08 May 2005

¿what's in a name? (a modest proposal)

Posted by at 10:25 AM Read our previous post

I've never seen the Survivor show but I'm a sucker for trivia games so I'm taking part in an online version of it in CC2. The very first question asked in the game brought my attention to a problem which I encountered a few years back in a different setting. Back then I was surfing around one night and came across an apologetic/polemic website whose whole purpose was to catalogue and comment on various apocryphal and extracanonical ancient texts. Early into my exploration of his site, though, I began to notice errors.

For example, he said that the Gospel of Thomas contains some stories in which Jesus is depicted as a spoiled brat of sorts. In these stories, the excitable and capricious boy Jesus, when angered, could become vindictive and even very violent. As punishment for one of his playmates' messing up his fishing pool, for instance, he causes the kid to instantly wither like he did the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels. After the townspeople complain to Joseph and Mary about it, Jesus restores the kid (although he leaves his hand withered as a warning). Later in the same chapter Jesus makes another kid drop dead for bumping into him in the street and makes all those have a problem with that blind (at which point it is recorded that Joseph pulled Jesus sternly by the ear for his behavior). If one is not familiar with these texts, it will come as a shock that these kind of stories were actually common once upon a time.

These stories do exist and they go way back. The trouble is they don't come from the Gospel of Thomas (GTh) as this guy claimed in his website. When NT scholars refer to the Gospel of Thomas, they mean a very specific text. They are talking about a collection of one hundred-fourteen sayings of Jesus of which a complete copy in Coptic was finally unearthed in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. We also have two fragments in Greek which were discovered in 1898 and which are older than the Nag Hammadi copy. The GTh contains nothing at all about the acts of Jesus. There are no signs in this gospel, no wonders, no virgin births, no Josephs, no Maries; it's just a list of sayings spoken by the "living Jesus". The story of a bratty Jesus comes from another book altogether, a book traditionally called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (or Infancy II -- to distinguish it from the Protevangelion, or Infancy Gospel of James, and there's even another Infancy Gospel, Infancy I, which, curiously enough, is also attributed to Thomas, as if it wasn't confusing enough already). Infancy Thomas probably dates from the third century. Only a fragment of it has been preserved.

¿So why do I bring this up?

well . . . This week, the trivia question was: "What flower is usually associated with St Joseph and why?". Some of my teammates knew the first half of the answer : the white lily which sprang from his staff as a sign of his selection as Mary's husband. But where did this legend come from? None seemed to know. Aha! I was on the case! I figured I'd look at the Protevangelion first. This is usually where miraculous perpetual sanctities regarding Mary are first spoken of but, to my surprise, the story in the Protevangelion speaks of a dove springing from his staff as a sign of his selection as a suitable husband for Mary . . . not a lilly. Hmm . . . So I turned to the infancy gospels next. Nothing there. Oh shit!, don't make me have to read Jerome again! (not my favorite founding father to read . . . laughs). Luckily, it was then that a teammate found the vital link. She found a quote which claimed to be from the "Gospel of Mary" which contained the legend. Great! So I turned to the Gospel of Mary. But . . . . there was nothing there, the quote didn't match . . . .
Wait a minute! . . . . What's going on here? Imagine that someone quoted a saying in Matthew, and when you went and looked for it in Matthew . . . . it wasn't there!

Luckily, she provided chapter and verse numbers which helped me to cross-reference between books and, after a little searching, I finally found it. The source is an ancient text that was attributed to Mathew back then, which is called The Gospel of the Birth of Mary. Most likely a third century work, it was used by Jerome extensively in his writings. Ah! But wait! . . . In some of the secondary sources, this book is refered to as the "Gospel of Mary". Ah! So here's where the rub started! . . . . from an abbreviation!

When modern scholars speak of the Gospel of Mary, though, again, they mean a specific book of which only three fragments have survived into our modern era, two in Greek (its original language) and one (the longest fragment) in Coptic. This work can arguably be dated to the beginning of the second century, which would make it as old as much of the NT. The Mary that is refered to in the title and who is the focus of its text is not Mary the mother of Jesus but Mary of Magdala. This gospel is a fascinating glimpse into some of the conflicts that arose between early variants of the nascent movement when trying to determine and assert apostolic authority. In fact, I think it's in some small part because of its undeniable antiquity and because of the import of its content that Pope John Paul II was moved to proclaim Mary of Magdala the Apostola Apostolorum, the apostle to the apostles.

But all that aside, the Gospel of Mary contains nothing at all on Joseph. . . . is my point.

