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Tabloid Testament:
Gospel Discoveries in the Check-Out Aisle

By Robert M. Price


 

The scholarly landscape has not yet stopped shaking from the discovery, a half century agone, of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices. We still have much to learn, much to assimilate, concerning the sectarian Jewish and Christian milieus from which these fascinating texts stem. Readers scan the pages of periodicals like Biblical Archaeology, Bible Review, and The Fourth R hoping that perhaps yet another exciting manuscript trove may have come to light. But can it be they are scanning the wrong pages? For there are other publications, with much wider readership and far more readily available, which offer regular reports of the most astounding gospel discoveries. Have you missed them? These finds include the Messiah Stones, a deathbed testament of Jesus (Sun, September 23, 1997), The Christ Diaries (Sun, February 25, 1997), The Book of Prayers by Jesus (Sun, January 31, 1995), the Kerygmata (sermons) of Jesus (Sun, August 29, 1995), a suppressed apocalyptic chapter of Matthew (Weekly World News December 30, 1997), a Gospel of James (Sun, September 9, 1997), a Gospel of St. Esther of Sidon (Sun, February 3, 1998), and two letters from Jesus (Sun, April 27, 1999; Weekly World News, March 4, 1997; repeated October 6, 1998). They are all from notorious supermarket tabloids. Of course, it is obvious that all these supposed ancient manuscript discoveries are frauds, hoaxes, momentary cheap thrills for those titillated by adjacent reports of Abominable Snowman sightings and UFO abductions. (For the record, these estimable journals have also reported the discovery of King Midas' golden corpse, the lost city of Atlantis, and the original stone tables of Moses' Law! What, we may ask, is left?)

We can learn nothing of early Christianity from these sham discoveries, but I think we can indeed draw a few inferences about modern popular Christianity. If nothing else, a brief survey of the tabloid gospels will remind us of the educational task that faces New Testament specialists. We may sometimes forget the position our pursuit of biblical study has placed us in. We are like refugees from a Platonic cave of pre-critical darkness. That darkness is nowhere as thick as in the tabloids, and we may sometime find ourselves called to try to lighten that gloom, as Plato's escapee did, for those still mired there.

Essentially the tabloid gospel hoaxes are miniature members of the "lost gospel" genre of popular novels including Irving Wallace's The Word and Peter van Greenaway's The Judas Gospel. In fact, the Sun and Weekly World News tales are pretty much comparable to the gist you might remember a couple of years after reading one of these books. Just enough biblical learning and archaeological color enter into the tabloid articles to make them sound plausible to readers who are acquainted with neither traditional nor critical biblical learning. By the same token, the result is entertaining to the biblically literate in the same way as the lost gospel novels. They give us, too, the daydream-thrill of imagining ,"What if they really had discovered the check for the Last Brunch?"


 

Strange but Familiar

Literary critics tell us that a piece of fiction is going to sound only as plausible as it manages to correspond, not to what actually is real, but rather to what most readers believe to be real. My college painting instructor Leon DeLeeuw used to say, "I don't care if you did see a cloud that shape--it isn't what people think a cloud looks like." In the same way, it is natural to find that the tabloid stories reflect and reinforce the popular misconceptions their readers already hold. For instance, a number of the stories claim their newly discovered manuscripts have recently come to light from the musty archives of the Vatican Library, just as W.D. Mahan claimed for some of the spurious documents he compiled for his Archko Volume (1884). This sounds plausible to those who already believe the Vatican is keeping, e.g., certain Fatima prophecies under wraps.

Other new gospel "discoveries" are said to have been hitherto-suppressed portions of the Qumran scrolls, playing on popular suspicions rife since the first scrolls were published decades ago and recently revived until, thanks to the efforts of Robert Eisenman and others, the last batch of Dead Sea texts became generally available. Since the Scrolls did not contain any of the revelations some hoped or feared might "blow the lid off Christianity," the tabloid writers have simply pretended they did! For instance, various of these articles have the Dead Sea Scrolls revealing that the Garden of Eden will rise from the ocean atop a massive new continent, human beings will board space ships and head for another planet, and volcanic lava will be found to contain an element that cures all diseases. Specific dates for the Second Coming and Armageddon appear with regularity.

