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About the Author
DAVID GIBSON is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker who specializes in covering the Catholic Church. He appears frequently on network and cable television as a commentator on religious affairs and is a frequent commentator on NPR. He has written and co-written three prior books and also writes for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Fortune among others.
MICHAEL MCKINLEY is an award-winning author, filmmaker, journalist and screenwriter. He has written several books, and wrote and co-produced the CBC TV documentary film "Sacred Ballot", as well as several documentaries for CNN Presents.
Read an Excerpt
Faith. Fact. Forgery
By David Gibson, Michael McKinley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 David Gibson and Michael McKinley
All rights reserved.
John the Baptist
Rival Messiah, Bones of Contention
The island of Sveti Ivan does not immediately strike a visitor as the likeliest place to solve one of the most puzzling mysteries of Christian history.
Just a quarter-mile square, the hardscrabble patch of land sits in the Black Sea, near the coast of Bulgaria, half a mile from the resort town of Sozòpol and nearly fourteen hundred long miles from Jerusalem. Yet the island always had a rather outsize strategic and cultural importance. After the Romans conquered the area in 72 BCE, they built a lighthouse on the island, and next to an ancient Thracian sanctuary they constructed a temple that featured a forty-three-foot-tall bronze statue of Apollo.
The complex of buildings around the temple eventually fell, along with the fortunes of the empire, and in the fifth century CE, as Christianity began arriving in the region and filling the vacuum left by the Romans, a monastic complex was built on the ruins, and the low-lying island was christened Sveti Ivan, or St. Ivan — or, as the English-speaking world would translate the name, St. John, as in John the Baptist.
In the New Testament, John is known as the Baptizer, or the Immerser, because of his fame for drawing repentant souls to his river baptisms. Yet Christians also know him as the Precursor, or the Forerunner, the man who famously predicted the coming Messiah and then identified Jesus as that man when he baptized him in the River Jordan. John was a plainspoken prophet, a fearless herald of the coming Kingdom of God, the original street preacher who instead of a sandwich board screaming "Repent!" wore camel's hair as his only garment and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.
John lived by the words he proclaimed, and was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, Rome's puppet king in Judea, for denouncing Herod's incestuous remarriage to Herodias, his own niece. John then famously lost his life when Herod agreed to grant his daughter, traditionally identified as Salome, anything she wanted if she danced for his dinner party guests. She did so, apparently quite convincingly, and asked for the Baptist's head on a platter, which Herod delivered.
Sveti Ivan, St. John's Island, suffered various tribulations over the centuries. The original basilica was abandoned and then reconstructed in the tenth century, and it flourished in the 1200s along with the growing devotion to John the Baptist. Two patriarchs of Constantinople may have been buried there, a great honor for such a small site. The Ottoman Muslims who would overrun Christian Byzantium sacked St. John's Island, in 1453, though a church was rebuilt on the site. Then, in the 1600s, Cossack pirates used the island as a refuge, and the church as a feasting hall. The Ottomans eventually leveled all the buildings in order to deprive the pirates of any sanctuary, and the island was last used as a field hospital for Russian soldiers in the nineteenth century.
In the 1980s there was some talk of turning the island into a tourist destination, with a hotel and shops and such. Yet that stalled, and for the most part Sveti Ivan is home only to wildlife, chiefly dozens of species of birds, some of them endangered. Even the rare monk seals that once populated the island's rocks, their name an echo of the island's monastic past, are gone.
So it was something of a leap of faith when archeologists began excavating the island's old ruins, and truly astonishing when, in July 2010, they discovered beneath the ruins of the original altar a small marble reliquary (or box for relics) that contained a number of bones. Three of the bones were from livestock — one each from a sheep, a cow, and a horse. "The animal bones are the biggest of the group, and they may have just been put there to bulk up what looks like a pretty minimal collection of bones," Thomas Higham, a professor of archaeological science at the University of Oxford, told Reuters. Higham was a member of the team brought in to test the DNA of the bones to determine if there were any way they could actually belong to John the Baptist.
Along with the animal bits were five human bones: a knucklebone from the right hand, a tooth, part of a skull, a rib, and an ulna, which is a bone from the forearm. Higham and the team took these bones back to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the world's top laboratories for carbon-dating archaeological material, and two years later produced a result that left even Higham astounded: the human bones dated right to the middle of the first century CE, the time of Jesus. Testing of the genetic material by experts at the University of Copenhagen showed that the bones all came from the same man, and he apparently came from the Middle East.