So what's the big deal?

Well, like in the above GTh example, it's just a bad reference. Bad scholarship.
Now . . . You might be thinking . . . "Everybody's human, though and we all make mistakes, most of which are pretty benign anyway."
Sure. . . okay. . . but. . . if you believe that . . . . then ask yourself how you feel about things like the Da Vinci Code. Should we just let that slide? That seems to me the perfect example of conjecture and erroneous information being passed off as "history" to a welcoming public raised on controversy. The following two responses are certain:

1 -- Those who are pious and strong in their faith will trust their priests and pastors on their word as to the worth of the conjectures and the questions raised by them.

2 -- Those who know that David Brown is trying to pass off wild speculations and conjectures as factually verifiable, because they have taken the time to read and critically examine the germane texts, will simply find him amusing.

But what of the everyday people (mostpeople) who take their quasi-faith solely on faith, those to whom these things are far-off academic matters, those who have more pressing things to do in their living than check on the historicity of things? Either they succumb to their reptilian need for gossip and scandal, and thus buy into spurious claims like those in Brown's novel, . . . or else their incertitude leads them to a kind of cynical position in which the baby (honest historical research) is thrown out with the bathwater (Da Vinci Code-like misrepresentations) without further thought. It's not hard to imagine that, upon hearing that the Gospel of Thomas contains stories of a mean young Jesus who kills children who piss him off . . . . . . well . . . a person might easily dismiss that out of hand, and then close his or her mind off to even looking at the GTh (a turnoff from the git go is seldom overcome -- an example from recent politics: Senator Kerry couldn't rebound from false accusations of treason and suchlike -- the last presidential campaign was a shameful affair in this respect, but I'll save that for another post) even though it's simply not true that there are any such stories in this text. That's what worries me about these historical fabrications, that ordinary people will not be able to distinguish between honest methodical work and sensationalist musing or reactionary rhetoric.

The curent Da Vinci Code mass credulity kinda reminds me of the movie Amadeus. In that enormously popular oscar-winning film, the court composer Antonio Salieri was portrayed as an envious contemporary who was moved by this envy to calculate and then bring about Mozart's death.
Great story. . . . ¿Right?
Yeah, except it's almost certainly not factual. Such fanciful rumors of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of famous historical figures like Mozart abound in our histories:

Akhenaten's murder
Robert Johnson poisoned by a jealous husband
Warren G Harding's wife suspected of having had him killed
Tiberius' exit vs Gaius' entrance
Pope John Paul I rubbed out for his liberal views
Courtney Love vs Kurt Cobain
the Kennedys

. . . . the list is long

In this particular case, though, investigations were conducted in the nineteenth century and the resulting reports (most notably Edward Holmes' in 1845) dismissed the rumors as untrue and even "shameful".
But . . . nevertheless . . . ours is a generation that will go to its grave believing that Salieri killed Mozart, all because of one very popular re-telling of the story. Think about it. Poor Salieri might not have been the same caliber of composer that Mozart was, but he was most certainly no murderer! That's a bum rap.

See my point?

Or take Lizzie Borden, of macabre nursery rhyme fame, as an example. It turns out she was taken into custody, tried, and released after it was determined she had nothing to do with what she is now famous for.

Anyway, before I digress further, my proposal is this:
Let's be as conscious of these careless abbreviations as we can and be clear about what references we are using. There might be disagreements on who actually is an authority on the things contained within these texts and what these things might ultimately mean, but at a more basic level we must at least strive to call things what they are called.
A standard rule of nomenclature, is that a lot to ask for?
To insist that a book be called by its proper name is not a theological argument, it's just a simple request for courtesy. For clarity.



  1. Anonymous9:30 AM


    Nice bit of work. My (Catholic) Church, often misunderstood, displays consistent fairness when real scholastic scrutiny is employed. For that matter, Quix, I'd love to see you delve into:

    1.)The "Galileo Affair" Was Galileo really tortured, etc?

    2.)What was the Catholic Church's view on slavery, from say the 15th century forth?

    3.)Did Pius XII really take part in the persecution of Jews in WWII, and cooperate with the Nazis?

    I have a bazillion such questions, and I am in no hurry for their answers, I just feel these perennial questions might interest you and others.



  2. Much to my dismay, I was voted off said survivor island a few weeks back. For being too smart, I was told by a certain insider. Strange world.



  3. TiEmmeS1:35 AM

    HEY NOW!!! It was not all my doing. You know I adore you. It was self preservation...

    Yeah, that's the ticket!

    *devilish giggle*



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