Paper not Paper

I’m sure other people have this problem.  I read hardback books with the dust jacket off.  Lest anyone accuse me of being consistent, my wife reminds me that I debated the opposite side early in our marriage.  I guess I’m complex.  In any case, the problem I face is with things pretending to be what they’re not.  This particular book is “cloth-bound.”  I own quite a few cloth-bound volumes, but this one is so slick that I keep dropping it.  It slips right through my fingers.  The reason this happens is because “cloth-bound” seldom means “cloth”-bound.  Modern binderies offer a textured paper covering that looks like cloth but it’s not.  In other words, although this book is not a paperback, it has, in fact, a paper back.  This is more than just semantics.

When looking for a house one of my non-negotiables was that it couldn’t have vinyl siding.  Vinyl siding pretends to be wooden cladding, and I require authenticity.  I don’t want a substance saying it’s something that it’s not.  You see, I grew up in a plain-speaking, blue-collar environment.  The last time I visited my mother’s trailer to get something from her former neighbor who’d moved in, it was summer.  I stepped out of the car and although I’d said maybe less than two sentences to this man in our meetings over the years his first words to me were “What are you all dressed up for?”  A bespectacled, white-bearded veteran, he was wearing a tank-top tee-shirt.  I had on a button-down that had been recently laundered.  I loved his authentic approach.  It was hot out, so why was I “dressed up”?

Book-binding actually has a fascinating history.  Books were originally sold as sheaves of paper in a “book block.”  In the early days booksellers often did the binding themselves, or customers would buy a book block and take it to a bindery of their choice.  That’s why there’s no uniformity in old book covers.  Eventually, however, mechanization allowed for books to be bound before being shipped to book sellers.  Early binding tended to be leather, which is why many Bibles are still sold that way.  I found all of this out from reading various books.  Which ones they were have slipped my mind.  Probably they were bound in paper, pretending to be cloth.  Cloth binding is more expensive than paper-pretending-to-be-cloth binding.  That’s why publishers use it.  The same applies to vinyl siding, I suspect.  Only with human beings does pretend authenticity become more expensive.  

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.