Continued Interaction with Pellegrino on the Talpiot Theory

   I noted a few weeks ago a conversation that began on the Amazon website between myself and one of the two primary defenders of the Talpiot Theory, Dr. Pellegrino, co-author with Simcha Jacobovici of The Jesus Family Tomb. Dr. Pellegrino’s replies to me were rather lengthy and covered many topics. I replied to the first few on this blog, and began work on the next series, but was interrupted by all sorts of things, including tens of thousands of miles of travel. So I am trying to find some time, while recovering from this virus, to get back to my replies. There is a lot of development going on in the Talpiot arena, and those who stuck their heads in the sand a few months ago and tried the “laugh at it, it will go away” defense are so far behind now they will never catch up.

Dr White: I would gladly receive a copy of your book. And I do very much welcome a debate of the evidence (as opposed to some of your original blog postings equating our team to being in league with the antichrist – – and I agree with you, in fact, that anyone who compares his or her DNA to the DNA of “Jesus, son of Joseph” is embarking upon, at best, a foolish adventure).

Dr. Pellegrino:
   I checked my blog. The term “anti-Christ” was last used by me on my blog in 2004, outside of a citation of someone else in a completely different context. So, I am uncertain what you are referring to. There is surely no question that the claims of those promoting the Talpiot Theory are fundamentally anti-Christian, despite the less-than-accurate attempts to “soften” this in the book and the film. But I would like to know what you are referring to in your above comments.

Francois Bovon and other scholars are still debating the time and place of origin, with regard to certain textural strands that went into the Acts of Philip – and into the canonical Gospels, for that matter.

   There is no comparison, sir, between an analysis of first century documents such as the canonical gospels and the late 4th century Acts of Philip. When you refer to “textual strands,” please be specific. Are you referring solely to literary parallels, such as Bovon’s tracing the development of the historic Mary Magdalene from the canonical gospels to the mythical one of the gnostics into the even farther removed woman apostle of the Acts of Philip?

It is inaccurate to say that if I disagree with Bovon on interpretation of a piece of evidence, that I negate him, or he negates me. This is simply part of the usual scientific discourse, based always on doubt. What’s unusual here, is that the points and counter-points are being debated in a fish bowl, with the press looking on and with people of either religious or anti-religious agendas cherry-picking quotes from scientific discourse. The same exact thing is happening with the NASA-ESA Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons.

   I’m sorry, but the process of evaluation of the merits of ancient documents is far removed, in form and substance, from the Cassini mission outside of the presence of humans with their agendas. In any case, Bovon is not disagreeing on an interpretation. He is correcting a misinterpretation and misuse of his words. When the film presents him saying Mary Magdalene is Mariamne, the use by the film and book is, according to repeated statements made by Dr. Bovon (statements consistent with his published writings made prior to the film), inaccurate and misleading. Yet, without that connection (which the book admits is the linchpin), I see no means of rescuing the entire theory. This identification is the heart of the argument.
   So, what I’m saying is this: Dr. Bovon’s identification is literary only, and has never been meant to be used as a support for a historical claim about the woman, Mary Magdalene, mentioned in the canonical gospels. Yet, the book and film use his identification as a basis for a tremendous number of claims and a mountain worth of speculation. Yet, the vast majority of this speculation and assertion runs directly counter to first century sources. In essence, in your book and in the film, the Acts of Philip is not only given equal provenance with the canonical gospels, it is given superior provenance. Yet, as surely you know, there is no comparison between these documents, historically, textually, etc. A thousand years separates the earliest manuscript of the Acts of Philip we possess from its writing, yet P52 is barely 30 years removed from the time of the origination of its original (the Gospel of John). But beyond this, the very nature of the Acts of Philip differs fundamentally from the canonical gospels as well, and it does so in the very context that is most important to historical inquiry and utilization.
   What I’m saying, Dr. Pellegrino, is that on every level important to historical inquiry, the Acts of Philip, as a literary work, is irrelevant to the identification of first century ossuary inscriptions. I find it hard to believe that many will defend the idea that such a work, so far removed temporally, geographically, and linguistically, from Jerusalem in the shadow of the Roman legions, can stand up to the weight being placed upon it by yourself and the others promoting the Talpiot Theory.
   I wonder, Dr. Pellegrino, if you have read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham?

Away from analogy, and back to ancient texts: My work at Herculaneum and at other extraordinarily well preserved first century AD Roman sites yields the overwhelming impression that people were not living under our usual “Dark Age” assumption of widespread illiteracy. In Herculaneum, even slaves were quite often educated. Being able to read and write appears to have been more rule, than exception. This would probably have been even more so in Jewish communities. From Pompeii’s Number 11 House, we even have prayers, dating to AD 79 or earlier, and praising “Maria,” the mother of Jesus.

