Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Coptic papyrus, a scholar's reputation on the line and Jesus' wife

Dr. Karen King from Harvard University is taking it on the chin, so to speak. A week after the brief media sensation over the alleged fourth century Coptic papyrus Karen King dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," Dr. King and her papyrus are facing strong scholarly rejection of her findings published and publicized in numerous quarters (the Vatican, not surprisingly, included).

Once again, I must note that Karen King did not claim the papyrus had any relevance related to the historical Jesus - her claim was strictly related to the wide cache of beliefs circulating among early Christian communities. The debate circles around whether or not the papyrus itself is an obvious forgery that an experiences scholar or established university should have recognized. Francis Watson is one such scholar who has raised substantial claims against the material authenticity of the document - a complete index of his articles composed since the document was publicized can be found here.

The news cycle of "Jesus' Wife" has transformed at an alarming pace. As I mentioned above, Karen King is certainly taking it on the chin with this one. The story has gone from the "breaking news" a newly discovered historical document to questioning the integrity of an academic institution, salvaging a scholar's reputation and legitimate concern about the academic process itself.

Some scholars immediately questioned how Harvard University could have so readily given legitimacy to a document of unknown origin - one of at least three major red flags that should have come to mind when reviewing the document. Now there are conflicting reports that Harvard Theological Review has reneged on publishing Karen King's article on the fragment, largely based upon the scholarly rejection of the fragment's authenticity. No less an expert than Helmut Koester, King's colleague at HDS and a professor emeritus, has stated his opinion that the document is a forgery. Which would, in my mind, raise another question. Harvard University has numerous scholars in Early Christianity more than qualified to analyze the fragment. Given the university's own role in publicizing the fragment, it would have been a sensible decision to consult some of its other in house experts regarding the authenticity of the fragment. Granted, in academia this would violate long held notions of proprietary scholarship, however, in the real world this is a matter of quality control, the absence of which normally spells financial downfall for any given firm.

Karen King, though fully tenured at Harvard, has potentially entered a fight to salvage her scholarly reputation. King has had a long history of publishing solid articles and monographs on gnostic Christianity, although her recent book on the Apochyrphon of John entertained some interpretations that were less certain than earlier efforts. Nevertheless, she has long held a reputation as a reliable scholar, avoiding the existential/spiritual meltdown that ensnared Elaine Pagels (see, Pagels, Elaine. Beyond Belief.), her better known colleague in the field with a significant popular audience. King, unlike Pagels, seemed to shy away from a subjective interaction with the material, maintaining a proper distance so as not to skew her writings. How, then, could Karen King have allowed herself to be ensnared in such a mess? Academia, to be sure, can be unforgiving when the scent of blood is whiffed. The dogs are out and they, in a scholarly manner, readily tearing King's reputation to shreds. Early reports indicated that the presentation of the papyrus was timed with the premiere of a television special on the topic. Did the potential media crossover effect Karen King's scholarly process? At the very least, this incident as well as the previous media hoopla and resulting backlash over the Gospel of Judas have raised ethical questions as to the appropriateness of private media sponsors  backing or otherwise influencing the scholarly community. Academic propriety is one thing, corporate propriety, however, is of a far greater magnitude with a legal process to match. It is to be noted that details of what arrangement, if any, existed with the television company allegedly premiering a program on the same theme, Dr. King, or Harvard University have not, to the best of my knowledge, been published.

Media cross-over aside, the story raises substantial concerns over the academic process itself. That Karen King or any scholar of religion/theology would want to be associated with the "discovery" and publication of a previously unknown ancient work is not surprising. Most academics, especially in religion, will live and die in relative obscurity. Tenure is not, in of itself, a sure sign of reputation. Scholars must either steadily produce a body of scholarship that defines their field during their lifetime or pursue the avenues of popular publication or "discovery." In effect, both acquiring fame through popular publication, making it on to bestsellers lists like Ehrman or Pagels, and being associated with the discovery of some previously unknown text are the equivalent to sheer luck. No one knows what the publishing trends will be nor where the next previously unknown manuscript will come from. Although when the opportunity presents itself, one has to take it. There is a common opinion, spurred by such conspiracy books as the Sion Revelation and the Templar Revelation, that scholars are too stubborn to entertain or publish "evidence" that Jesus was married, had children, liked bowling, etc. In reality, any scholar would jump at the chance to publish material that either credibly suggested that Jesus was married or that at least demonstrated early Christians believed him to have been so. The news of the past week aptly demonstrates my contention to be true. Karen King, in effort that, plainly, reads as an attempt to save face, has said the backlash against her presentation is the scholarly process in action. True, to an extent.

In my opinion, and this is just an opinion, the quest for reputation, an intrinsic part of the academic process, may well have wielded undue influence over Karen King's methodology. This was an opportunity to be at the forefront of releasing a previously unpublished and unknown ancient text (with some possible media crossover). There were numerous indications that should have given King pause and appeal to her colleagues at Harvard - of course, the moment she did so she would no longer have sole discovery credits or initial publication. The tradition of academic propriety prevented necessary quality control from being applied. There are at least three red flags that should have popped up when reviewing the document. I would also add the old saying, "if something is to good to be true, it probably is." Of the cache of Coptic documents we have, nothing explicitly refers to Jesus' wife. Every supposed "proof" that Jesus had a wife is typically read into the text by a modern audience. The text of the recently published fragment seems to readily give the reader what he or she wants - there is something about it that reads a little too obvious, especially when compared to other Coptic texts. Even if the text didn't reveal anything about the historical Jesus, it would have an immediate audience because it so directly gets to subject matter that has captivated popular culture in the West for some time now. In my opinion, that is.

The final response to the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" has likely yet to be written. Barring incontrovertible evidence pointing to authenticity (in the form of chemical analysis of the ink), Karen King will provide some diplomatically worded additions to her already 52 page article on the fragment in a bid to save face. I suspect, however, she will let the fragment slip into obscurity after the January 2013 publication of her article. There is probably a story behind the story waiting to be told, if not for the production of the fragment itself, then one outlining the decision process behind Karen King's decision to pursue the research leading to the media expose of September 18th, 2012.