The last two years have been the Golden Age of crankery and fake news. And not just in the ways everyone is already talking about. Hardly a month goes by that I’m not bombarded with queries from puzzled fans about this or that astonishing story about ancient sources for Jesus. You really should check the facts yourself first before coming to me, though. Because otherwise I get hit with dozens of requests, and that’s really not a good use of my time. Here’s a guide on how to vet these claims yourself, using several prominent examples, complete with links on how they’ve been debunked.
The First Century “Testimony of Paterculus”
Tons of people keep circulating (and then asking me about) the World News Daily story, “Newly-Found Document Holds Eyewitness Account of Jesus Performing Miracle,” claiming the first century pagan historian Velleius Paterculus recorded facts about Jesus. The World News Daily is a fake news site. Enough said. But if you really need more, Snopes has you covered. Please, people. Check that first before asking me about stories like this. Always verify the source is real and not a joke website like that. You can do this on your own. And if you don’t know how, get cracking on teaching yourself. Because it’s now an essential skill in the 21st century.
Still, I realize this isn’t always easy. Even some real news sources were fooled. So how do you tell?
Two rules: (1) If the article you are reading cites no source for any of its facts, it’s bullshit. Toss it into the fire to warm your hands by. This follows even if the article is in a real news source. Competent news writers cite sources. Incompetent ones write articles for tossing in fires to warm hands by. And (2) if you just can’t let it go, or it does cite a source, vet it. First see if reputable experts have already reviewed or debunked it. Google will help you find out (often so will Snopes). And if no one has, go to the source and vet it yourself.
Uncited sources can be found by Googling telltale keywords in the article you are trying to find the source of (e.g. Googling distinctive words in the real Guardian article would have led you to the fake WND article that started it all). Cited sources are even easier to Google to. Either way, walk the chain of evidence all the way back until you are at the first version of the story. You can tell because it will cite primary sources like named and interviewed persons, or academic journal articles or official press releases from a university or some such, all of which (persons, journal articles, press releases) you can also check to see if they are real. Then you can vet that source: Is it a fake news / satire site like World News Daily? Some random unaffiliated crank? An actual university—one that actually exists, and where this story is actually on its actual website? Etc.
If you want help determining if a site is fake (and its About page doesn’t already clue you in), check it at RealOrSatire.com.
Then, after all that, if it still looks legit to you, you can bother me with asking what I think of it. Otherwise, please do the work yourself. I’ll appreciate it!
The Leather-Bound “Gospel of Barnabas”
The Daily Mail (UK) among other tabloid sources reported the story of a mysterious ancient “leather-bound Gospel” that would shake the foundations of Christianity, using the very Dan Browny headline, “Seized from Smugglers, the Leather-Bound ‘Gospel’ Which Iran Claims Will Bring down Christianity and Shake World Politics.” That spurred all kinds of spin-off news articles around the internet, by gullible reporters thinking this was real. It might be “real” in the sense that a leather-bound Gospel manuscript in Syriac may really have been seized from smugglers and so on. But those details got mixed in right away with total bullshit…and arithmetical errors.
The original source was The National Turk, which reported the manuscript was “1500 years old,” and contained the Mohammed-predicting Gospel of Barnabas, among other things. Those who can count can figure out that means it dates to about 500 A.D., the early Middle Ages. No use for origins-of-Christianity research. But that date would still be remarkable for a Gospel largely believed to be a post-Islamic fabrication. In actual fact the manuscript itself says it was transcribed in 1500 A.D. That’s the year 1500; not 1500 years ago. You’ll discover this if you Google around even minimally (e.g. it’s revealed in an article at The Inquisitr). Oops. Someone goofed in their math and misread “as old as 1500” as “1500 years old.”
And, as a general rule even, you might also check to see if some debunking has already happened on Wikipedia. Lo and behold. As Wikipedia reports, under the “Gospel of Barnabas” entry, besides all the useful history of this Gospel and its manuscripts that you might need, the “leather-bound” manuscript these stories were about did not contain the Gospel of Barnabas, but just a random collection of quotes from the canonical Gospels. Oh well. The story deflates into nothing on just a cursory fact-check online. It wasn’t ancient. And its contents weren’t as claimed. Done and dusted.