Moreover, buried in an older part of the church was a small box made of volcanic stone. The box is inscribed with the name of "Saint John," in Greek, and the feast day of John the Baptist, June 24, the day tradition says he was born. The stone from which the box was made, called tuff, came from an area in modern-day Turkey, along one of the routes used to take relics from the Holy Land to Constantinople (now Istanbul), where Roman emperors and various aristocrats, as well as patriarchs and bishops, were eager to acquire them.
"They were often bestowed as a sign of favor. The monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a portion of relics as a gift from a patron, a member of Constantinople's elite," said Oxford archaeologist Georges Kazan, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the movement of relics in the fifth and sixth centuries. He noted that the island was an easy distance from the Byzantine capital, on a major Black Sea trading route.
"It's really stretching it to think that material from the first century can end up all the way in this church in Bulgaria and still be there for archaeologists to excavate," Higham said. "But stranger things have happened." Higham, a professed atheist with no motive to make religious claims look good, told reporters that when he first heard about the relics in 2010, "I thought it was a bit of a joke, to be honest." Going into the testing phase, he thought the age of the original church (about the fifth century) would give a likely age for the material. "We thought that perhaps these bones would be fourth or fifth century as well. But we were surprised when they turned out to be much older than that."
Could these be the bones of John the Baptist? So far there is no way to be sure, since there is no DNA database to compare, no genome for the Baptist's family — which tradition says would include his first cousin Jesus of Nazareth. Even so, just finding these bones — all from the middle of the first century, all from one man who lived in the Middle East — stands as a remarkable discovery.
John the Baptist was in many ways the Humpty Dumpty of martyrs. He was beheaded, and over the centuries so many different churches and shrines and mosques — John is a revered prophet in Islam — claimed his skull and various bones that church wags liked to quip that John must have had six heads and twelve hands. Putting a single John the Baptist together again may be impossible, though the task and the popularity of his remains provide a window onto the truly important questions: Who was John the Baptist and why was he so important to Jesus of Nazareth? Why did Jesus go to John to be baptized? Was John really a more popular figure than the Son of God? And why did John's movement fade away, as he himself predicted it would, while Jesus's movement became a global religion?
"NOT TO UNDERSTAND THE BAPTIST IS NOT TO UNDERSTAND JESUS"
What John the Baptist provides to the Christian story above all is a historical and religious context, and that context is vitally important to understanding Jesus. Yet it can also be profoundly threatening to many of his followers.
The threat emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the rise of "biblical criticism," the academic movement to examine the Scriptures from a dispassionate, scholarly, "just-the-facts" perspective rather than viewing the Christian texts chiefly as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, an account about the one true God sending his only son into the world to live and die as a man for the sins of the world, and to rise from the tomb and point the way to eternal salvation. Along the way, this divine man, Jesus Christ, also demonstrated and instructed his followers on how to live. For centuries, the New Testament was taught as a set of beliefs one must follow to get to heaven and a handbook of morality to guide one's life in this world. For most believers, science only got in the way of meaning, and historical context only diminished the uniqueness of Jesus.
Scholars increasingly thought otherwise, and most of them were viewed as debunkers who highlighted inconsistencies or outright contradictions among the gospels and who dismissed the accounts of the miracles (the Resurrection first among them) as obvious myths that were outright inventions by early Christians, a misinterpretation of natural phenomena, or a mass hallucination.
Some Christian scholars have tried to use science to support the Scriptures and confound the biblical skeptics. One of the earliest examples was a seventeenth-century Anglican archbishop, James Ussher, whose complex calculations based on the Bible established the time and date of the Creation as the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BCE. Other have followed in Ussher's footsteps in efforts to explain away scientific theories that appear to conflict with the Bible's claims, or to divine the exact date and time of the end of the world.
Such efforts have tended to end badly or have wound up a mirror image of the views of rationalists, focusing so intently on justifying the Scriptures scientifically that they have obscured the higher purpose and theology of Christianity.
When it came to Jesus of Nazareth, the fear for many believers was that by portraying him as a Jewish man living in first-century Judea, a rabbi and prophet among the many who populated the land in those tumultuous days of the Roman Empire, Jesus as the Christ would be compromised. Better to see him solely as the Son of God, the first Christian, emerging in the pages of holy writ fully formed, starting a new faith, and dying for it.
The structure of the gospels themselves fostered this view: two of the four gospels, Mark and John, begin abruptly with Jesus starting his public ministry in Galilee, an unmarried man around thirty years of age. Luke and Matthew begin with the so-called infancy narratives, retelling the beloved Christmas story of the birth in a manger in Bethlehem, and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt to escape the terrible edict from Herod that every male child under two be slain in order to snuff out the Messiah before he could grow up and pose a danger to Roman rule.