   I would tend to agree, though you will find many, like John Dominic Crossan, firmly wedded to a very illiterate population as a whole in Judea. Be that as it may, I wonder if you have considered that this observation alone undercuts a large portion of the current scholarship upon which, it seems, your theory is dependent in reference to the marginalization of the canonical gospels? That is, the very late dating of the gospels, the completely “oral” nature of the nebulous “tradition” to which many scholars appeal (contra the compelling evidence provided by Bauckham noted above) are all based upon your own assertion here not being true. So, if it is the case that people were more literate than many assume, would it not likewise follow that the wholesale editing, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus, of the apostolic proclamation and message–an assumption so prevalent in modern scholarship–would be the exact opposite of what you would expect to find? But this cannot be true, for that would completely close the door on the entirety of your own theory, which requires one to view the gospels as seriously misleading, edited, compromised documents. So I again wonder if you are applying the same standards to the sources upon which you are dependent that you apply to the canonical gospels?

Today, even Jesuits and Franciscans believe that the Gospels were written a hundred years or more after the events, post-dating the letters of Paul;

   A hundred years? Who dates the gospels to 130 AD, sir? Isn’t that pretty tough to do in light of P52 dating to as early as 125?

and that they had existed previously only as “song-stories.” I suspect a relatively recent memory of western Medieval illiteracy, and of stories passed from village to village as “song stories” as late as the 19th century, has polluted our views of Roman period literacy. Were the Gospels really written more than a century afterward, would not the editors have made sure they all told the same story? That they often contradict each other is consistent, instead, with what crime scene investigators often encounter: It is normal for each witness to tell the same story from a different perspective, overlain by a veneer of trying to make sense of what they saw; but when everyone is telling the same story, that’s when you begin to suspect that the events have been recolored extensively, and rehearsed. My own impression is that, while there might have been re-editing, at least in Constantne’s time, many key textural strands already had a long history of being too sacred to be changed, and were – well, Gospel.

   A fascinating theory—and your concluding phrases are exactly correct but on a wider scale than you know—but the Constantian redaction claim is untenable. The papyri predate Constantine, and Aleph and B, which date from that period, are consistent in their readings with the papyri that came before. Hence, the idea of “editing” on any relevant level, during the Constantinian period, is simply untenable. I do not refer to textual variants on a minor scale, which exists in any written document in any context, but to the concept of redaction, which seems to be what you suggested.
   As to alleged “contradictions,” I think your statement contains its own correction: we do not say witnesses “contradict” each other when they simply provide complimentary or differing information. When they say X and another says not-X, fine; but if, for example, one gospel refers to a single man in a story, but another refers to two, this is not contradiction, and the majority of synoptic issues partake of this nature.

What I’m saying is that the tangible evidence of archaeology suggests to me that the Gospels – or at least many significant, textural strands of the Gospels – were committed to writing a lot earlier than even the churches have supposed, perhaps even very close to current events. This is consistent with the opening passages of Luke, in which he appears to be saying, if translated to the modern vernacular: “That the stories we are telling appear to be strange, and may not even be the same story; but that this is how it appeared to each of us to have happened.”

   I date Mark mid-50s, Luke/Acts and Matthew around 60, and John may be as late as many argue (90s), or, one has to take seriously the arguments offered by those who argue for a pre-70 date. In any case, there truly is no reason (outside of preconceived theological reasons, i.e., “Jesus could not have been what these folks said He was, hence, it must have taken numerous decades for folks to develop this belief”) to push the gospels back any farther. In any case, the presence of eyewitnesses in the community all the way up to the point of the writing of the canonical gospels is vitally important in evaluating the nature of the gospel narratives.
   However, your reading of Luke, I believe, goes the opposite direction than the one his language warrants.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write [it] out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

   There is nothing in Luke’s statement about strangeness; nothing about “different stories”; and surely nothing suggesting “how it appeared to each of us to have happened.” In fact, the entirety of his language speaks against this reading. He complies an account; these things were accomplished among us; they were handed down by eyewitnesses (who, I note, would still be in the community); Luke has investigated his sources; the result is not mere supposition, but “exact truth.”

Archaeology makes me much more willing to believe, now, that at least major textural strands of the Gospels were written by the apostles whose names appear before them.
   The same should also apply to apocryphal texts – to the Ebionite and the Gnostic as well as to Josephus. The Acts of Philip would be another of these “advanced reading” texts, to one degree or another illuminating the Gospels – with a few parables (the predatory cat lying down in peace with its prey, as in Old Testament prophecy) added later. True: The Acts of Philip are largely parable, as are portions of the Gospels themselves.

   You are mixing very divergent text types here. Josephus is a very different type of literature than Gnostic gospels. And the Acts of Philip, removed by centuries, coming from a community without roots in Judea, and a very major political ax to grind, is not even in the ballpark of providing meaningful historical context for the period of the New Testament.

Note that two later, apocryphal, parable-based texts, The Apocalypse of Peter and the Revelation of John (as noted by Eusebius), both infused with Gnostic influence, were in a head-to-head photo finish, as it were, for which text would be selected as the final, end time scenario book of the Christian Bible.

   I’m sorry, but your facts fail you here rather badly. The book of Revelation is not “infused with Gnostic influence,” and if you assert it is, you will need to provide something more than the mere assertion. And as to Eusebius, his words are hardly supportive of your rather strained reading of them:

4. Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. (3:25)

   Eusebius earlier (3:18) makes reference to Revelation in reference to Irenaeus. As far as I can see, there is no parallel at all in his references to the Apocalypse of Peter, and hence nothing at all supportive of your assertions here.