“Jesus’ Wife” Fragment: A Continuing Puzzle
A few weeks ago I asked here what further news there was about the so-called “Jesus’ wife” fragment announced to the world in late summer 2012. Since then, despite direct inquiry to Prof. King (the email address listed for her no longer valid) and asking several scholars who were in various ways directly involved in the analysis of the item last year, it has proven impossible to get anything further than the last notice about it given in early 2013, that it was undergoing further “tests”. (How long does it take to conduct such tests, after all?)
We do know that the article on the fragment by Prof. King on the fragment announced as forthcoming in Harvard Theological Review was put on hold, and, so far as one can tell, seems now likely permanently so (i.e., it isn’t going to appear). It also seems that the TV programme in preparation last year has been cancelled (so far as one can tell, again, without any formal notice given).
I can say that I have some direct sense of the sort of reviewer judgments about the fragment solicited by HTR that likely prompted the editorial decision not to proceed with the article. There were thereafter full-length analyses published by various scholars that were also largely critical of the authenticity of the item, the study by Prof. Francis Watson having had a particular impact and available online here. Indeed, I am informed that a number of leading experts in ancient Coptic dialects also judged the fragment suspicious or even a fake.
Now, to my knowledge, no one has accused Prof. King of having any involvement in the production of the item, so let that be emphasized. If it is a fake, she was taken in, not guilty of anything else. These things can happen, and have happened before. Just think of the notorious case of the “Hitler Diaries” and poor Hugh Trevor-Roper!
But that comparison illustrates my puzzlement over the Jesus’ wife fragment. In the case of the “Hitler Diaries,” Der Spiegel and Trevor-Roper acknowledged that they’d been taken in, and got it initially wrong. They didn’t simply go quiet and hope that it would all die away. They set the public record straight. So, if in fact, after initially reported to have accepted King’s article for publication, HTR has now decided otherwise, why not say so publicly? And if the weight of scholarly opinion is largely that the item is not a genuine text from some ancient Christian person/circle but instead a modern fake, shouldn’t that be registered properly? Having publicized the item to the roof, shouldn’t Harvard Divinity School now update things a bit and indicate whether the institution still affirms Prof. King’s initial proposal or recognizes the widespread scholarly judgment that it is an unsafe item?
I am told of a recent conversation with a leading scholar of ancient Christianity who is sympathetic to the initial claims about the fragment, and who as of a few weeks ago professed to be unaware that major scholarly critiques had been lodged against it. That’s curious, isn’t it? Debate about an item central to this scholar’s area of interest, and the scholar is unaware of it? So, do we have some sort of “tribalization” of scholarship, in which one simply doesn’t pay attention to those scholars who take a line different from what you prefer, or what?
One scholar central in the critique of the fragment to whom I expressed my puzzlement over the silence about the matter simply shrugged, opining that pretty much everyone in the know recognizes that the fragment has been discredited and now those who initially proffered it just hope that people will forget the earlier claims. If they stay silent long enough, he suggested, we’ll all move on. Well, that’s one way to handle the matter, I guess. Call me naive, but I still think that the standards of good scholarship require us to keep the record up to date, to admit valid criticisms of our ideas and claims, to admit when we get something wrong, or, in this case, may have been duped, or whatever. Trevor-Roper did so, and I respect him the more for it.