Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cockeyed optimism and the Gospel of Barnabas

I suppose that it's only human to be optimistic.  A 2009 study at the University of Kansas found that 89% of people predicted that the world was going to be as good or better than it is now in five years -- and this pattern held irrespective of ethnic, religious, and national identification.  (Source)

Of course, what "better" means can differ fairly dramatically from person to person.  Witness the recent pronouncement from the powers-that-be in Iran.  (Source)

The whole thing started in 2000, when Turkish authorities broke up a gang that was involved in the illegal acquisition and sale of antiquities.  Amongst the haul was a leather book written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic.  Turkish scholars analyzed the book, and announced that it was a copy of the lost Gospel of Barnabas, one of the early Christian converts and a companion of St. Paul.  The document, the Turkish linguists said, could date from the 5th or 6th century.  Its value to the field of archeology was obvious, and the book was transferred under armed guard to Turkey's National Ethnography Museum in Ankara, where it has been under lock and key ever since.

All of this was well and good, and of interest only to religious historians, until the recent announcement that a line in Chapter 41 had been translated as follows:  "God has hidden himself as Archangel Michael ran them (Adam and Eve) out of heaven, (and) when Adam turned, he noticed that at top of the gateway to heaven, it was written 'La elah ela Allah, Mohammad rasool Allah' (Allah is the only God and Mohammad his prophet)."

When I read this, I did an immediate facepalm, because I knew what was coming next.

The Turkish linguists lost no time at all in proclaiming that this manuscript predicted the rise of Islam and the role of Mohammad as its chief exponent, and that it proves that Islam is the One Correct Religion.  Catholic authorities quickly responded, "Now, wait just a moment, here," or words to that effect, and demanded to see the book, a request that is being "considered."  Prominent Catholics rushed to shrug the whole thing off as a non-issue -- Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture calling it a "laughable... challenge to Christianity."  So, basically, all of the people who weighed in on the story reacted with optimism -- proclaiming that circumstances would vindicate whatever view of the world they already had.  But no one had as inadvertently amusing a reaction as did Iran's Basij Press:

"The discovery of the original Barnabas Bible will now undermine the Christian Church and its authority and will revolutionize the religion in the world," a press release from Basij last week states.  "The most significant fact, though, is that this Bible has predicted the coming of Prophet Mohammad and in itself has verified the religion of Islam."

Basij goes on to predict that the "Gospel of Barnabas" will result in the downfall of Christianity.

Okay.  So, what do we actually have here?  A book that only a few people have seen, and whose provenance has yet to be demonstrated conclusively.  That book may have a line that seems to predict the coming of Mohammad, but this has only been verified by people who have a serious vested interest in its being true -- and in any case, the fact of its being a prediction is highly doubtful given that we don't know how old the book actually is.  And now, a government that has shown itself to be relentlessly hostile to Christians throws the whole thing into a press release -- and seriously believes that their pronouncement is going to cause a worldwide exodus from Christianity.

I mean, really.  Pollyanna is one thing, but those folks at Basij really have turned the whole Cockeyed Optimism thing into performance art.   I have this highly amusing mental image of Fred and Vera Fuddle of Topeka, Kansas calling up their minister and saying, "Sorry, Brother Steve, we won't be in church this Sunday -- we read about those folks in Turkey who found a book that says that over the gateway to heaven, it said something about Allah and Mohammad.  No offense, but I'm thinkin' that kind of undermines the church's authority, know what I mean?  Give my regards to Sue Ellen and the kids.  Oh, and one other thing... you know of a nice mosque in the area?"

So, anyway, I think that the Gospel of Barnabas will have little to no effect on anyone, even if the Vatican isn't allowed to send in their experts.  And that's just what we should expect.  89% of people think that the world is going to be as good or better in five years than it is now -- so the Iranians will continue to predict the downfall of all the people they despise, and the rest of us will just go on believing what we've always believed.

2 comments:

  1. I always understood the so called Gospel of Barnabas to be a fairly well known fourteenth or fifteenth century concoction that circulated in Muslim ruled territories with high Christian populations in an attempt to persuade them that Islam was the One True Religion and that they had better convert post haste. It's a plainly fabricated document, although I haven't heard of this recent "discovery". The story is quite plainly at the religious fundamentalist end of the wood spectrum…

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