Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jesus' Wife : The Final Chapter?

Heading into Holy Week 2014, Professor Karen King of Harvard University seemed to have been redeemed. The much maligned Coptic fragment purporting to mention Jesus' Wife appeared to have been validated by a round of scientific testing. The media sweep was occasioned by a press release from Harvard Theological Review. The press release, from a scholar's perspective, was somewhat wanting. Little to no data was disclosed about the testing pool nor other pieces in the cache of documents acquired by King. Of course, King and the journal performed due diligence in noting that the document revealed nothing about the historical Jesus, rather that some sects of Christianity entertained the idea of a married Jesus. The irrelevance of the fragment to the historical Jesus was demonstrated by the probable date of the papyrus itself, landing from the late seventh to early tenth century. So things rested, at least for the general public, the media, and, momentarily, for Karen King.

Yet, the world of Biblical scholarship and textual studies is extremely cut-throat, populated by the somewhat fragile egos and strict skepticism. Any discovery that is not one's own is met with rigorous peer review; in a short time, one's reputation can be either enshrined in tribute monographs or symposiums, or it can be battered by rounds of repudiation until one is sufficiently humbled for the remainder of one's career. In sum, roughly two weeks later, the other shoe dropped.

I won't go into all of the details of the analysis which seems to leave little doubt that the text is a forgery, although, as one who knows Coptic, this excerpt struck a particularly relevant chord,

Then last week the story began to crumble faster than an ancient papyrus exposed in the windy Sudan. Mr. Askeland found, among the online links that Harvard used as part of its publicity push, images of another fragment, of the Gospel of John, that turned out to share many similarities—including the handwriting, ink and writing instrument used—with the "wife" fragment. The Gospel of John text, he discovered, had been directly copied from a 1924 publication.
"Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery," Mr. Askeland tells me. "First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century." Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and "concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries." In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the "Jesus' wife" fragment was written in a dialect that didn't exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.

This has been a nearly three year saga, during which the reputation of both King and Harvard University have been cast in a dim light within the field of Biblical/Early Christian scholarship. Now, it looks like, barring a desperate push from King, the saga has come to close and the field can go on wondering when it will have the next Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi codices.

In retrospect, there are several points to reflect upon when considering the saga of Jesus' Wife.

First, the media is, by and large, absolutely unqualified to report on any development in religious or theological scholarship. Yet, despite the glaring iincompetence, the media continues to function as the primary filter for most of the general American public perception of reality, including religion. The media swooned all over this story with tantalizing articles and flattering photos of Karen King as "the scholar at work." The scholarly community has aptly demonstrated the document is an orchestrated hoax, a common ooccurrence in the antiquities. Yet, the general public will likely only recall the media blitz and swooning and will base its opinions on said blitz and swooning. From a scholar's perspective, this is astounding. The public is prone to have its opinions about religion and who and what God must be, but the public is largely unqualified to have an opinion in so far as it is largely uneducated. More importantly, however, an institution has established itself as the reference point for information on subject areas it is woefully unable to cover. The media is the nexus from which the public largely draws its perception of reality. Clearly, however, in matters of religion or religious scholarship, the media is unable to discern what information carries credibility from what makes a good story. Although, shame on the public for not having the integrity to sort that distinction out themselves.

Second, it remains to be seen how Karen King, Harvard Theological Review, and, to some extent, Harvard University itself, could have ignored a cascade of suspicious earmarks that surrounded this document. Plainly, this scrap of papyrus was surround with things that are supposed to raise red flags for scholars. From unknown origin to reproducing textual errors found only in an online edition of a text, to the presence of a Coptic dialect that had ceased being used before the time the papyrus itself was harvested, to the doubtful authenticity of the other documents in the cache acquired by King, it is astonishing that these pieces of data were not caught early on. The antiquities market is a shady place. There is good amount in the hands of private dealers, untracked by local governments, that eventually makes its way into the hands of private collectors. Some of materials are genuine finds, others are well constructed forgeries. We have, thus far, been treated to summaries of the transaction that brought King into possession of the document. I suspect there is more information about how King was made aware of the collection that we do not know, perhaps because in the rush to publication, these details have been thought superfluous. Yet, that is where the future story of this fragment, if there is one, resides.

Third, in due time we will know just how much damage this has done to King's reputation, both short term and long term. For full disclosure, I met King briefly about two times. Again, very brief, very informal, nothing substantial. I found her to be professional and I found she avoided the dramatic flavor of Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer. Even when she first "revealed" the fragment, King cautioned that it did not actually disclose anything about Jesus of Nazareth. Be this as it may, she associated herself with something that, no matter what qualifying she did, was sensationalist. We are left wondering how someone who had previously shown such scholarly sobriety could do something so reckless. Academia is cut throat and mistakes are not easily forgotten; Karen King may well spend the rest of her scholarly career attempting to salvage what is left of it.

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