The “Jesus’ Wife” Controversy: Scholarship, Publicity, and The Issues
As I indicated in my previous posting here, the “story” about the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment (and the other items in the small cache of papyri placed with Prof. Karen King) seems now increasingly clearly one of fakery and deception. To their credit, the news media that so eagerly took up the Harvard Divinity School’s press releases and pronounced the fragment one of the most important discoveries about early Christianity of all time, have now begun to pick up on the evidence of fakery.
I’ve previously cited a few recent stories, and there is now another recent one, a 05 May story in the Washington Post here. For more links, see Mark Goodacre’s “roundup” of developments here, which includes a link to the PBS interview with Michael Peppard here.
Update: Although cited in a recent New York Times article as still entertaining the authenticity of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, Malcolm Choat actually grants the force of the recent analyses that appear conclusively to show that the Coptic Gospel of John fragment is a fake. And he grants also that this strengthens considerably the likelihood that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment is fake as well. (This based on email exchanges with him as of today, 06 May.)
To her credit, Prof. King is quoted as granting that the recent analyses are substantive and that there are now further and real questions to answer. Understandably, however, she has not surrendered fully to the recent analyses, adding “This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.”
Well, no. It won’t fully be a “done deal” until all the items in the cache given to her are fully put up for scholarly analysis, all the purported supporting documents about the items are put into public domain, and the coy owner of the items comes forward (or is identified) to answer the questions that have been raised. In short, Prof. King may have a key role in seeing that things are fully aired. Then, we can all have a “done deal.”
One of the real questions from which we may all learn something is how this apparent fakery was pulled off, how an eminent scholar and a recognized university seem to have been taken in, and with such enthusiasm. It is now reported that the papyri fragments were handed to Prof. King as far back as 2011 or even 2010. She says that she showed the Jesus’ Wife fragment to a couple of recognized scholars who indicated that, to all appearances, it seemed genuine. That was a good first step.
Her next step (also good) was to present her own “take” on the fragment to the conference of Coptic specialists in Rome in August 2012. Scholars present their findings and analyses at such events to get critique, to test their warrants, and then to see if their views stand up and are affirmed. She also submitted her conference paper for publication in Harvard Theological Review. (Apparently, however, the readers’ reports on the paper were such that HTR put a hold on publication of it.)
But it is now clear that well before that conference, well before readers’ reports on the paper, the Smithsonian Channel had been brought in to produce a TV documentary. This was originally scheduled to be aired in late 2012, well before the subsequent scientific testing that was reported finally in the recent issue of Harvard Theological Review, well before any other item in the cache of papyri was made available for examination (in particular, the Coptic Gospel of John fragment that now seems to have unravelled the whole fabric of the fakery). In short, it now looks like there was some kind of plan, perhaps responding to some kind of pressure, to go “viral” on this fragment, to get maximum media publicity for what now seem rather obviously to have been insufficiently tested claims. This was the classic “rush to judgment.”
So, another part of the “story” that is now unfolding is what were the pressures, and from whom? We who work in universities know that there is now pressure to publicize one’s research work, and sometimes at as early a stage as possible. Did somebody judge, “Hey, this will get us headlines! Let’s go for it!”? If so, there’s a salutary lesson to be learned.
Perhaps the only sour note in the recent developments was expressed by Roger Bagnall (one of those to whom Prof. King showed the fragment at a very early stage and who judged it genuine). When asked about the mounting case that the fragment is a fake, he is quoted as saying, “Most of the people taking this view wanted it to be a fake, and they haven’t asked critical questions about their own hypothesis.” Yeah, well Roger, that cuts both ways!
For one factor in the initial less-than-fully-cautious handling of the fragment by those who hailed it as some new discovery might have been an over-eagerness to get something apparently sensational, perhaps even to seize on something that “jibed” with one’s own interests and appeared to support one’s emphases. In short, the initial victims in what now appears to be a cruel deception may have been insufficiently self-critical, insufficiently suspicious.
We (or at least I) don’t get the Smithsonian Channel here in the UK, so I don’t know what was aired last night in the USA. From the trailer, it appears that the programme may have acknowledged now that serious questions have been raised, although these likely weren’t allowed to get in the way of the sensational claims preferred by the producers.
In any case, the real issues remain to be faced, not in TV shows but in the traditional scholarly (and respectful) exchange of views, solid critique, and open and full disclosure of all the relevant data.