I’ve been thinking for a while about the question of authority. It seemed to me to be an important matter. So I decided to start writing about it and see where it leads. I had the first post already written way before the news of the now famous “Jesus’ wife” papyrus came out. It was just waiting to be published on Friday (as usual) a few days after the news broke. Every so often the Christian world “happens” to be stirred and forced to self-assess. That’s what this papyrus did and it was a healthy exercise of re-evaluating where we stand, our theologies, our allegiances, our posture toward questions of truth and ultimately the question of authority.
When you read the various responses, it’s easy to see where people stand and instinctively judge. What if instead we turn this controversy into a room of mirrors and allow these responses to be a reflective exercise? What is our reaction to this finding? What does it reveal about us? First, let’s direct our attention to the mirror of closed and open systems of thinking. There are some who believe they have pretty much figured out their theologies. These people are not really open to truth (since they already know it) and whatever surprises it may bring, just as Jesus once said in a parable, even if someone rises from the dead it will not change their mind, right? Then there are others who see theology as a journey, open to changes along the way. In reading responses to Jesus’ wife document, from scholars to bloggers we can clearly see the two postures. Those who are open, take an honest look at how this document might or might not affect their Christology or their Christian understanding in general and they are ready to land wherever it may lead. Those with a closed frame of mind look for ways to invalidate the veracity of this discovery. Which ones are we? What does that reveal about us? Resist the urge to immediately justify yourself, just think about it for a while.
Closely connected to the first mirror is the mirror of authority. What do those who say Jesus didn’t have a wife point to? The Canon, right? We don’t, they would say, give this discovery much weight because it’s not mentioned in the Gospels or somewhere else in the New Testament. We know these other documents, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Philip support this, but they were not accepted by the early Church as valid, which is why they were not included in the Canon. They are not, therefore, authoritative in shaping our beliefs. Authority is invoked either openly or subtly and in this case, it appears under the rubric of reliable sources. Anything outside the Canon is deemed as unreliable, unless it’s corroborated by it. Do you find yourself invoking the Bible when assessing whether something is true? Or in broader terms, do you evaluate something you’re presented with by immediately referring to a point of reference to judge it by?
I am not interested in engaging this debate and take sides. I just want to point out how this latest controversy shows that authority actually does play a critical role in our beliefs. Do we evaluate a piece of information on its own merit or we immediately think of what our source of authority has to say about it? This authority could be a collection of writings (Bible), doctrinal statements of a particular tradition, a leading figure past or present, etc. Once we are aware and admit we are under authority we have a chance to take a look at what controls our lives. Why do we give allegiance to it? Is it something that was passed on to us? Is that what everybody (in the circle we are) submits to? Does this authority stand the tests, any new information or questions we might sincerely have?
It’s OK to be under authority if we know it and we’re OK with it. It’s not OK when that authority exercises its power subtly and we don’t realize it.