The Second Sunday in Lent – 2012
In the Christian liturgical tradition, this is the season of Lent, a time of reflection, repentance and coming to terms with our own mortality. In this reflection, I want to talk about four people who have departed this life, one I knew personally, and three long before my time.
My friend Arthur was an older gentleman that I had the occasion to get to know fairly well. He liked to talk, and I’m a pretty good listener. One day he gave me a book called The Archko Volume (also known as The Archko Library) and said that it was a pretty exciting find. He also gave a copy to the pastor of our church.
Actually, I was familiar with the book. It was published in the 19th century by a Presbyterian minister named Mahan. The book tells a story that Mahan had traveled to the Vatican where he met with the Vatican librarian, Fr. Freelinhusen. and was shown a marvelous collection of ancient manuscript (heretofore unknown and unpublished) documenting the life of Jesus, documents by Pontius Pilate, King Herod, and Jewish high priest Caiaphas. The problem is that Mahan never left the United States, the Vatican librarian he named never existed, the translators never existed, the purported documents have all sorts of historical inconsistencies and some of the “ancient text” was even copied word for word from the novel Ben Hur (later editions of the book omit this section). It’s a pious fraud and roundly condemned in its day. The Rev. Mahan was expelled from his church for writing it.
A professor from the University of Chicago named Edgar J. Goodspeed investigated The Archko Volume and a number of other items of pseudepigrapha in considerable detail, publishing his results in a book titled Modern Apocrypha in 1931. The Archko Volume was thoroughly debunked .
The problem is that The Archko Volume is still in print and available in a dozen editions, and as the book appears today, there is no hint of the context of historical fraud and indeed folks today stumble on this book, as did my friend Arthur, and believe that it provides remarkable historical proof of the Bible. Goodspeed’s book, however, is not in print and is relatively hard to find. Not only is it not in print, but it is in copyright and so can’t be freely reproduced. (The publisher told me that the copyright reverted to Goodspeed who is deceased. Goodspeed’s attorney’s office is now an apartment house and I believe his son is deceased.) Also, contemporary newspaper stories about Mahan are very hard to obtain today.
People read and believe because they want to believe, and the authentic historical references to Jesus are scarce and problematic, and there’s nothing in the literature today to rebut Archko.
That brings me to reflect on what, in this context, is an ominously titled article from 2008 at Salon.com, “Why the stories about Obama’s birth certificate will never die.” The web sites listed in the Good section of my external links may not be here 50 years from now. Will Jerome Corsi’s Where’s the Birth Certificate? still be in print. Will new birthers appear when I’m long in the ground, from reading Corsi’s book and finding nothing in their contemporary literature to rebut it? Will some future Arthur become a birther?
I wrote in my 2010 article, “Is there anything to be done?”, that the answer may not lie in preserving our arguments, but in working to promote critical thinking among the people as a whole. That would be a more worthy legacy.
I want to close this reflection with a verse from a hymn by Johann Heermann (1585 – 1647) to suggest that sometimes the best of our thought persists:
Keep me from saying words that later need recalling; guard me, lest idle speech may from my lips be falling;but when, within my place, I must and ought to speak, then to my words give grace, lest I offend the weak.