In 1982 Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln issued their speculative best seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, claiming that Jesus survived crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene and moved to France where their bloodline (the real meaning of the "holy blood") can be traced through the Merovingian kings up till today. A spate of related books have since appeared, and the theme has surfaced, alongside a pretty accurate explanation of the Nag Hammadi gospels, on an episode ("Anamnesis") of the FOX television series Millennium. This modern myth, too, appears in the tabloids, where we read that "Archaeologists have found several images of Jesus on a cave wall in southern France. They believe it proves Christ escaped with Mary Magdalene and fled to France where they wed and raised a family" (Zeke Holliday, "Bible Predictions Revealed! Hidden Messages in Verses," Sun, February 25, 1997, p. 21).

Mormonism has made its influence felt in the tabloids as well. Mormon legend tells us that the angel Moroni revealed to Joseph Smith the hiding place of the buried Book of Mormon, a set of inscribed gold tablets ostensibly written by brave Nephite martyr-soldier Mormon and hidden by his son Moroni (before his own martyrdom and glorification). Similarly, of the Messiah Stones (comprising an Apocalypse of Jesus inscribed in Hebrew) we read that "The stones, each a foot square, are believed to have been placed in the tomb of Jesus after the Resurrection by the Archangel Gabriel, the guardian angel of Christ" (Pat Roller, "End of the World Secrets... from the Messiah Tomb," Sun, September 23, 1997, p. 20). Somehow the tablets ended up in the possession of one Publius Aurelius, a Christian Roman centurion (of the Second Augusta Legion stationed at Exeter, d. 23 CE). To keep them from falling into the hands of hostile pagans, he hid them at the bottom of a dry well in Al Minya, Upper Egypt, where "bible experts" found them and authenticated them. Some were already known, having surfaced in a Lebanese warehouse 15 years before (Sun, February 4, 1997). Here Moroni in his glorified angelic form has become the more ecumenical Gabriel, while centurion Publius has taken over the role of the "historical" Moroni, preserving the tablets for posterity. And as the Book of Mormon has Jesus visit the Americas after his ascension, so "Astonishing new evidence proves it beyond the shadow of a doubt: Jesus Christ visited America... in the year 23 A.D.!" (Dave Clemens, "Jesus Walked in America... 1, 970 Years Ago!" Weekly World News, December 28, 1993, p. 8). So concluded otherwise unknown archaeologist (aren't they all?) Lawrence Genet, based on his discovery of scrolls, maps and wall paintings found "in a cave west of Chattanooga, Tennessee."

Here is another familiar apocryphal motif, the attempt to fill in the "missing years" between Jesus' visit to the temple as a twelve year old (Luke 2:41-51) and his baptism by John. Where has the legend-mongering imagination not placed him during those years? According to British-Israel sectarians, the teen-age savior went with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to England, while Levi Dowling's Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1911) and Nicholas Notovitch's Unknown Life of Christ (1894) both had Jesus journeying all over secret Asia. Not surprisingly, archaeologist Genet's scrolls tell us that "He suffered a spiritual crisis when he was 22 or 23 years old" which "led Him to leave the Holy Land on a spiritual quest - a quest which apparently took Him to Rome, France, England and then west, by boat, to what would later become the United States" (again, just like the sea-faring patriarch Lehi in the Book of Mormon).

One of the most persistent misconceptions about the New Testament, one kept alive in New Age circles, is that our canonical gospels originally depicted Jesus teaching the doctrine of reincarnation, and that the relevant passages were excised by the Council of Nicea when the bishops fixed the canon of scripture. But, as historians know, the Nicene Council had no such business on its agenda; the canon remained fluid for some time. And, while in the absence of manuscript evidence from the earliest period we cannot be sure juicy passages were not omitted, in the present case there is no particular reason to think so. The single grain of truth in this popular piece of pseudo-scholarship is that reincarnation does appear in some Gnostic texts passed over for inclusion in the New Testament, but this is a rather more modest claim. In any case, our tabloid gospels pretend to confirm the rumor: "according to experts who have analyzed fragments of amazing scrolls and other documents they believe were written by Christ himself and removed from the New Testament, ... Christ preached reincarnation to his disciples... Scholars believe these documents were suppressed by the Catholic Church to appease Roman emperors of the second and third centuries" because these sermons of Jesus also mandated sharing wealth with the poor (as if the canonical gospels themselves do not!) (Sam Martin, "Jesus' Lost Scrolls Found," Sun, August 29, 1995, p. 12).


