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!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.