life of Jesus as a historical topic. Almost invariably those books have nothing to do with “history”; truthfully, most of their authors are not interested in “history” in the first place. All they’re doing is selling their own ideas about Jesus by cloaking them behind the claim of being “historical.” Unfortunately, the actual historicity of Jesus is more elusive than most people, including scholars, will admit. Barring some kind of discovery that sheds new light on the matter, that’s the way it’s going to stay. Centuries of Christian legends, history revision, myth-making, and trampling of the historical record, have made sure of it.

P.S. If you really feel the need to read about books that examine the historicity of Jesus, I suggest starting at the beginning of that contemporary effort, and read The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (yes, that Albert Schweitzer, the famous philanthropist-physician … he’d been an accomplished theologian before embarking on a career in medicine). Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, nor do most other scholars, his book got the ball rolling, and that alone makes it seminal. For a more recent work on the subject, I suggest Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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When the Fail is so strong, one Facepalm is not enough / Picard & Riker / based on HaHaStop.ComBy now anyone who’s read my blog knows that Glenn Beck is a lying Christofascist ignoramus of the highest order. It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged about his insanity, but I just came across something he said which is so colossally stupid — not to mention absolutely and totally false — that I can’t help but point it out. What he has done is to establish his own version of American-Israelism. The report comes from World Net Nut Daily, which I don’t normally use as a third-party source of information, but they provide video, so brace yourselves (WebCite cached article):

Radio and television host Glenn Beck is now going public with his belief the United States is among the famous “Lost 10 Tribes of Israel,” and America today is suffering calamaties just as ancient Israel did due to its disobedience to the laws of God.

Echoing the conclusions of some experts who have delved deeply into what’s known as the theory of “Anglo-Israelism” or “British-Israelism,” Beck took viewers of his TV show into a biblical history lesson dating back to the time after King David of the Old Testament, when the once united Kingdom of Israel became divided.

For someone like myself, who studied actual history in college and who knows a thing or two about Biblical times, I groaned involuntarily. I know that misinformation is coming … and it did … but I couldn’t have anticipated how stunningly bad it would be. You see, among the many ahistorical claims Beckie-boy made, is this:

Beck went on to note that when the Assyrians [who’d conquered the northern kingdom of Israel] were finally defeated by other powers, they and the Israelite captives fled northward.

“And they fled out of captivity through the Caucuses Mountains,” he said. “The Caucusus Mountains are where you hear the word ‘Caucasian.’”

Glennie goes astray here by making too much of the word “Caucasian.” He’s suggesting that everyone who’s a “Caucasian” is a descendant of these Assyrians and their Hebrew captives. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. First of all, even before the Assyrian nation came into existence there were many nations, populated by people who would later be called “Caucasian,” already in Europe and in western and southern Asia! Second, Glenn errs by taking the term “Caucasian” too literally. Its etymology is actually mistaken. German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach, in the late 18th century, erroneously thought that the Caucasus mountain region had been the original homeland of the Aryan peoples. We now know he was wrong about that … and about a lot of other things, too, especially his “racial degeneration” theories. In any event, serious scientists no longer view the racial term “Caucasian” as being meaningful. That the Glennster does, and connects it literally with the Caucasus Mountains, betrays his ignorance.

But having spewed that lunacy, Beckie-boy wasn’t done. He reeled off even more lies:

“What’s interesting is the Assyrians, who were very good, meticulous record-keepers, and who were just brutal [people], they settled in Italy and in the Germany area and the Russia area where facsism comes from. But the Israelites, the Lost 10 Tribes, they went north and they started to scatter [in another] direction, and they went to the coastlines, generally in the area where the Pilgrims came from.

To this I can only say, “What the fuck!?” He offers no evidence the Assyrians went to Italy, Germany or Russia. He directly connects those Assyrians with fascism, a political movement that didn’t emerge for two and a half millennia after their state had vanished. And their Hebrew captives, whom the Assyrians had supposedly taken with them, somehow escaped, at some point Glenn never discloses, and settled in “coastal areas” (I guess he forgot that Italy has lots and lots of coastline, and Germany and Russia have some, too).

Lastly, the Glennster goes on at length about how America’s various symbolic associations with the number 13 — such as in the presidential seal — just can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the country was founded as a federation of 13 former British colonies. Oh no! It comes, instead, from the 12 tribes of Israel.

