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.

Stunts, the safety fetish, and false security

May 15th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  1 Comment


Yesterday I saw my son, wearing a bike helmet and a flotation vest, tearing through the closet, looking for another vest to wear at the same time, so he could “be safe when [he] did his stunts,” in particular standing on the bubble mower and riding it down the slide. I explained that skateboarding down the slide on the bubble mower remains dangerous no matter how many lifejackets one is wearing; he settled for a camelbak (which he decided was “scuba gear”) and a length of 1"x3".

For the lad, seeking specialized protective gear is nothing new; in the past, he has repurposed my silicone egg poaching pods as elbow and knee pads before diving off of the couch. Of course, I’m sympathetic to the desire to do stupid stunts, but when I was his age (and older), I just did stupid stunts and didn’t bother finding helmets, egg cookers, or personal flotation devices beforehand. (It actually strikes me as miraculous that I never maimed or killed myself on the impromptu bicycle jump near my elementary school, especially since I didn’t regularly use a bike helmet until after college.)

I suspect that his urge to find appropriate safety gear is a result of the long-expanding protective-equipment fetish in children’s entertainment: it is virtually impossible to find contemporary depictions of people or talking animals doing anything remotely dangerous without a veritable suit of armor. Advertising mascots and muppets alike wear helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, shinguards, and gloves before engaging in any physical activity. Wii avatars won’t even climb on a Segway, whose maximum speed approximates a brisk walk, without padding and masks. In a particularly egregious example, Disney’s “tomboyish” female replacement for Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh universe wears a helmet in order to stroll around an imaginary forest.

It’s probably a good idea to encourage children to use appropriate protective gear, and I’m glad that bicycle helmet use is far more widespread than it was thirty years ago. But if my experience is any indication, the downside to the ubiquitous depictions of safety equipment for everyday and fantastic activities alike is that they encourage children to put too much trust in the gear and do foolish things as a result. As a concrete example, there probably isn’t anything a preschooler could wear to provide a reasonable expectation of safety while skating down the slide.

Unfortunately, skating down the slide is the least of my worries: this morning, as we left the farmers’ market and got to our car on the sixth story of the garage, Thomas looked up at me and said “Wow, Dad, I’m going to need some really good safety equipment if I’m going to dive off of this building!”