Coptic fragments

September 21st, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  9 Comments

Many (primarily secular) scholars are interested in the very few fragments we have from the Gnostics and other adherents of long-extinguished Christian heresies. For Christians, these writings are interesting for the same reasons that heresies that got more traction or have more extant documentation are interesting: it’s fascinating to identify why something is wrong and to identify its eventual consequences; furthermore, most of the contemporary heresies that we should like to avoid are not particularly original. For general journalists who don’t actually know that much about Christian history (or, I suspect, any serious Christians), these writings are interesting because of the unsupported expectation that they should “[prove] deeply troubling” to believers.1

The latest in this series is the discovery of a 4th-century Coptic scrap that includes the line “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….'” The researcher behind the announcement is very careful to indicate that this fragment — even if is authentic and has been correctly interpreted — only tells us what some people recorded and believed about Jesus of Nazareth several centuries after the Gospels and Pauline epistles were recorded and not anything about Jesus himself. However, most of the mainstream press have been presenting this discovery as a major scandal that shakes the foundations of Christian orthodoxy and is absolutely sure to impact everything from Roman Catholic clerical celibacy to gender-role debates around the margins of traditional churches. (I first heard of this story from Jason Kottke, whose gloss on the story misses the point in the same way as most media reports.)

In a related story, I was recently cleaning my basement. While so doing, I found a scrap of white paper, dated May 1998, with shocking new evidence that will change how we see the genesis of early philosophy of mathematics:

IMG 5532

This fragment is damaged and stained, and the script is obscure. But I consulted with a historical graphologist, who was able to give me a transcription:

I can’t believe
I just beat Blaise
Pascal in a cutthroat
game of Mario Kart!
He had the blu[e?]…
shell and every[…]

I’ve had to keep this discovery embargoed while validating the fragment with other scholars, but we’re reasonably convinced that it is authentic. We’ve determined that “Mario Kart” refers to an electronic game that was popular roughly 33 decades after Pascal’s death (and, coincidentally, towards the end of my undergraduate career), and that the “blu[e] shell” was a rare game piece of great power that could almost guarantee victory for the player lucky enough to possess it. Our analysis is that Pascal lost his interest in explaining the world through probability after even the bonne chance of acquiring such an advantage failed to help him win the game.

We have not yet concluded whether or not a wager was involved.

1 cf. this NYT article about the “Gospel of Judas” from a few years ago.