Occasionally a collision of interests occurs when the limited, cautious gains of scholarship or the speculative theories of a scholar are spun into fantastic proportions by popular promoters and the media. Three scraps of papyrus at Magdalen College, Oxford, are offering enough drama to catch the eye of writers from the Times of London (Dec. 24, 1994) to Time magazine (Jan. 23, 1995). Now Doubleday is promoting a book with a barrage of brochures for bookstore distribution. "As important as the Dead Sea Scrolls," they announce. "A gripping human story," "a mysterious 2,000-year-old journey of papyrus," "startling discoveries." This is a story of an "inquisitive Victorian missionary," an "earthquake of biblical proportions," a "persistent German scientist," an "award-winning British journalist," and an "ancient writer who creates one of the world's most important documents," now valued at "over $10 million." Can another Indiana Jones sequel be far behind?
To stir the pot further, Eyewitness to Jesus is marketed as uncovering a "longtime feud between conservatives and liberals." The three papyrus pieces were allegedly "read and handled" by one of the eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ! To deny their antiquity is apparently to deny something fundamental about Jesus and the New Testament. To reject the book's thesis is to betray one's liberalism.
The papyrus story behind this book is simple enough. In 1901 the British missionary Charles Huleatt purchased the pieces of papyrus in Luxor, Egypt, in the antiquities market and donated them to his alma mater, Magdalen College, in Oxford, England. They remained in a display case until 1953, when the well-known papyrologist C. H. Roberts published them (with photographs) and—after ...1