Anyone can do this kind of vetting. You can do this. You don’t need me for that. So the next time you see an astonishing story like this, please do vet it yourself. Indeed, if you want to make me happy, the first time you ever contact me about it, do it by sending me the best debunking articles you already found! You don’t need to ask me for help. You can help me!
The “Lead Codices” (aka the “Jordan Tablets”)
I keep getting sent and asked about this story, even after years. I wrote about it already in Amazing Proofs of Jesus and Lead Tablets of Jesus! They are actually part of a codex of lead and copper leaves with hammered inscriptions on them in Greek and Hebrew, supposedly found in a Jordanian cave and claimed to be the earliest Christian texts ever composed, 2000 years old. But alas, they have been well-known as forgeries since almost day one (constructed from copying other inscriptions unrelated to Christianity to produce nonsense sentences). Wikipedia has an article now. They are the brainchild of a crank or conman who sometimes goes by the name of David Elkington.
As the Israel Antiquities Authority put it, these lead (and copper) books are a “mixture of incompatible periods and styles without any connection or logic.” And as Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica put it:
The Greek [on the tablets] is lifted nonsensically from an inscription published in 1958. The forger couldn’t tell the difference between the Greek letters alpha and lambda. [Some of] the Hebrew script is taken from the same inscription. The Hebrew text is in “code,” i.e., is gibberish. The “Jesus” face is taken from a well-known mosaic. The charioteer is taken from a fake coin. The crocodile has a suspicious resemblance to a plastic toy. This forger was not Professor Moriarty. This forger was a careless bumbler. That makes it all the more galling how readily the media fell for the scam.
His latest update continues the saga. The conmen trying to pass these off as authentic claim to have had scientific tests of some sort done to prove their antiquity. This has kept them in the news. But as Davila summarizes the actual situation:
[In] the five and a half years since [these tablets’] existence was first announced, not a single peer-review publication on them has been published. Any scholarly discussion of them has yet to begin. Now if someone wishes to defend [what’s being said about them] by publishing the evidence in a peer-review publication, I and others will be happy to have a look and evaluate the evidence presented and the arguments for the claims.
The tests even as claimed got wildly inconsistent results. Some indicating some of the lead is ancient, some medieval, some modern. But ancient lead is easy to obtain. And it’s the new trend among forgers to create their fakes using genuinely ancient materials. The lead codices in this respect have a lot in common with the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (see below): proved to be forgeries by mistakes made in their construction, because the forgers relied on modern source templates; that undeniable evidence is then dismissed in favor of scientific tests proving ancient materials were used, even though that’s exactly what a smart forger would use; even some bona fide experts are fooled; and an infamous conman is revealed to be behind them; and pretty much every expert now agrees they are fake.
So please don’t ask me about things like this, when all those articles already exist and are easily found, that already answer your question, and have been there for years.
BTW, another example in this category (of crank news), which I get asked about a lot, is of course the Caesar’s Messiah nonsense. For those who don’t know already, when you see the flashy, official-looking press releases from that tinfoil hatter Joseph Atwill (like this one), claiming amazing new proof has surfaced that Christianity was a hoax perpetrated by the Roman Imperial government—in fact the very confession to having faked it was found!—please don’t fall for that. It’s bunk. See Atwill’s Cranked Up Jesus. But even without consulting my critique, you could probably have called bullshit on this all by yourself. An ancient confession found? Uhuh. What peer reviewed journal was it published in again? … Oh, right. None. Honestly. That tells you all you need to know.
The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”
This began as an intriguingly possible medieval Coptic Gospel in which Jesus is perhaps referring to having a wife, possibly even in fact named Mary. It ended exploded as a complete fake promoted by a conman. It was never very relevant to the origins of Christianity—unlike the fake “lead codices,” the forger didn’t try to claim the manuscript fragment was ancient; it was passed off as early medieval. As such, had it been authentic, it would have been useless for studying the origins of Christianity; it would only attest to a centuries late heretical legend. But alas, it wasn’t even medieval. The papyrus was. The ink may even have been. But the text was 100% modern bullshit.
