On September 18, 2012, at the International Conference of Coptic studies in Rome, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at prestigious Harvard University introduced a new manuscript that sent shock waves throughout the world. In a papyrus which purportedly was a 4th-century Coptic translation of a second-century Greek gospel, Jesus is recorded to speak of his “wife”. This would mean that at a time when Christianity may still have had some vestiges of apostolic teaching, and was yet to be corrupted by the rise of Christendom, some Christians believed that Jesus was married.
The damage was quick and widespread. The new “revelation” received international attention, sending critics of the Bible squealing in frenzied jubilation like a teenage girl at a K-Pop concert. “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” suddenly had its own Wikipedia page. Pseudo-historical conspiracy theorists and overzealous fans of the 2003 fictional The Da Vinci Code series now had “scholarly validation”. Believing men and women were left wagging their heads and clutching their pearls.
There was just one teensy problem: the papyrus was a forgery. Even after overwhelming evidence against the document caused King, who is also a professor of gender studies and feminist theology, to half-heartedly admit as much, a retraction was never published. Before she finally took a leave of absence last year, she wrote papers touting Mary Magdalene as “the first female apostle” and exploring Jesus’ gender and sexuality, attributing female characteristics such as “Divine Sophia and Mother” to Christ.
After late 19th-century higher criticism had failed to debunk the Bible, it seems her attractive younger sister, late 20th-century postmodernism, became academic theology’s new arm candy. Postmodernism has been defined as a rejection of “the universal validity of such principles as hierarchy, binary opposition, categorization and stable identity”*. Recently, its challenge of traditional gender roles has led to the idea of “gender fluidity” and a plethora of new, non-binary gender identities that even some members of the LGBTQ+ community think are too much. Virtually no paradigm is now safe.
This doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t be forward-thinking. Jesus himself showed a view towards women that defied 1st-century social constructs. He openly discussed matters of worship with a Samaritan woman (John ch. 4), indicated that a woman had a right to divorce an adulterous husband (Mark 11:12), and gave women the privilege of being the first witnesses to his resurrection at a time when the testimony of a woman had little or no legal merit (Matthew 28:10). What Jesus didn’t do was create some sort of social justice movement. He simply taught by example that his Father’s view of women differed greatly from the views of his contemporaries.
Additionally, we Christians should “think outside the box”, as it were. We do well to ask ourselves what we believe and why we believe it and prove it to ourselves (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Many who have made a careful study of what the Bible actually says on widely-accepted doctrines such as the Trinity, hellfire, and the immortality of the soul have been moved to refine their beliefs. That’s spiritual growth.
Also, we shouldn’t think that all scholarly efforts are a threat to Christianity and the Bible. Paleography has amassed thousands of manuscripts and fragments which show how meticulous copying has preserved the Bible record and has weeded out attempts to purposely alter the original text. And while many of theology’s elite were quick to discredit the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible with theories based solely on conjecture and misrepresentation of scripture, not all scholars jumped on the bandwagon. Some even helped to disprove the validity of such claims, like those who eventually exposed Professor King.
But, the fundamental problem with postmodern theological intellectualism, and in fact theological think-tanks in general is that they counter a basic premise of Christianity. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that God hadn’t called the elite or worldly wise, but the humble or “foolish” (in the world’s opinion) to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:26, 27). While the most important literary works of the era were written in classical Greek, which was understood by the formally educated, the scriptures were composed in or translated into koine, or vernacular Greek. It was directed not to the elite, but to the common man. Rather than praise the pursuit of “higher-thinking” Paul, a highly educated man himself, warned Christians against following human philosophy (Colossians 2:8).
Postmodernism and higher criticism aren’t the only force pushing scholars to present salacious claims and provocative theories regarding scripture. For the better part of two millennia, Christianity’s textbook has already been so meticulously dissected, the well of attention-grabbing original thought is running dry. This puts academics in a difficult predicament. In order to make any name for themselves, they somehow have to create original programming from re-runs. They’re like the entitled director who feels he can improve upon a timeless classic by redacting the script, hiring popular actors, and employing the latest cinematic effects. We’ve all seen how that turns out.
Postmodernism and other human philosophies would have us think that “truth” is too relative, unobtainable, and even nonexistent. However, Jesus said his Father’s word was “truth” (John 17:17). Those inclined toward the surfeit of human philosophies throughout history would likely find that idea “closed-minded”. Jesus found it liberating. He said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”.- John 8:32
*American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fifth edition.