Biblical studies is a strange field. On the one hand, there are scholars who spend their lives immersed in the original language of the text, retracing, if possible, the cultural and linguistic influences upon the canon of Scripture. On the other hand, you have the scholars who spend their careers caught up in the archaeological race to discover or have first publishing credits of "something new and thus far unseen." For persons interested in the cultural and linguistic questions, the Anchor Bible commentary series is a fine place to start. It's the trademark of the series; biblical texts set to at times linguistically tortuous commentaries. If you have an academic background in theology or biblical studies, you likely find the series a rewarding read - there is always some obscure element to the text one can walk away with. However, for the general reading market, works purporting explosive archaeological discoveries or manuscript finds dominate the field.
The trend began in the 1945 with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices, a cache of Christian Gnostic documents found in Egypt which supplied scholars with a collection of previously unknown documents from the early stages of Christianity's formation. The trend was solidified in place by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, a large collection of canonical and extra canonical texts and, technically speaking, the earliest manuscript evidence of many of the books in the Hebrew Bible. Both discoveries were anything but humdrum academic affairs. The Nag Hammadi Codices were subject to an interesting chain of custody, starting with the individual alleged to have found the manuscripts and their eventual appearance on the antiquities market. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, were the subject of legend. Locked away from public access behind agreements with major universities, publishing contracts and academic egos, it took an active campaign by a new generation of scholars in the early 1990s to get all of the material published in facsimile format for universal access. The drawn out process spawned rumors of a secret Vatican cover-up and the discovery of potentially explosive revelations with regard to the origins of Christianity. The end result is that discovering new texts or being associated with the first publication of new texts is the goal of every scholar. To the degree that it can result in flashy headlines regarding the origins of Christianity or the real Jesus, the better. One's career and future publication deals will be set.
In 2006 the whole process came under scrutiny with the publication of the so-called Gospel of Judas by the National Geographic Society. The manuscript was subject to a somewhat suspicious chain of custody and access to the manuscript was limited to National Geographic's select group of scholars. There was no opportunity for peer review when the Gospel of Judas was published. The community of international Coptic scholars severely critiqued the translation supplied by the Nat Geo. team, some going to far as to say the whole thing was a mistranslation. The story behind the first appearance of Gospel of Judas questioned the long standard manner by which ancient texts come light in biblical studies - normally through private, and illegal, dealings on the antiquities market.
Flash forward to September 19th and 20th 2012. On September 19th, Harvard scholar Dr. Karen King announced the publication of a new Coptic fragment mentioned Jesus' wife. King cautioned that the fragment could not be used to argue whether or not Jesus was married. In fact, composed so late as it was, the text had no value for research into the historical Jesus, it was however an indicator of the wide variety of early Christian beliefs. Twenty-four hours later, the scholarly community has expressed its collective skepticism over King's alleged findings. Put bluntly, something stinks about the "discovery" of this text in the estimation of many scholars. The text has no known provenance, no traceable history to speak of. There is no record in any ancient sources that allude to anything like the text in Egypt. The grammar, according to some Coptic scholars, does not read as it should and the letters themselves do not coincide with the date deduced by King. Finally, there is the suspicion as to the motives for the private owner of the text suddenly appearing. To her credit, Karen King, aside from cautioning anyone from over estimating the value the text has for discovering the Jesus of history, had the text examined by two papyrologists who concluded the the papyrus was authentic. King has also stated she welcomes any criticism from her colleagues to determine the origin of the fragment.
Several things must be noted stemming from the whirlwind of news surrounding this fragment. First, the antiquities market from which so many texts in biblical studies derive is ridden with ethical violations, sketchy characters, and shady motives. The acquisition of these texts often involves violations of law, dubious chains of custody and mysterious private collectors whose motives, origins and relationship to manuscript are unknown. Second, and related to the first, is the motivation behind these manuscripts suddenly appearing. Financial gain is an obvious reason, although it seems to me that many of the figures responsible for bringing certain manuscripts to light spend an inordinate amount of time trying to forge them. It is tempting to think that the unknown provenance, the characters of the collectors involved and the tangled web of international law violations involved in acquiring the manuscript point towards concerted attempts to get certain material out all the while leaving the question of where the material comes from hanging in the air. Third, while I doubt Karen King's scholarly reputation will be seriously damaged by this fiasco, it does necessarily question the integrity of the university and the scholarly process. In biblical studies and theology in general, professors fight for tenure and the professional recognition, all for a salary that is comparatively low when examined along side other fields. One may legitimately ask if the American way of doing tenure has finally begun to get in the way of good scholarship. Fourth, there is a cultural appeal to the notion that Jesus may have experienced the full spectrum of human existence, including sexuality. The notion that the culture is becoming secular and thus disdainful of religion is, to my mind, proven a somewhat fallacious idea. The traditional forms of religion are coming under scrutiny, but the interest surrounding any theory of who Jesus really was or is demonstrates that a peasant Jew from Nazareth remains the figure upon which the Western world pivots.
It is, admittedly, impossible not to run with the speculation that maybe, just maybe, this papyrus reveals something about the real Jesus, even if Dr. Karen King has protested to the contrary. Invariably, a story like this, rather than focusing on the underbelly of biblical scholarship, leads certain religionists to pathologically, if not neurotically, defend their denomination's prescriptions regarding marriage and sexuality - specifically if mandatory celibacy is a feature. The papyrus, if authentic, provides yet another attestation to the variety of early Christian conceptions of Jesus, some of which have been preserved in canonical texts, others expunged, one becoming the dominant model of orthodox Christianity. If authentic, the significance has little to do with the real Jesus, a man who is largely lost to history. Rather its significance resides in the way in which the text represents the varied memories early churches had of Jesus. This does not mean that the dominant model is untrue as far as objective historical fact is concerned. The Jesus of history is largely obscured under an avalanche of orthodox and heterodox confessions. This latest papyrus, if authentic, is yet another example of creedal confession over historical data about Jesus. It is thus impossible, from a historian's perspective, to make a definitive judgment regarding who the historical Jesus is - there is almost nothing left of the historical Jesus preserved in the available early Christian texts. What remains is the Jesus of faith and one can either say the married Jesus is as good as any other, or one can attempt to identify the earliest creedal interpretations of Jesus and compare all subsequent development with the earliest available material. The dominant model as well as rejected models must be compared in the continuum of Christian belief, compared with the earliest articulations of belief - it is there where one can find truth and falsehood.