Several prominent experts tried really hard to defend its authenticity for a long time, very irrationally I might add (the evidence it was forged using a modern digital text—which had a typo, giving away the forger’s use of it!—was slam-fucking-dunk and should have ended the matter…see my article from 2016, and my article from 2012), but even they have acquiesced now, after a reporter tracked down and exposed the forger. The story in The Atlantic is so wild it’s well worth reading. I highly recommend it. (Or see Mark Goodacre’s summary.) The bottom line is, the document was faked, and the documents authenticating the document were faked. Because Harvard professor Karen King, who staked her reputation on its authenticity (egg on her face now), did not let experts examine the authenticating documents, the forgery survived scrutiny far longer than it should have. But it’s over now.
Lesson learned: Whenever you hear an amazing claim like this, ask some necessary questions first. How is the document being authenticated? Have independent experts even vetted it yet? And always remember the fiasco of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Even an endorsement from a bona fide Harvard expert doesn’t mean much anymore. Because until it’s properly vetted, it could well all fall apart. Just like the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
The “Mummy Gospel of Mark”
A different class of dubious news relates to the claim made by a bunch of Christian fundamentalist scholars that ancient mummy masks owned by the Hobby Lobby family happened to contain tons of scraps of ancient Christian Gospels in them, including one of Mark that physically dates, they say, to the first century! See my past coverage of that in Amazing Proofs of Jesus. And yet no peer reviewed publication has surfaced. They keep claiming it’s coming out “next year.” It’s been a lot of years since. We’re assured this time they mean it. They really mean it. There really will finally be a peer reviewed report on it published in 2017. Hold your breath everyone!
I’ll place bets now. What will get published under peer review, if anything ever does, will be that—at best—the fundamentalists were overzealous in claiming the first century date, that the mummy masks probably actually date no earlier than the second century and possibly even date to the fourth century. There is no “first century” manuscript of Mark. There may be a second century one—that would be newsworthy, but wouldn’t change anything much, especially as it’s just a fragment and thus contains perhaps just a few sentences at most, if even that (that’s right, by “manuscript of mark,” they mean one tiny rip from one page of Mark, not the whole Gospel). But it may turn out to be a third or fourth century fragment. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Typical of news coverage was the LiveScience news report on this in 2015. Back then they were still claiming it would be published any minute now. Even though fundamentalist apologists had been boasting of the find since 2012! So the latest claim, that it’s due for publication in 2017, may require taking with a grain of salt. But Larry Hurtado wrote about the sensationalist stories circulating in 2015, and spilled some sobering cold water on the matter. He also summarizes the backstory, one notable part of which is that this claim was used by fundamentalist Dan Wallace against Bart Ehrman in a debate in 2012…which is dirty fucking pool, citing evidence that has never been published before, and never gone through peer review, and that Ehrman couldn’t even have examined or known anything about. Now, just contrast Hurtado’s comments with Wallace’s. What a difference.
If I hear anything new on this Gospel fragment, I’ll let you know. Real papyrologists are working on it. (Dirk Obbink has started discussing his work on the mummy mask finds, for example, though so far he hasn’t mentioned any Christian texts.) So I expect something will come out eventually. But it’s probably not going to vindicate Wallace’s wild claims. In the end, all the hype aside, there might be a new early manuscript fragment to add to the list of the ones we already have, but I doubt there is any “first century” manuscript of Mark.
The lesson here is: (1) don’t trust fundamentalists; (2) wait for peer reviewed publication; (3) then discuss. Until then, nothing about this is usable data.
Be wary of all this kind of stuff in future. Surely more fake news about Jesus sources, more confused news about Jesus sources, more crank news about Jesus sources, and more dubious news about Jesus sources will appear in coming years. Arm yourself against it now. If you ask me anything about it at all, make sure you already can supply me with all the links you could find of experts already talking about it, and the original source of the claim. Do the work first. Check facts. Check reliability. See how vetted a claim is, where it’s coming from, what stage of verification it’s in. What experts are saying. And keep applying the proper rule that extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.