Nothing to Do with Pigs

Pseudepigrapha is not a word that flows mellifluously off the tongue, and the first time reader stops to give pause over its awkward beginning and several syllables. It comes from a couple of words meaning “false” and “letters” and it designates a book, usually ancient, falsely attributed to somebody important. Since most people in our post-modern world don’t even read the regular Bible (many Fundamentalists among them), throwing a false gospel out there and telling everyone what it says is a fairly safe bet for getting some attention. A friend sent me a link to a web story about the “Gospel of Barnabas” based on an allegedly clandestine Turkish manuscript, that has been circulating for a few years now. Let’s face it: how is a non-specialist supposed to find a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, and how is the public going to know how to weigh one ancient document against another? After all, we as a society have determined that biblical scholars are more than useless, and they should be employed doing odd jobs just above minimum wage, the unbelievers!

Dante making Scripture

Dante making Scripture

The story on the promisingly named Liberaland website makes a Bill Maher of mistakes regarding the ancient document, however. Citing only vague “religious experts and specialists located in Tehram,” (after all, we all know that there are no religious specialists in North America or Europe) the article claims with an unattributed quote, that this 23-million-dollar gospel has been squirreled away for safe keeping because of its scandalous claims about early Christianity. Any biblical scholar knows, however, that truly original scandalous claims are difficult to come by. The Gospel of Barnabas has been known since the seventeenth century and it is likely a document with Muslim sympathies. It doesn’t help that actual ancient documents are sometimes held in secret (I know of one being kept in a Turkish monastery that is being held, literally, for ransom to help finance the place), and the general public is ill-equipped to know who’s telling tales outside of school.

There’s no point in denying that religions have made a plethora of mistakes and missteps over the centuries. New religions are emerging all the time and new mistakes and missteps will be made. Given that people are, according to the best evidence, programmed to believe, it would seem to this insignificant former scholar that keeping a few religion specialists on the payroll might not be such a bad idea. Of course, I am an interested party, and that makes me suspect from the beginning. I spent my early adulthood years learning to read a dozen dead languages and that has landed me in an obscure job that barely covers the rent. One thing it did prevent, however, is being taken in by claims of mysterious gospels that seem to surface several times a year. There will be those who dispute what I write, but then any document these days is liable to be called pseudepigrapha.

Manuscript Madness

A friend recently pointed me to a story of a “new” manuscript, recently discovered, that portrays Jesus predicting the advent of Mohammad. The article on sott.net, suggests that the manuscript, wanting to be seen by the Pope, may be the Gospel of Barnabas. Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas is already known from a medieval Italian manuscript and a new, authentic discovery would be of great excitement to epigraphists and text critics, but few others. Barnabas is not a canonical gospel and is considered by the majority of scholars to have come from centuries after the fact. Quite apart from the sensational headline “1,500 year-old Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in Shock!” (posted in September of last year, before Francis came along), the manuscript raises a number of questions concerning what one colleague calls “the iconic book.” To be sure, there are documents yet to be discovered. The Bible, however, will not be reconstituted and the door has long been sealed shut on written revelation. What remains is the perception of sacred books.

How many movies and novels are based on the premise that an ancient document has been discovered and suddenly everything about the world changes? It is a common enough theme. This idea is based on the magical concept of scripture—the hidden wisdom of the ancients somehow overrides all that we know of the world. It lies in some cave or monastery or synagogue, waiting to be discovered, unleashing divine power. No doubt the dramatic (and dramatized) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls plays into this mythos. Nobody knew they were there, but suddenly, new information! How many people on the street today, however, can say anything of what was contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’ve been mulled over by furrowed-browed scholars for over half a century, but haven’t triggered any apocalypses, at least not yet.

There are hidden documents. Working for Gorgias Press put me in the place where I could learn about some texts kept under lock and key in remote monasteries in Syria. They are generally kept for their monetary value rather than their spiritual revelations. The manuscript on sott.net made me think of those manuscripts for the first time in years. In all likelihood, if a manuscript is being hidden it is lucre, not illumination, that is at stake. The Vatican library, researchers who’ve been there tell, requires immense patience and a willingness to be repeatedly turned away. There’s just something about those old texts. No surprise that the Bible and Qur’an lead to such fiercely protective sentiments in some believers. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t advise selling all your possessions and anticipating the apocalypse. Unless, of course, you take some ancient documents literally.

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).