Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
On March 13, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., announced that their Dead Sea Scroll fragments, one of their most prominent exhibits, were forgeries. On March 27, Steve Green, the chairman of the museum’s board and president of Hobby Lobby, announced that he was repatriating 11,500 artifacts to Egypt and Iraq due to their lack of historical sourcing. And on April 12, it was reported that Oxford professor Dirk Obbink, who had given the supposed Dead Sea Scrolls to the Museum, was arrested for theft and fraud.
Sadly, scandals like this lend credence to the belief that religion is, at best, a useful myth. Religion is simply seen as blind faith, akin to children’s belief in the Tooth Fairy.
When religion comes across as a con game, how should Catholics respond?
First, Catholics should remember that the forgeries of the Dead Sea Scrolls show the problems of “Scripture alone.” Scripture, once unmoored from Tradition and natural law, can be reduced to a museum piece, an artifact. The Bible is important to the Catholic spiritual life, but one cannot live on it alone. St. John the Evangelist ends his Gospel saying (John 21:25), “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The written word has its limitations, which it admits itself.
“Scripture alone” also introduces the problem of what constitutes Holy Writ. In Protestant Bibles, the Books of Judith, Tobit, Sirach, First and Second Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon are missing. On the other side, there are “apocryphal” books of questionable provenance like the Psalms of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Elijah and the Epistle of Barnabas. If it is “sola Scriptura,” what constitutes the Bible?
Catholics, who insist on Tradition, are not persuaded by the ongoing controversy, say, over the “Secret” Gospel of Mark. It is accepted by John Dominic Crossan of the “Jesus Seminar” as authentic and a model for the biblical Gospel, while others see it as a forgery. In 2012, the so-called “Jesus’ wife” papyrus was hailed as a vindication of the hit novel and movie The Da Vinci Code. But in June 2016, Harvard Divinity professor Karen L. King admitted that the papyrus was probably a fake after spectroscopy and radiocarbon dating showed that the fragment dated back to the Middle Ages.
What makes biblical books canonical is their divine inspiration and apostolic origins, as well as their universal and liturgical use. For example, St. Paul’s epistles were used in the Mass from the beginning. His epistle to the Ephesians was read beyond Ephesus.
So, Catholics are not dragged into this academic battle. The Eighth Commandment is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” When the Israelites journey to the Promised Land, they are warned (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8), “You shall not utter a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man, to be a malicious witness. You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you bear witness in a suit, turning aside after a multitude so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his suit… You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit… And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” Dishonesty is a form of perversion — in this case, that of the truth.
For Catholics, honesty is an important virtue to uphold. As it is written in St. John’s Gospel (John 1:14, 17), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Truth is not only an object, but God Himself, unity of Three Persons and incarnate in Jesus.
The Museum of the Bible’s scandals validate the pervasive secular belief that religion is, at best, a useful myth.
When religion is reduced to a myth, it is no longer taken seriously. St. Paul encountered this at the Areopagus, where “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). Some saw Jesus and the Resurrection as “foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18). Since St. Paul’s views were understood as mythology, his preaching wasn’t taken seriously as a call to conversion, because myths were regarded at best poetic justice, not fact. Few took the next step of baptism and discipleship, save for Dionysius, Damaris and a few others (Acts 17:33).
However, St. Paul warned Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3-4), “You may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than divine training that is in faith.” Religion as myth minimalizes it to “vain discussion” (1 Timothy 1:6). Myths can be truthful but are not the Truth. Mythical religion is merely a “feel good” commodity, without any profound commitment. Subjective experiences supplant objective truth. They do not have the authority of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible’s noble mission to promote Scriptural understanding and its authority was undermined in these recent misdeeds. It made biblical belief look gullible.
However, Catholics can still rest in the Scripture, even when there are bad actors. God speaks through the Bible, be it in the Holy Mass or daily reading. Our Lord says (John 14:6), “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” People may be dishonest and greedy, but Our Lord Jesus Christ carried our sins to the Cross. His sacrifice is greater than any human opprobrium.