 

Everything Old is News Again

We have seen how modern writers of apocryphal gospel materials follow in the footsteps of their ancient predecessors by speculating on Jesus' formative years. As ancient Infancy Gospels (The Protevangelium of James, The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, The Gospel of Thomas the Israelite, etc.) embroider the home life of the Holy Family, modern hoax-gospels cannot resist speculating about Jesus' siblings. For instance, unknown Bible expert Antonio Molinari shares his discovery that "A secret parchment kept under lock and key in a Vatican vault for more than 1,000 years proves the existence of one of the most important figures in Christianity: The twin brother of Jesus" named Joshua. "A small fragment of one of the old Manichean parchments [was] smuggled out [of the Vatican Library] by an unidentified cleric" (George Sanford, "The Astonishing Story of Jesus' Twin," Weekly World News, March 4, 1997, p. 40). "According to the original story," says the non-existent Molinari, "Joshua was every bit as kind and gentle as his twin. However, unlike Jesus, he had only modest supernatural powers. For example in one passage, he attempts to get his mother's attention by levitating a handful of nails. The Virgin Mary scolds him for trying to 'compete' with his minutes-older brother." This tale, though the creation of tabloid staff-writers, does indeed capture the flavor of the Infancy Gospel apocrypha!

But that is not the only echo the attentive reader may catch. The article tells us that Joshua was often mentioned by Manicheans, who called him "The Other." Here someone has done a bit of research--and garbled it, no doubt intentionally. The Manicheans did refer to "the Other" and "the Twin," but they meant the Heavenly Twin of the Apostle Mani, who believed himself to be the latest incarnation of that Spirit who had earlier indwelt Adam, Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. As for an earthly twin of Jesus, this element comes from the Syrian tradition reflected in the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, and the Book of Thomas the Contender, that the disciple Judas Thomas (Didymus, "the twin," John 11:16) was the same as Jesus' brother Judas (Mark 6:3). The genuine ancient tradition is itself fascinating and would surprise many modern readers, but it is not quite far-fetched enough for the writers of the Weekly World News! And, inevitably!, we read that "All references to Joshua were deleted from the Gospels when official Christian doctrine was hammered out by early Church Fathers at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in A.D. 325." Why? Though the tabloid scribe tells us Joshua was a kind of Everyman messiah easier for us relate to than his almighty brother, church officials were afraid that some might think that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were cases of mistaken identity a la Hugh Schonfield: perhaps witnesses had merely confused him with his unscathed brother. (Some scholars have actually suggested that this is the point of the Doubting Thomas episode in John 20:24-29: to show the Risen Jesus side-by-side with his twin brother, to eliminate any doubts!)

Another lost sibling of Jesus appears in a newly discovered gospel attributed to James the Just and discovered at Har Ramon in southern Israel (James Michaels, "Lost Gospel of Jesus' Secret Sister and Brother: Forbidden scrolls reveal what Bible won't tell you," Sun, September 9, 1997, p. 20):

In those days, Josefa, the sister of Jesus, went down into Numidia and preached the gospel to great multitudes at Thapsus and Cirta. And it came to pass that in Cirta a certain Roman officer who hated the Christians seized her and bound her in chains and threw her into prison. But Josefa told this officer that she was a Roman citizen, so the officer sent her to Rome for judgement, saying that there was no one in all that province who had the authority to judge a Roman citizen. [But it backfired: Nero had her killed.] A great cry went up from those who were there, saying it was against the law to crucify a Roman citizen. But Nero cruelly replied: "Since this woman is a Roman... let her cross be whitewashed and raised higher than the rest."

The debt to the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Gospel of John is plain here. We have both the Sanhedrin's supposed lack of authority to execute (John 18:31) coupled with Paul's right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar (Acts 22:25-29; 25:11-12).

Just as Holy Blood, Holy Grail has influenced one of our tabloid gospel hoaxes, I suspect it was the appearance of Robert Eisenman's James the Brother of Jesus in 1997 that directly inspired this one. The Sun has even created a fictive analogue to Professor Eisenman, a biblical archaeologist named Marshall Silverman of Cologne, Germany. No German would bear the Anglicized name "Silverman." The name is a wink to Eisenman, whose German name means "Ironman." Like the real Eisenman who shows how the role of James and Jesus' other brethren was suppressed in light of the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, Eisenman's fictive counterpart Silverman explains how "Obviously the Gospel of James clashed with belief in The Virgin, and the pope ordered King Clovis... to burn all the copies of the James gospel... It is said that '30 great wagons and 60 lesser wagons' were needed to transport the gospels from 'all over the Christian world,' which probably translates into about 5,000 copies, at a time when books were laboriously handwritten by monks." Why not just burn 'em all locally? Not as "news"worthy that way!


