The Myths of Jesus

By Ehrman, Bart D. | Newsweek, December 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Myths of Jesus


Ehrman, Bart D., Newsweek


Byline: Bart D. Ehrman

A recent papyrus that referenced Jesus' wife caused an Uproar. it may be a hoax, but what do we really know about the historical truth ofthe early life of jesus? Even the gospels disagree.

This past September, Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled a newly discovered Gospel fragment that she entitled "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." This wisp of a papyrus has stirred up a hornet's nest and raised anew questions about what we can know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and about whether there are other Gospels outside the New Testament that can contribute valuable information. Few questions could be more timely, here in the season that celebrates Jesus' birth.

The fragment is just a scrap--the size of a credit card--written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt. It contains only eight broken lines of writing, but in one of these Jesus speaks of "my wife." Conspiracy theorists immediately leaped on the news as if it were a revelation from on high and claimed that it vindicates the views of Jesus' matrimonial state set forth by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code. Conservative Christians cried "foul" and insisted that such an insignificant piece of papyrus proves nothing. King and her colleagues have taken the middle ground and argued that since the fragment is to be dated to the fourth Christian century, some 300 years after Jesus and any of his relatives passed from the scene, it can tell us what later Christians believed about Jesus, but not what actually happened during his life.

As it turns out, most experts on early Christianity have come to think the fragment is a hoax, a forgery produced in recent years by an amateur who, unlike King and scholars of her stature, was not well versed in the niceties of Coptic grammar and so was unable to cover up the traces of his own deceit. The final verdict is not yet in: we are still to learn the results from the scientific analysis of the ink, to see if it is in fact ancient or modern. But even if, as appears likely, the text is a fake, it does once again alert us to the fact that there are Gospels about Jesus that have come down to us from the ancient world, which present information at odds with widely held views.

As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth, it is worth considering that much of the "common knowledge" about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture. Some obvious examples: nowhere does the Bible indicate what year Jesus came into the world, or that he was born on Dec. 25; it does not place an ox and an ass in his manger; it does not say that it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.

For many centuries, most Christians garnered their information about the birth of Jesus not from the New Testament but from popular writings that were not officially considered Scripture. One of the best known of these books is called the "Proto-Gospel of James," composed probably in the late second century, a century after the canonical Gospels, and accordingly, far less likely that they contain anything like historically accurate information. But Christians throughout the Middle Ages were rarely interested in historical accuracy; they loved stories and reveled in their meaning, especially stories having anything to do with the appearance of the Son of God in the world.

In many respects the Proto-Gospel of James is driven by a concern to know details about Jesus' mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why was she, in particular, chosen to bear the Son of God? It is in this account that we first learn about Mary's own miraculous birth. Here, her mother, Anna, is said to be barren, but God miraculously allows her to conceive. When Mary is born, her mother dedicates her to God, and makes the girl's bedroom into a sanctuary in which she lives, apart from the polluting in flu ences of the world, for the first three years of her life.

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