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The “Jesus’ Wife” Controversy: Scholarship, Publicity, and The Issues

May 6, 2014

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.

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  1. Ouch! István , you’re right. Since English is not my mother tongue, I got it wrong.. It will *hardly* happen again, promised! 🙂
    Yes, we’re in total agreement. Somewhere else I already drew comparison between the labeling of GJW and the Papyrus Egerton 2. As you know, such Papyri (few fragments, actually) represent an original, ancient witness much more interesting, mysterious, and scholarly relevant than the dubious GJW patchwork.
    Sometimes is also called “Uknown Gospel”, for the good reason that – unlike the GJW –it actually *was* a real genuine Gospel! Nevertheless, it rests almost unknown somewhere between England and Germany.. Guess why? Papyrus Egerton 2 *definitely* lacks a fancy name! The reason is that “serious scholarship” simply gave a thing its proper name.

    Check the following link with the first publication (ah, the good old days!): do you think that Smithsonian Channel would invest money on such a documentary? Or maybe there are too many Greek hieroglyphs there? 😉

    Click to access bell01.pdf

    Serious scholarship and money (=Fox documentary) *hardly* go together, because “no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both [Serious Scholarship] and mammon”.
    Oops, sorry, Bart Ehrman is calling me for complaining – be right back.. 😉

  2. There is something odious about scholarship by press release or quotes given for attribution to journalists. One can easily get the impression from the press that Bagnall thinks GJW should be considered genuine, prima facie, because no other forged papyrus (the sort labelled “forgery” in the inventory) makes sense, none, that is, is written in intelligible Greek or Coptic. Unnuanced in any way, without footnoted concessions that he knows of examples of simulated ancient writing that do make sense, but thinks them inapplicable for this or that reason, what else can he mean? News papers don’t like nuance and don’t use footnotes, though. When scholars speak to journos, something always gets lost in translation. Some years ago, a British journalist wrote a number of sensational claims that he attributed to Dirk Obbink, which Dirk had not said at all. It may well be Roger has forgotten, or didn’t know about the C. Simonides forgeries in the Mayer Collection in Liverpool’s World Museum (btw, it would be amazing if anyone looked at those papyri and came to the conclusion C. Simonides also wrote P.Artemid.—I think no one looked, though). If so, his argument as to GJW’s authenticity collapses. If he argued that skeptics must have ideological reasons for their opinions, then that’s just silly.

  3. Many thanks for your helpful reflections, Larry. A minor point about timing, but one which makes your point more strongly: the Smithsonian documentary was originally scheduled to go out on 30 September 2012, i.e. a week and a half after the announcement about the fragment on 18 September. It’s clear that the timing of the announcement was at least in part a question of providing a lead-in to the documentary (though it was to Smithsonian’s credit that they postponed the documentary as major doubts were being aired about authenticity). The documentary itself, which finally aired on Monday night, was — as Mike Grondin says — “embarrassingly outdated”. The only material added in 2014 appeared to be a minute at the end focusing on the material tests, including the claim that there was no evidence that it was a modern forgery. I hope to blog a round-up later.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    There is something slightly dizzying about scholars of antiquity being conclusively contradicted by hard evidence. Most of the time it’s just matters of opinion, a shift of nuance here, a change of emphasis there. I don’t think they quite know how to deal with egg on their face because it’s such a rare occurrence to be proved conclusively wrong in this field.

  5. W. Andrew Smith permalink

    At this point, can you think of any reason for King not to provide full disclosure and release the remaining materials?

    • Her only reason would be constraints imposed/demanded by the anonymous source of the items.

