You might have seen a reference in the news to a purported ancient document that has been called the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” The document is a small fragment of papyrus that was first publicized by the Harvard Divinity School in 2012. There has been some skepticism about its ancient provenance. Some recent test results seem to indicate that it is as old as the Harvard religion professors claim.
Much of the controversy and disagreement about this fragment of papyrus derives from the combination of a lack of knowledge about the ancient world and a defensiveness on the part of organized religion. If this fragment is really as old as is claimed, it is the product of an ancient religious phenomenon called “gnosticism.” Gnosticism pre-dated Christianity and, although it often borrowed ideas from Christianity, was never associated with Christianity.
This fragment of a document might be quite old, and it might be an actual remnant of an ancient religious text, but it is no more related to Christianity than ancient Roman pagan religion was. It does provide us, however, with a very useful perspective from which to read today’s Gospel. It provides us with an opportunity to understand a question that is central to the Passion narrative in John’s Gospel.
In John’s Passion narrative, Jesus was arrested by the religious leaders of Jerusalem, and put on trial. Those religious leaders questioned him “about his disciples and about his doctrine.” (John 18:19) He responded by saying, “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.” (John 18:20-21)
When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, he was questioned about his background, activities and intentions. Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
After this interchange Pilate asks a poignant rhetorical question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) According to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, truth was what supported their leadership, and falsehood was anything that threatened their leadership. They arrested Jesus, and agitated for his death, because he threatened their authority. In Pontius Pilate’s life, truth was whatever the Roman Emperor proclaimed as truth; Pilate knew that his job consisted in supporting the claims of the Roman Empire. Because Pilate knew how fluid “the truth” was, he was the perfect character in the story to ask the famous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
The standards of truth today are nearly as fluid as they were at the time that Jesus was arrested and put to death. Governments throughout the world publish versions of “the truth” that are calculated to support their regime. Certainly, in religion and religious practice, there appear to be no agreed upon standards of truth. The faculty at Harvard Divinity has a tradition of blurring the lines between orthodox Christianity and its ancient non-Christian contemporaries. Organized religion today often reacts defensively toward novel ideas, and novel religion has no limits to its inventiveness.
I saw a news brief recently about a local congregation that called itself something like “the church of happy thoughts and rainbows.” The minister of the congregation was offering a seminar entitled “Mystikal scents.” “Mystikal,” with a “k”? Scents? Really? The seminar could be about either earth religion or smelly monks. Who can tell?
The falling numbers of participants in organized religion, and the proliferation of novel religions, are not the only tragedies of faith today. There are many people who have heard the Gospel, and still don’t know the Truth. There are some who read the Gospels, but don’t understand the message. Sadly, faith is a rare thing, something too often rejected in favor of sentimentality or superstition or self-righteousness. In this regard, we live in a situation very similar to Jesus’ time.
When Jesus testified to the Truth, he said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) Please note how radical a statement this was. The religious leaders of the time thought that they alone possessed the truth. Pontius Pilate lived a life that required him to acknowledge that the Roman Emperor was sole arbiter of truth. For Jesus, the Truth was what he was answerable to. He said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)
This time of year is rife with religious sentimentality. Television and the movie theaters are full of emotionally moving quasi-religious entertainment that offers a very narcissistic version of truth; it is truth as self-escalating emotion. Even churches offer very self-righteous versions of the truth: truth as pious devotions or heroic virtue that affirm individual ego. What is truth?
Truth was anything but fluid for Jesus. His life and preaching was truth for those who belonged to the Truth. During these three days of Easter, we do not go seeking truth. The Truth is not something we will ever possess. Rather, we should hope that this Truth possesses us.