 

Pulp Prophets

Yet another "new" gospel is that written by Esther of Sidon, "an Essene Jew" who "never knew Jesus. But she talked to many of his disciples, including Peter, and from these eyewitness sources she compiled her own gospel... She is believed to have met martyrdom in Athens, Greece, in 86 A.D. during the reign of the emperor Domitian" ("100 New Bible Secrets: Revealed by forgotten prophet St. Esther of Sidon," Sun, February 3, 1998, pp. 20-21). The creation of the fictitious Esther of Sidon, like that of Jesus' sister Josefa, reflects the current scholarly quest to reconstruct the importance of women in early Christianity. Her Essene membership comports with the theory, popular at least since 18th century Rationalism (and recently revived with a panoply of scholarship by Barbara Thiering in Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1992), that Jesus and his disciples were Essenes.

Esther's gospel is mainly an apocalypse, like the canonical Book of Revelation, and this fact inspired the business about Esther's martyrdom by Domitian: Revelation was supposedly written during the Domitianic persecution. The Esther text reposed amid the dusty shelves of the Vatican Library (where else?) until its fortuitous discovery--just in time for Esther's/Jesus' predictions to be fulfilled! Before we look at a few of these predictions, let us just note how the Sun writer has spontaneously repeated another genre convention of ancient apocrypha, in this case, ancient revelations or apocalypses. Many of them, posing as the writings of ancient seers predicting events long after their own time, adopted the fiction that, since predictions of remote future events would have held no interest for the seer's ancient contemporaries, the revelation had to be hidden away for future discovery by those who would experience the predicted events. Thus Daniel, posing as a document of the sixth century BCE but actually written in the second century BCE to address contemporary crises, ends with this provision: "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end" (12:9). The same device appears in "Vatican vault unsealed. Found: 2000 yr-old letter from Jesus" (Sun, April 27, 1999, p. 20), where Pope Clement VI is quoted thusly: "I have just received a letter written by the Savior during his time on Earth! His holy words prophesy Man will learn in the Year 1999 that there is no Hell, only Heaven - and all are destined to arrive there. This information must be kept secret until the proper time." Why? Because it was only written "at the proper time," in 1999.

We find the gimmick again in the Sun article "The Lost Prayers of Jesus," January 31, 1995. "Dozens of sacred prayers given by Jesus to his followers have been discovered by scholars in a monastery tomb. The powerful invocations include instructions on how to pray for maximum effect as well as prayers to God for health, happiness, love, and peace of mind... experts consider them the most powerful [prayers] known to man" (p. 3). They are basically sure-fire religious magic, a staple of popular piety the world over. But why have they remained hidden till now? Perhaps because mankind's challenges have never been so great. Use of the prayers seems to have brought peace in Bosnia, we are told.

 

The prayers were found in a tomb beneath St. Mary's Monastery, an 1,800-year-old structure carved into a mountain in the Negev Desert of southern Israel... According to legend, the prayers were stolen by Jacob, a rogue disciple, shortly after Christ's death, then recovered in the fifth century by St. Baldassaro, who hid them in the monastery... Jacob is believed to have been a Roman spy planted months before Judas betrayed Jesus to Roman soldiers. Priests for the Roman god, Jupiter, were convinced there was magic in the prayers and wanted them for their own followers... But Jacob apparently became greedy and hid the prayer scrolls while demanding more money than the priests were offering. Jacob was imprisoned and tortured by the Romans for three years before dying of a heart attack. The legends say the Archangel Gabriel led St. Baldassaro to where Jacob had hidden the scrolls 400 years earlier in an Egyptian pyramid. Gabriel told Baldassaro to hide them because God did not think mankind was ready to use them properly.

 

Here is the ancient pattern of the pseudonymous apocalypses: the revelation originated, for some reason, with an ancient seer even though it was not for his contemporaries. It was instead hidden away till the time of the intended readers. In the case of the Book of Prayers, as the Sun calls it, we have two superfluous revelations: why did Jesus teach these prayers if his hearers weren't ready? Why did Gabriel show them to Baldassaro if his generation was not ready either? It is all window dressing to pass off a modern forgery, as it always has been.

As in the case of Daniel's apocalypse, one of the chief ways scholars can identify forgeries, ancient or modern, is the presence of anachronisms, references to persons, events, or things that do not fit the time of the supposed writer. The Book of Daniel is vague and commits historical blunders when it refers to the sixth century, the time Daniel supposedly lived, but the closer it comes to the time it ostensibly predicts, the clearer and more accurate everything becomes! The writer knows his own time best, and the time he describes best is thus his own, not his future.

