But when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.
The world loves a conspiracy, and it got one in 2012 from a four-inch fragment of papyrus. By now you’ve heard of the Harvard professor of antiquity who came into possession of a remarkably preserved swatch of Egyptian writing, purportedly from the fourth century, which spoke of Jesus and His mother, Mary. That someone had unearthed another piece of ancient hagiography would be no story amid the torrent of other more pressing news. What made this find newsworthy was that the text reports Jesus saying, “My wife...”
Were the fragment to be found genuine and its translation from the Coptic plausible, the content would serve to challenge the Bible’s and the church’s consistent teaching that Jesus had been single and celibate for the entirety of His earthly ministry.
The conspiratorial impulse kicked into high gear when some from the scholarly community used this week’s discovery to insinuate there are only two reasons that could explain why the church has always taught that Jesus had been unmarried: either it’s just a matter of “happenstance,” as one scholar put it, that our earliest existing texts about Jesus portray Him as single, or it’s because the church’s early exaltation of celibacy as a mark of true holiness justified suppression of alternative perspectives on Jesus’ marital status.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times wondered out loud why the scholarly community wouldn’t consider a third, and to him, more plausible explanation—namely, that Jesus was in fact celibate. We need not entertain a Dan Brown-esque form of historiographical sleight of hand masquerading as scholarship when a simple review of the existing data will do.
We’re drawn to conspiratorial theories that undermine earlier explanations, probably for many reasons. We ought not disparage the impulse out of hand given the number of salutary discoveries that arose from intuitive dissatisfactions with long-standing theories. But we should admit that the more we can complicate our picture of an issue, the less claim we feel it has upon us. In this case, the more controversy we inject into the identity of Jesus, the less inclined we are to see Him as an authority.
So the consequence of every misapprehension of Jesus is to treat Him as less than He deserves. For the world can think of Him as, at best, a historical enigma and in turn relegate Him to the status of eccentric sage. The disciples can think of Him as a ghost, as He approached them walking on the water, and reduce Jesus to something only to fear. Judas can try to force Jesus’ hand as if He were a revolutionary gone soft, while Peter can try to preserve Him from harm as One unworthy to suffer.
In each case, misapprehending Jesus is a distortion not only of His identity but also of what is due Him. Recall your own experience with being misunderstood and you remember how unbefitting the response you received. Shouldn’t we be all the more concerned with viewing Him properly that we might treat Him rightly?
Oh, but does He ask too much? Aren’t His ways inscrutable (Rom 11:39)? Don’t we see Him through a glass darkly, waiting for a day of greater clarity (1 Cor 13:12)? Aren’t we commended for loving Him though we do not see Him (1 Pet 1:8)?
Until we see Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2), we will never comprehend Him fully. But despite His incomprehensibility, we still gain sufficient understanding of Him from even His most succinct statements.
For Jesus is the One who said, “Take heart.” With Him comes good reason to pull ourselves together no matter how our moment pulls us apart.
He is the One who said, “It is I.” Jesus is no ghost, but the very Son of God whose taking away the sins of the world amply proves His love and His ability to confirm the rationale for hope.
Christ is the One who said, “Do not be afraid.” Whatever our thoughts or preliminary conclusions that would induce in us a panic, His pardon, presence, and promise are all sufficient to render such panic not just premature but pointless.
Your life may be as tattered as that fourth-century fragment, your moment as indecipherable as some of its ancient inscription. But whatever may be conspiring against you—it meets its match in Him who came—and died—for His bride.