“Can you look at the link I sent you? What do you make of this shape shifting Jesus?”
1. The Text.
LiveScience reports on an interesting ancient text (we’ll call it the Shape Shifting Jesus Text) that says something quite unusual about the Jesus of history. For example, it tells us of “Pontius Pilate, the judge who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion, having dinner with Jesus before his crucifixion and offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus. It also explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus — because Jesus had the ability to change shape, according to the text — and it puts the day of the arrest of Jesus on Tuesday evening rather than Thursday evening, something that contravenes the Easter timeline” (1).
These are, of course, some very peculiar claims. And if they are true we would have to have a closer look at what we know about the historical Jesus from the New Testament. For example, according to our best historical evidence Pilate crucified Jesus and certainly did not have a supper with him or even remotely opt to sacrifice his own son in Jesus’ place (this strikes me as immediately suspect since from our gospels and other ancient texts Pilate was a ruthless man and definitely not one to let criminals off the hook). These claims being made are very unheard of, to put it mildly.
2. How Does this Text Relate to the Historical Jesus?
Simply put, it doesn’t. This is because of its incredibly late date at around 800 AD (some 1200 years ago). However, Jesus died in 30 AD and therefore this text is many centuries removed from the purported events in the New Testament. The late scholar A.N. Sherwin White showed that it takes two or more generations (roughly 70 years) for myth to begin impugning a historical text (2). So how much embellishment took place over these 770 or so years is anyone’s guess. This has us at least making the assumption that the text has its basis in any history whatsoever; for all we know it could be a total centuries late fraud. However, it is clear that the text is going on historical traditions found in the New Testament and gospels (facts that were already widely known as early as 30 to 70 AD), but the remarkable, and overt, clearly embellished details of Pilate having supper with Jesus and offering his own son are almost certainly entire imaginative reconstructions. We can even determine the motives, for example, the Coptic and Ethiopian churches saw Pilate as a saint, which explains the sympathetic portrayal in the text.
Historians aim to uncover primary sources as close to the purported events as they can; a text that is 770 years removed is just not good enough to qualify over texts that are well within a century of Jesus’ life of the likes of our New Testament.
3. Manuscript Attestation.
Even worse for this is that we have only two manuscript copies of the Shape Shifting Jesus Text. Essentially, the more manuscript copies of a text we have the more likely we can reconstruct the original text. Quite surprisingly from the ancient world the New Testament gospels boast the most widely attested number of manuscript copies (5800 in the original Greek, 9300 later ones in several languages, 10 000 in Latin, and dozens within a century or two of the originals). However, in general, manuscript attestation of ancient texts is quite bad in terms of numbers and their late dates, but just having two of them for the Shaping Shifting Jesus Text is even worse than bad. We thus simply cannot have much confidence that these two later copies give us an accurate depiction of what the original Shape Shifting Jesus Text would have said, and even if we did know what the original text said we wouldn’t trust its testimony (also note that one of the two manuscripts is mostly unreadable thus meaning we have to heavily rely on just a single manuscript).
4. Does the Shape Shifting Jesus Text Have Any Value?
It really depends. In terms of a historical investigation into the historical Jesus it has none whatsoever. To learn about the historical Jesus we want early and independent sources giving insight into the earliest beliefs about Jesus. Alternatively, in terms of learning about how the later Coptic and Ethiopian churches viewed details of the Passion story of Jesus then yes, the Shape Shifting Jesus Text does provide value.
We need to understand that there are many late ancient texts that make all kinds of non-historical claims about Jesus, but these texts are useless in terms of historical value for learning about Jesus. In several texts centuries removed from Jesus’ life we have in them a Jesus, while an infant, who cursed his fellow playmate and thus caused him to whither, a Jesus who was married, a Jesus who allegedly had a supper with his very murderer Pontius Pilate, a Jesus who had a family, and so on. Fast forward another few thousand years and we’ve even seen a white and black Jesus make the rounds on the block… The number of claims are many, but none of them are true on historical grounds. Thus, I think we need to keep this in mind: texts that are century (and at most 120 years) removed from Jesus need to sit secondary to our primary New Testament documents. That would be a good general rule of thumb.
1. Jarus, O. 2013. Shape-Shifting Jesus Described in Ancient Egyptian Text. Available.
2. White, S. 2004. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. p. 190.