The anachronisms present in the various tabloid apocalypses are howlers! We read, for instance, that according to Jesus' predictions in Esther's gospel, "Satan is interviewed on TV - while perched atop of [sic] Mount Rushmore. Young school kids are given wind-up Satan dolls by the Anti-Christ. The first battle of Armageddon is fought on an old Civil War battlefield." Okay, maybe Jesus and Esther wouldn't have put it quite that way. For instance, the "original" text had "heavenly chariots," but the Sun exegetes have paraphrased it as spaceships. They took "a son of the eagle" to mean an American politician. This style of updating ancient prophecy recalls the ancient Jewish pesher exegesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, where some general biblical reference is taken to refer in code to some specific event in the reader's day. The method remains popular in books like Josef Blumrich's The Spaceships of Ezekiel (1974) and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1969), where Revelation's locusts from the bottomless abyss are decoded as Soviet helicopter gunships, and I would guess these books have provided the prototype for the Sun writers. They can be pretty sure their audience is familiar with this genre of biblical "scholarship," so wild, up-dating paraphrases will seem quite natural to them. Still, I defy anyone to tell me what any ancient text might possibly have said that could be rendered as a reference to slot machines to be installed by the Antichrist in churches and synagogues!


 

Thoroughly Modern Messiah

Another, equally important kind of anachronism that marks a text as spurious is stylistic. Even a "dynamic equivalence" translation will not account for something like this observation of Jesus in his letter to Martha of Bethany: "As the end draws near, I'm concerned that people will use my teachings to... separate themselves from non-believers. This is not good" (Randy Jeffries, "2,000-Year-Old Letter from Jesus Found," Weekly World News, March 4, 1997, p. 8). A number of modern "channeled revelations" from Jesus (A Course in Miracles and various screeds by Elizabeth Claire Prophet) make Jesus sound even less impressive than he does in The Living Bible, having him spout modern flat prose, but in these cases one can at least rationalize that Jesus is talking down to 20th century Americans. No such excuse avails for what are supposed to be ancient documents in which Jesus is heard spouting modern-day dullspeak.

The theology, too, is blatantly modern, and blatantly banal, even worse than the revelatory yawners vouchsafed by the Virgin Mary in her apparitions. Jesus says, "Heaven is a gift from my Father. No one has to be perfect. All that matters is to love God and do our best to please Him. If only people would realize Heaven is here and now for those who honor God and their fellow human beings." "The blessings the Father gives to some must be shared with all." "Woe unto the evil for they will be cursed on Judgement Day." Sure, sure, but do you really need the Son of God to convince you of these truisms?

Other sayings, as we have seen, seek to appropriate Jesus' authority for certain pet doctrines, like reincarnation: "The state of grace [a piece of later theological jargon, by the way] is not gained in one lifetime but in many lifetimes... Conquer evil in this life or it will surely follow you into the next." Jesus anticipates space aliens in this logion: "Seek you the Father among the worlds of the firmament." Of course, there couldn't be any "worlds" in the "firmament," since the word denotes a solid dome in which the ancients believed the planets and stars were set like tiny gemstones.

In this wholesale fabrication of sayings attributed to Jesus we have found yet another parallel to the world of ancient Christian apocrypha, this one perhaps a bit closer to home. The work of critical gospel scholars, including the Jesus Seminar, sees a great number of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament as secondary, i.e., as originating with early Christians who had heard some saying they liked and felt it was so good Jesus must have said it. Or they had some idea that seemed so true Jesus would have said it if the topic had arisen. Just as any ancient Israelite law had to be ascribed to Moses or nobody would obey it, some evidently felt a good idea would not get the hearing it deserved unless it was ascribed to Jesus. In the same way Gnostic gospels attribute reams of stuff to Jesus that he couldn't have said. Islamic hadith (traditions) ascribe many hundreds of spurious sayings to the Prophet Muhammad, as Muslims themselves were the first to point out. If these analogies aren't enough to indicate to any fair observer that the historical "skepticism" of the Jesus Seminar is anything but extreme, perhaps the parallel of the tabloids of our own day may help get the point across: people still manufacture sayings and attribute them to Jesus if they think that by doing it they can provide the words of hope and comfort they know people want to hear. Has human nature changed that much since the first century? If they do it now, they most likely did it then, too. Maybe our look at the sometimes pathetic, sometimes funny canon of the Tabloid Testament has shown us something about early Christianity after all.

 


 

Copyrightę2007 by Robert M Price
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