Yes, that’s what he said. That 12 equals 13. Glennie-boy even rationalized this idiotic formulation:

As far as why 12 tribes of Israel would be represented by the number 13 and not 12, Beck stated, “The tribe of Joseph split into Manassah and Ephraim, and those were in northern Israel. That’s the northern kingdom of Israel. That’s the thirteen tribes.”

The WND article continues with a whole lot more of Beckie-boy’s insipid and fact-deprived drivel, complete with his usual long chains of associations. It also cites a “historian,” Steven M. Collins, who supports Glennie’s insane ramblings, however, I can find no record of this Collins having any credentials in history (either by virtue of being awarded a history degree, or having authored an article in a peer-reviewed history journal). I can only assume the guy is no more a “historian” than another of Beckie-boy’s Christofascist friends, David Barton.

In any event, what the Glennster outlines here isn’t really that strange, if you see how similar it is to a movement known as British-Israelism. It, and other related wingnut hypotheses (such as the Khazar myth) are all basically anti-Semitic notions, cooked up in order to rob Jews of their own spiritual heritage and award it to some other group or nation instead. It’s all very irrational, not to mention hateful, and it has no place in the 21st century United States.

Nevertheless, the Glennster is sticking to it. Hmm.

Ordinarily I’d have embedded the video of Glenn spewing his ignorance, distortions, exaggerations, and lies … but somehow I can’t bring myself to put his face on my blog any more. Something about it just turns my stomach. You’ll just have to go there for yourself if you care to see this insanity.

Hat tip: Rational Wiki.

Photo credit: HaHaStop.

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Photograph by Karen L. King, via the New York Times (see URL Vatican has decided enough is enough, when it comes to the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” that I blogged about back when it was released. They just aren’t having any part of it. Not only are they rejecting its content, as Reuters reports, they took to their house organ, L’Osservatore Romano, to declare the thing a “fake” (WebCite cached article):

An ancient papyrus fragment which a Harvard scholar says contains the first recorded mention that Jesus may have had a wife is a fake, the Vatican said on Friday.

“Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery,” the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial by its editor, Gian Maria Vian. “In any case, it’s a fake.”

Joining a highly charged academic debate over the authenticity of the text, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, the newspaper published a lengthy analysis by expert Alberto Camplani of Rome’s La Sapienza university, outlining doubts about the manuscript and urging extreme caution.

I looked at L’Osservatore Romano online and was unable to find the editorial. I did, however, find Camplani’s piece, which is essentially an anti-media whine (cached). It doesn’t say very much about the manuscript fragment itself; it just says that the insolent worldwide mass media ought never to have mentioned it to anyone. Other than the complaint about the media — which is nothing new for the R.C. Church, they’ve been spewing paranoid rhetoric about how the media are trying to destroy them for years now — I don’t see anything substantive here, explaining how they know the fragment to be “fake.” No Vatican officials have examined it (again, that I’m aware of) so I don’t see how they can be this sure of it.

What it looks like they’ve done, is to react to a phantom, that being the idea that this scrap somehow proves Jesus was married, which of course would totally contradict centuries of Catholic doctrine … and especially would fly in the face of priestly celibacy.

Unfortunately for the Church, no one has seriously made such a claim, nor anything like it … not Prof Karen King who first revealed it, and not any of the reporters who’ve turned in stories about it. If anything, like this Reuters report, they go to great lengths to point out that this is not what the fragment tells us and that King never said so:

During the conference King stressed that the fragment did not give “any evidence that Jesus was married, or not married” but that early Christians were talking about the possibility.

Why the Vatican would react to this phantom notion, I have no idea. Except that, perhaps, it fits into the prevailing sense they have that the media are trying to destroy them. Even if the media were trying to do so, reporting on this fragment doesn’t help them in that regard.

Few facts are really known with any certainty about the document known as “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” As I posted earlier, this means skepticism is in order. It may well turn out to be a modern fake. Questions abound, and conclusions are hard to reach. But even if it’s determined that the fragment is precisely what it appears to be … i.e. a classical-era Coptic text … that still does not tell us the slightest thing about Jesus. All it would tell us is that one 4th century Coptic Christian wrote down a text which contained those words … and because of that, one might reasonably assume, s/he believed that Jesus had a wife. Still, it’s clear that such a belief — assuming anyone held it, back then — must have been a minority view in classical Christendom (since there are no other documents that mention Jesus having been married).

Really, people need to stop going off the deep end over this manuscript fragment. Campliani’s statement that the media shouldn’t have reported it, is especially asinine. The Vatican is boxing shadows here. It really needs to move on and stop whining about things that aren’t relevant to it.

Photo credit: Karen L. King, via the New York Times.

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