Rugby players, as we know, are a tough bunch. As the bumper sticker says, they eat their dead (even if the film version used tofu legs); the modern sport was born when William Webb Ellis, a student at the Rugby School in Rugby, England, violated all the rules of football and civilized conduct by picking up the ball and running with it. The play soon became accepted, but one imagines that Webb Ellis was promptly and soundly thrashed. Rugby students didn’t have to eat their dead, but one imagines they were a touch bunch as well. Under the tutelage of Thomas Arnold, an ordained deacon in the Church of England, who preached that manliness was Christian and Christianity manly. Arnold, the headmaster at Rugby during the early nineteenth century, was the chief proponent of what came to be known as "muscular Christianity" (the phrase comes from a review of Tom Brown’s School Days, a schoolboy novel about Arnold’s Rugby). Arnold felt that the church of his days was effete, emasculated, aesthetic. His Jesus, the one he taught his charges about, was no rose of Sharon or lily of the valleys. Arnold’s Jesus was representative of schoolboy virtues: athleticism, honesty, giving things the good college try. His was the Jesus of the moneychangers in the temple and the Harrowing of Hell. The Harrowing of Hell answers a few questions that might have bothered the fathers of the Church as they argued about doctrine. If Christ’s death had been required to save the world from original sin, what happened to all the people mentioned in the Bible? Your average ancient dictator or peasant toiling in the fields might belong in Hell, but what about the prophets? What about the Hebrew kings? And what was Jesus up to for the three days before the resurrection? Two questions had a single answer. As Virgil puts it in Canto IV of The Inferno:
I was new to that estate
When I beheld a puissant one arrive
Amongst us, with victorious trophy crown’d.
He forth the shade of our first parent drew,
Abel, his child, and Noah righteous man…
And others many more, whom He to bliss
Exalted. Before these, be thou assured,
No spirit of human kind was ever saved.
Jesus’ raid on hell was a gripping image, and it proved remarkably popular in medieval theater, most notably in the Chester cycle of Passion plays. It also was a completely spurious addition to doctrine. The Gospel of Nicodemus is a gnostic text that asserts itself to be a document from the days of Pontius Pilate. It lies. Archaeological evidence of Pilate’s life exists, but the Gospel of Nicodemus, the document that introduced the idea of the Harrowing of Hell into Christian theology, was a fake.
Forgeries of religious artifacts, from papal letters to fragments of the True Cross, were never uncommon. Within the pilgrimage culture of early modern Europe, the trade in forged relics was established enough that Chaucer gave the Pardoner a sackful. An ossuary that had references to James and Jesus made quite a stir until the engravings were revealed to have been chiseled in using modern tools; archaeologists have dubbed the trade in faked artifacts in the Middle East the "Jerusalem Syndrome." The Donation of Constantine was perhaps the most fabulously successful forgery in history, putting the astounding greed of a James Reavis to shame. But the Gospel of Nicodemus is a fourth century forgery; the fourth century was the time of the Council of Sardica, the Council of Constantinople, and the Council of Nicaea, which produced the Nicene Creed as well as an immense amount of scholarly infighting, as bishops attempted to come up with definitive answers about basic questions of Christian doctrine. Was Jesus a man or God or both (followers of Arius lost the argument there, which the Nicene creed uses the words "consubstantial with")? What was the Holy Ghost? Coming up with a document that identified itself as dating from the time of the Gospels would have been enormously valuable ammunition in these arguments. The motivation to fake it, therefore, may not have been so much monetary as theological.
One doesn’t have to look far to think of people willing to bend evidence to prove something they know to be right. Believers in the Bible’s literal truth think that Noah’s ark existed as a physical object; some might even feel called to build a replica or go to Turkey searching for it. But it takes a certain sort of assured self-delusion to take wood, soak it in teriyaki sauce, and pass it off to credulous observers as the proof the world has been waiting for; a man named George Jammal did just that. In a world with carbon dating, a spice rub is not going to convince most people for long. Dante consigned forgers to a leprous pit, but the problems go beyond violating the ninth commandment. A forgery done to persuade the general public is probably going to backfire spectacularly. Arguments can persuade; evidence can persuade; forgery, as Thomas Arnold might have told his charges on a Sunday morning, just isn’t cricket.