The Gospel of Luke mentions the story of Jesus at the age of twelve accompanying Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for Passover. On that visit, they lose track of the boy, only to find him three days later in the Temple discussing Jewish teaching with the elders, who were astounded by his learning and wisdom.
Other than that episode, which also shows Jesus as preternaturally mature, the gospels jump from Jesus as infant to Jesus as full-grown Savior, and skip any growing pains or backstory. Hence the proliferation of fanciful theories about "the lost years" of Jesus. Believers in the Middle Ages loved the stories that Jesus visited Britain in those gap years, while believers with modern sensibilities prefer theories that he went to India (like the Beatles visiting an ashram) and maybe even discovered Buddhism, which would explain what these latter see as the "eat, pray, love" vibe of his teachings.
Yet modern believers who dismiss any such musings also need not fear efforts to understand Jesus, and the faith he preached, by understanding the historical context of his upbringing. And this starts with his mentor, John the Baptist.
"All too often in books on the historical Jesus, the Baptist, like the miracle stories, gets a perfunctory nod and short shrift," the Rev. John P. Meier writes in his sweeping multivolume survey, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. "Yet one of the most certain things we know about Jesus is that he voluntarily submitted himself to John's baptism for the remission of sins, an embarrassing event each evangelist tries to neutralize in his own way." As Meier notes, the very first followers of Jesus were apparently eager that he not be "contextualized" out of his uniqueness. Yet that's not a desirable approach, Meier says, nor possible: "Not to understand the Baptist is not to understand Jesus."
And understanding John the Baptist starts with the four canonical gospels of the New Testament. That John the Baptist appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is a record of consistency that undergirds claims that he was a real historical figure. That he receives extensive treatment by Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, as we will see later, makes the fact of his existence a veritable slam dunk. Meier has several criteria for determining the historical reliability of a person or statement or story recounted in the New Testament, a chief one being the "criterion of multiple attestation"— that is, if someone or something is mentioned in various sources, it is likely true, and John the Baptist fits that bill.
Yet the Baptist also fits under Meier's "criterion of embarrassment," which holds that if something or someone in the New Testament creates embarrassment or theological difficulties that Jesus's followers have to explain, then it is likely true because it's not something early Christians would have invented — on the contrary. This criterion of embarrassment will also come into play in discussions of Mary Magdalene (a woman as the first witness to the Resurrection!) and Judas Iscariot (all-knowing Jesus chooses an apostle who will betray him!).
John the Baptist fits that bill given that he baptized Jesus, who ostensibly had no need to be cleansed of sin. Explaining this theological conundrum in part accounts for why John is portrayed differently in different sources.
By way of background: three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are so close in form and content that they are called the synoptics, from the Greek word meaning "to look at from the same point of view." Scholars believe these three gospels were written first, starting a few decades after the Crucifixion, and were based on oral accounts that had been circulating since the days of Jesus's public ministry, which would have begun about 30 CE.
The Gospel of Mark was likely the earliest of the three, composed between 65 and 75 CE, with Matthew and Luke taking their cues from its narrative. The fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, was written later, perhaps as late as 100 CE, and has a markedly different style. Tradition (which is disputed by many if not most scholars) attributes this last gospel to the apostle John, the "beloved disciple" who, custom holds, also composed the Book of Revelation as an aged man living in exile on the island of Patmos, off the coast of what is modern-day Turkey.
Mark, the earliest gospel, opens without a preamble, diving straight into the story of Jesus by starting with John the Baptist: he is introduced as fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, "a voice of one crying out in the desert," preparing the way of the Lord to "make straight his paths." Mark continues:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
All the chief elements of the Baptist's story are there: his prophetic voice, his role as a baptizer, his broad appeal, and his ascetic lifestyle. Yet lest anyone think John was too important, Mark immediately records the Baptist as announcing, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Excerpted from Finding Jesus by David Gibson, Michael McKinley. Copyright © 2015 David Gibson and Michael McKinley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Authors' Note ix
Introduction: Who Is Jesus? 1
1 John the Baptist: Rival Messiah, Bones of Contention 11
2 The James Ossuary: The Hand of God or the Crime of the Century? 45
3 Mary Magdalene: Prostitute, Apostle, Saint-or Jesus's Wife? 77
4 The Gospel of Judas: Christianity's Ultimate Whodunit 127
5 The True Cross: Enough to Fill a Ship 169
6 The Shroud and the Sudarium: Jesus of History, Jesus of Mystery 199
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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