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, 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 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).

Fire and Blood

Religious intolerance again claims lives, and yet the self-righteous never flinch from their smug smiles. What insane pressure drives extremists like Terry Jones to desecrate the symbol of another religion? What did burning a Quran accomplish other than a feeling of personal satisfaction at a religious one-upmanship? Did he even stop to think that his own religion was once persecuted and that this nation that allows him the freedom to spit in the face of other faiths also welcomes his imaginary enemies? Now innocent people are dead in Afghanistan because of his intolerance. It may be that Terry Jones’ personal act of impropriety may soon blow over, but the damage has already been done. These dead will have died in vain.

Putting match to paper proves no superiority of intellect, spirituality, or especially, righteousness. The problem Terry Jones’ brand of Christianity faces is that Mohammed was born before the metaphorical return of Jones’ Christ. It is clear from the (unburned) Christian scriptures that early believers were convinced Jesus’ return was imminent, within their own lifetimes. For those who did not successfully transition to the meaning of the metaphor, it has been a weary two-millennium wait. The emergence of new religions in the meanwhile has become a threat to the superiority of their own. Apocalypticism claims many victims. Now people are dying because Terry Jones can’t cool his heels to see how this one comes out.

Religions that prove their point by trying to brutalize other religions have already shown their true character. Muslims do not burn the Christian scriptures because they accept the validity of Jesus’ teachings as well as those of Mohammed. Has Terry Jones damaged Islam by burning a book? No. Has he damaged the already languishing opinion on western supersessionism? Certainly he has. It is now incumbent on the rest of us to declare that we excoriate the acts of Terry Jones and his contemptuous version of Christianity. Islam need not try to give Christians a bad image; we are quite capable of helping ourselves.

Terry Jones' ideological companions