I recently received an announcement for a new book called The Word of Jesus, according to which “Jesus was not Jewish but Egyptian.” Jesus, we are told, was “a pagan.” Apparently aware that we may not be persuaded by the book’s argument, the blurb assures us that, “Whether convinced or skeptical, one is never bored!” The book is available in French, Spanish and English.
How is it that far-out books like this make their way into the marketplace? Mostly it is their sensational claims, aided, of course, by the media, ever willing to give exposure to the wildest contentions. Plus some clever, sophisticated marketing.
Last Easter, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report all put Jesus on the cover. Each discussed mainline scholars grappling to understand better the historical Jesus. But then Time devoted an entire page to a book claiming that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events they describe. According to Time, the author of the book “startled the rarefied world of biblical scholarship by arguing that” certain long-known fragments of Matthew at Oxford University date to about 70 A.D., a century earlier than other scholars date it. Far from having “startled” the world of biblical scholarship with this claim, the author’s contention regarding the Oxford fragments had already been convincingly demolished by leading scholars. The Time write-up was not able to come up with a single scholar other than the author who had a good thing to say about the book’s argument, let alone who agreed with it.
The same person who made this “startling” discovery also believes that a fragment of the Gospel of Mark has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fragment consists of 20 letters, half of which are incomplete. The only complete word in the text is “and.”
Which of course brings us to a subject that is made for sensationalism—the Dead Sea Scrolls. One person has been able to convince both the New York Times syndicate and the Washington Post to publish his claim that there are Chinese ideograms in the margins of the scrolls and that the scrolls were actually written half a millennium later than a great majority of scholars believe.
The claim that Jesus was crucified not in Jerusalem but at Qumran, the settlement adjacent to the caves where the scrolls were found, has brought an Australian woman fame and fortune. According to her claim, Jesus was already married to Mary Magdalene at the time. After surviving his crucifixion, he divorced the Magdalene, later remarrying, fathering several children, and eventually moving to Rome where he died in his bed in the 60s. This story even became the basis for a much-screened TV special.
Perhaps the best money-making scheme involving the scrolls was the claim that the early refusal to release them was the work of a Vatican conspiracy. As BAR readers know full well, we fought aggressively for the release of the scrolls, finally prevailing, but we never claimed that the refusal to release them was the result of a Vatican conspiracy. Indeed, we called the claim “hogwash,” but that did nothing to dampen sales of the book claiming a Vatican conspiracy.
I wish I had a solution to the problem. The problem is compounded by the fact that the authors of these books often have scholarly credentials of sorts. And their claims are often embedded in long, detailed, opaque, scholarly-appearing tomes.
Highly regarded scholars are often reluctant to spend the time it takes to debunk these far-out claims. And even damning reviews seem to have little impact on sales and exposure.
Moreover, the contentions range from outright bogus scholarship to fringe scholarship, by which I mean simply that the author has been unable to convince any academic colleagues of the far-out claim. These claims are sometimes called one-person theories, held by the author alone. For example, one scholar contends that the Dead Sea Scrolls are really the library of the Jerusalem Temple. Another claims that the Wicked Priest was really St. Paul.
The lay reader has a difficult time sorting out the worthwhile from the worthless. After all, it is true that far-out theories are sometimes later proved correct. How do we know that this or that far-out claim is not one of them? Unfortunately, there is no certain litmus test. We at BAR and Bible Review will simply try to give what guidance we can, based on responsible scholarship, while ever willing to air new claims that are reasonably supported, but also exposing the foolish for what it is.
I recently received an announcement for a new book called The Word of Jesus, according to which “Jesus was not Jewish but Egyptian.” Jesus, we are told, was “a pagan.” Apparently aware that we may not be persuaded by the book’s argument, the blurb assures us that, “Whether convinced or skeptical, one is never bored!” The book is available in French, Spanish and English. How is it that far-out books like this make their way into the marketplace? Mostly it is their sensational claims, aided, of course, by the media, ever willing to give exposure to the wildest contentions. […]