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Out of Date? Indifferent? What?

June 17, 2016

Checking this a.m., I was surprised and disappointed to find that the web page on the Jesus’ Wife fragment on the Harvard Divinity School site (last updated March 2014) here simply re-asserts the claims that Professor King made in the 2014 Harvard Theological Review issue in which certain physical tests of the papyrus and ink were reported.  There is no mention of the several weighty judgements by various specialists in Coptic (e.g., Stephen Emmel), and in related matters (e.g., Christopher Jones, Christian Askeland, Francis Watson) that the item is inauthentic.

It is a very curious situation.  Wouldn’t one expect of a highly prestigious university that the scholarly discussion of the matter would be kept up to date, that scholarly work pro and con would be reported, and that an accurate picture of critical opinion would be given?  Given the obvious expenditure of time and effort to set up this page on the fragment, why the apparent neglect of it and of the scholarly discussion that has ensued?

It means that one cannot view the HDS page/site as at all an accurate representation of the scholarly process or results on this matter.  As I say, surprising and disappointing.

LATE BREAKING NEWS:  Professor King is reported as conceding that the evidence now points to the Jesus’ wife fragment being a fake, as stated here.

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  1. There has now been a brief update on the Harvard page by the Dean of the Divinity School.

    The key paragraph, at the end, reads, “The mission of Harvard Divinity School, its faculty, and higher education more generally is to pursue truth through scholarship, investigation, and vigorous debate. HDS is therefore grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians, and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment. HDS welcomes these contributions and will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve.”

    Considering that Harvard and the Smithsonian should have never proceeded even slightly with backing any study of the fragment without ascertaining as much as possible about the provenance, I am not prepared to grant them any slack, nor Dr. King either. She isn’t some naive farmwife who bought a scrap from Fritz’ wife off the internet, she holds an important chair in one of the most important faculties on Earth. The Smithsonian had already produced a glossy little documentary about the historical importance of this thing (when even if legitimate it had no importance whatever to anyone other than late Coptic paleographers), without even having done the carbon dating yet (if I recall correctly), much moreso without checking the provenance thoroughly.

    • Yes, it does seem that people were a bit too anxious for publicity and insufficiently concerned to check out everything fully, such as the character of the source of the item.

  2. What I think is interesting is that scientific tests are vaunted above humanistic (philological) analysis. Is this just scientism (that the scientific is truer and more robust)? Sure, the scientific results go some way to support a case for authenticity, but they’re partial. Is it that some have been misled to believe partial proofs of greater substance because they come in lab coats?

    If a victory is to be had, perhaps it’s one for old-fashioned philology. Those people who study and compare actual manuscripts, and who know instinctively the telltale signs that date and place a manuscript, ringing alarm bells at glaring inconsistencies.

    • Gareth: I dissent from your broad characterization of things. The “scientific” tests published in HTR were only able to test the approx. age of the papyrus and the composition of the ink. Those who raised questions about the fragment did so on the basis of the features of the “hand” and, more importantly, indications that it had been copied from a modern published work. Further, the other fragment tested proved to have been copied also from a modern edition of GJohn in Coptic. In short, we don’t have opposing results, only results addressing different questions.

      • Yes, of course the scientific tests addressed different questions. It is the sociology of how their partial answers were used. The evidence that the texts were almost certainly copied from recent online documents should have all but closed the case against authenticity. Yet this rumbled on, with those lab results being used as a fig leaf to cover authenticity claims.

  3. A lot of official university and college webpages go unrevised during the summer, because the student aides are gone. But this is a special case, so I hope they do something about it immediately.

    So I called the place and tried to find somebody to mention the webpage to, but didn’t have much luck…. Of course, it’s Friday in the summer, so everybody is probably gone for the weekend already.

  4. I think this overestimates the attention and care webpages like this receive. If I had to guess, based on my own experience working on the marketing side of higher education, no one on the academic side of the divinity school is running the website, which means any changes need to be made by an IT or web marketing employee on an as-requested basis. But once a webpage has been created and the initial furor is passed, no one whose job is teaching, researching and writing is really thinking about a webpage they may have reviewed or drafted some text for two years ago.

    So the people running the website have a lot of current pages to keep updated – especially ones for admissions, financial aid, fundraising, etc. – and aren’t paying much attention to old pages they created years ago, and the people who should tell them about the changes that need to be made are busy with their day jobs and responding to real-world inquiries from journalists and colleagues, and also not paying much attention to old pages created years ago.

    Maybe this post will work its way to someone at the school, and they’ll revise the page or remove it entirely. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it languishes in limbo for a while longer. Even really nice-looking pages are just little pieces of a sprawling leviathan of a university’s web domain, and if no one has a primary responsibility to look after it, it will sit there, no matter how important its upkeep may seem from the outside.

  5. I have a quick question: I want to know how scholars determined the literacy rate in 1st century Palestine. Where would I post such a question for Dr. Hurtado to answer?

    • For a set of scholarly views on Roman-era literacy generally: Beard, Mary, et al. Literacy in the Roman World. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement Series, no. 3 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1991).
      For an argument about literacy in Jewish Palestine: Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. TSAJ, 81 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001). But some have judged her estimate of Jewish literacy too low: e.g., Wright, Brian J. “Ancient Literacy in New Testament Research: Incorporating a Few More Lines of Inquiry.” Trinity Journal 36NS (2015): 1-29.

  6. The fact that King says simply the fraudulent thing is ‘probably’ a forgery means she still thinks it is potentially authentic. Pet theories are hard to give up when all you have is a faked fragment to support them. King had a notion, was given a bit of supporting ‘proof’, and latched on to it with all she had. It’s shameful for a scholar to act that way.

    • Well, perhaps “regrettable” or “unfortunate” or something such, rather than “shameful”. Seems a but harsh to me. We are, after all, fallible humans, even those of us at prestigious universities.

      • fair enough.

      • Timothy Joseph permalink

        Dr. H.,

        That we are! Yet Dr. King does not help getting herself the benefit of the doubt when her response limits her current opinion on the evidence to “it presses toward forgery” and she hopes that the papyrus can stay at Havard so scholars can continue to probe questions of authenticity. It would be easier to see fallible humanity if Dr. King would acknowledge the error.


  7. Not at all what one would expect of the website of a serious and impartial academic institution, which is what I had always assumed that Harvard Divinity School was. It is to be hoped that in response to your posting they will now revise the page in question.

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