  6. None of this surprises me one bit. Not a good day for scholarship.

  7. Larry – may I somewhat immodestly suggest my own page as a good way to keep up-to-date on the JWF 2014 story?

  8. M. Peppard permalink

    We got to do some Coptic papyrology on CNN live this morning. It was quite fun:

  9. Don’t be surprised, look at the amphora on a Jewish ossuary discovered in the Talpiot tomb in 1981 in which an academic from one of the universities in North Carolina, decided that it was actually a fish, named Jonah. They claimed that they discovered it in 2010, ignoring the fact that it had been published in 1981, as an amphora. To make matters worse, the UNC team co-opted a professor from the dept of anthropology for reasons of ‘scientific oversight’, with no experience whatsoever in Jewish tombs, nor was ever on site. When people complained, the university fell silent, evidently due to those non-disclosure agreements and preferred to be silent on the whole affair.

    • Joe, Don’t take offence but I edited your comment, removing some statements that might be . . . actionable. I can’t afford lawyers!

  10. Thanks. A very minor note on “jive with.” Usually “jibe with” means to agree. “Jive talk” is, well, unreliable, so maybe….

    • Thanks. But the Oxford English Dictionary lists “jive with” as an American alternate to “jibe with”. Nevertheless, I shall ever hereafter say/write “jibe with”.

  11. In my modest opinion we will be closer to the truth when we will know *who* insisted, decided (or was convinced) to name such fragment “Gospel of Jesus Wife”.
    It’s not just a small detail, cause such title is completely unjustified and – interesting enough – dr. King seems to be perfectly aware of it. In fact in her article recently published, she feels the urge to clarify that: “Solely for purposes of reference, the fragment is given the title The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW)”. [footnote:] “… Nor does it imply that GJW was the title in antiquity, or that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion.”

    So Jesus’ wife is not even a significant topic of discussion!? And you title a small fragment of a (supposed) “Gospel” like that?

    Mmmh 🙂

    • Very good point, Lorenzo971! I have also been wondering: let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that we did not have any copies of the fourth canonical gospel, and would not know of its existence at all. And then one fine day, someone would discover a papyrus fragment containing John 12:14. Without any offence: would it be immediately labelled as “The Gospel of the Donkey”? No. At best, it would be referred to as “The Donkey Fragment” or something similar. Or, if we had only Mark 11:13 of the whole gospel, nobody would call it “The Gospel of the Fig Tree”. I am also convinced – especially after finally having seen the Smithsonian Channel documentary (what a monumental waste of time!) – that the initial labelling of the fragment was hardly accidental. Frankly, I found the documentary simply pathetic. To quote its last concluding statement: “in short, there is much new evidence for its [i.e. GJW] authenticity, and none [sic!] that it’s a modern forgery”. Without even dignifying this utterly biased “conclusion” with any answer, I simply stand by my initial assessment: on the evening of May 5th the better choice (even for serious scholars of Ancient Christianity) would have been watching Jack Bauer heading into his ninth intense day: at times it felt far less packed with fiction than the Smithsonian “documentary”. I think the folks at Fox should run an episode when Jack Bauer catches a few of these nasty and so far unmasked modern forgers of ancient papyri and “interrogates” them for at least 5 minutes… 🙂

      • “the initial labelling of the fragment was hardly accidental”. Really? Maybe. But when King decided to use such name in the published article, it’s been a personal decision – not an accident.
        King made clear that such title is not justified in any way, and she used it “solely for purposes of reference”: the problem is that such name IS indisputably *deceiving* ! I don’t see how it’s possible to think that such decision was made without knowing that such name is deceiving. It’s not illegal, of course, but it’s not “serious scholarship” in my opinion. As a divertissement, that’s fine.

      • Dear lorenzo971: I think you might have misread my sentence, which you quote in your reply, since my point was meant to strengthen yours. Although my mother tongue is not English, I think my choice of words “the initial labelling of the fragment was HARDLY accidental” suggested clearly that in my opinion the naming of the fragment was NOT an accident at all, but rather a somewhat clever method to direct our attention towards the issue of Jesus’s marital status within the fragment. It may not be a deliberate deception, but it is certainly a title which unnecessarily diverts the attention, especially when this title is part of the news headlines surrounding the whole debate.

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