Gospel of Jesus Wife_papyrus2

Harvard Theological Review Declines to Publish Paper on “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”

The rumor is that Harvard Theological Review is now declining to publish Karen King’s paper (available here as a draft pdf) on the Coptic fragment she calls the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” It’s a rumor that appears to be true, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans writes:

Is the Coptic papyrus, in which Jesus speaks of his “wife,” a fake? Probably. We are far from a “consensus,” but one scholar after another and one Coptologist after another has weighed in pointing out serious problems with the paleography, the syntax, and the very troubling fact that almost all of the text has been extracted from the Gospel of Thomas (principally from logia 30, 101, and 114). I suspect the papyrus itself is probably quite old, perhaps fourth or fifth century, but the oddly written (or painted) letters on the recto side are probably modern and probably reflect recent interest in Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The decision of the editors of Harvard Theological Review not to publish Karen King’s paper is very wise. Perhaps we will eventually learn more about who actually produced this text.

The ultimate source is apparently the great Harvard scholar Helmut Koester.

The academic world is quickly becoming skeptical about the ancient provenance of this fragment. Perhaps more interesting and of more enduring significance than the fragment itself is the role the internet has played in the debate. We have had a draft of King’s paper, photos of the fragment itself, and serious and measured responses from leading scholars all made available to the public, along with the typical professional hysteria in the media and amateur hysteria in the blogosphere.

Is there a downside? Perhaps. In theory, this is the sort of debate that should be carried out in journals over months and years, so scholarship can get it right. (Note the parallels with journalism: the pressure to get it first and the pressure to get it right work against each other.) In this case, I think Watson and others contesting the fragment’s authenticity are getting it right — I’m no papyrologist, but it seems to me most likely that the fragment is a modern forgery — and I think that their work has been careful and solid. Yet time and peer review are lacking. What if we will have been too hasty in dismissing the fragment?

We happen to live in a media and internet age, however, and as sensationalism abounds I think it’s well and good that sober scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre (to whom credit goes for the h/t on this story) have the ability to react in real time. Of course, they were also trained as scholars in a prior age, meaning more than ten years ago; one wonders if a younger generation of scholars raised in internet culture will be as painstaking and measured as they.

Thought experiment: How different would things have been if the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered in the internet age?

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16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Harvard Theological Review Rejects “Jesus’ Wife” » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Pingback: Is ‘internet scholarship’ too hasty? | Near Emmaus

  3. Pingback: Are Reports of the Death of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Greatly Exaggerated?

  4. Pingback: Fragment article rejected? Maybe not. (Updated) | Dr. Leroy Huizenga

  5. You illustrate the problem perfectly. You admit that you have absolutely no expertise and absolutely no logical reason for your position, you haven’t examined the fragment, yet you make the snap judgement that “it seems” that the fragment is a forgery.

    I guess you wouldn’t want Goodacre (I don’t know your world, but he seems to be some sort of Queen Bee) to say mean things about you on his blog, now would you?

  6. I’m just reporting and offering an amateur opinion, as my expertise certainly isn’t in papyrology or Coptic. So I know to defer to experts, most of whom suspect it’s a modern forgery. But I do know how scholarship works, and know enough about ancient texts. I’d suggest you have nice cup of tea to settle down.

  7. Sorry, I didn’t mean to single you out.

    I just baffled, as someone from the non-academic world, at how “scholars” come to conlcusions on these matters. You cite “most experts,” but I don’t read much about the conclusions of experts who have examined the piece at hand and spent any time looking into it. Instead you have knee-jerk reactions from people who read about it on the Internet a day or two before reaching their conclusions. And these people seem to have knee-jerk reactions to every discovery that comes along.

    Two main reasons seem to argue for forgery:

    1) That King involved the press, which is everybody’s bogeyman. But that is not evidence one way or another about the fragment. It’s an absurd line of argument.

    2) Now there is the similarity to language in “Thomas.” But again, even if true that says nothing about when it was written or whether it was forged. It is such a weak and illogical argument that it makes me wonder if the people who use it have an open mind or if they are just knee-jerk against anything that they aren’t involved in.

    And yes, from my non-academic perch, there seems to be a huge amount of peer pressure and institutional bias involved in conclusions of “scholars.”

    Very unfortunate IMO.

  8. Thanks for coming back.

    I’m not sure at this point what I think of King; my gut is she’s acted above-board in all of this. You’re right; media involvement doesn’t mean it’s a forgery. It does not follow. Reason for suspicion maybe, given some of the stuff we’ve endured in recent years that turned out to be nothing.

    The argument that it’s all from Thomas…I think you’re right to raise that question. Why can’t an ancient person have borrowed a bunch from Thomas and composed something of which this fragment is the last extant remnant? It’s possible, but I think Watson’s and Goodacre’s argument is that it’s overly odd to have a bunch of stuff from Thomas (or at least nearly identical to Thomas) all bunched up like that. There’s no ancient parallel but it would be what a modern forger would do. So it’s not strictly true that similarity to Thomas has no bearing on its date and potential status as a forgery. The question is, would an ancient author/editor borrow from another ancient text in this way?

    Why forge something like this? There’s a big market in antiquities, legal and illegal, as there is in art.

    I really think King should have showed this to a wider group of papyrologists, but on the other hand, she did unveil it at a Coptic studies conference, where a lot of experts did get to consider the fragment. So their judgment isn’t necessarily at third remove, if they were at the conference. I also think the ink really should have been tested before the revelation of the fragment.

    And that brings us to another reason for suspicion: the paleography is odd. It doesn’t look much like an ancient hand (many papyrologists have said).

    Goodacre is a pretty sober guy, especially as he’s a British scholar, so I trust his suspicions and intuitions. Watson too. I do look forward to this matter coming to some sort of academic resolution, though; I’d imagine it’ll take a few months for dating to get done and for Harvard Theol. Studies to decide whether to publish King’s piece, and in what form. They’re both incredibly accomplished, and so I don’t see jealousy here. Goodacre I actually know personally from my time at Duke, and I think he’s a great human being. Other people, yes, there’s pettiness and jealousy in academia. So I agree that bias and pressure and envy — Original Sin — affect scholarship, and I think that general fact needs to be recognized. I’m fairly postmodern on that question.

  9. I think there are so few words in the fragment that the connection to Thomas is a stretch. Does it indicate a similar way of thinking? Probably, but if it didn’t resemble anything than people would argue that it was fake because it had no resemblance to anything seen before.

    That line of reasoning encompasses reading the mind of the author and/or making assumptions about things not known. We just don’t have enough information to know what it means.

    In other words, without more information the content is not evidence one way or another about the provenance.

    I have no doubt Goodacre is a kind human being, but it makes me suspicious that his instinct is to debunk everything immediately. There is no Q, every recent discovery is a fraud and so on.

    The issue I see with these blogs is that there is a cadre or clique who are very savage to those who disagree, and they all link back to each other as if that is confirmation. So anybody with a contrary view has to deal with the ridicule of the peanut gallery if they express it.

  10. Well, there’s a lot of reasoned Q-sceptics out there. I’m one of them, and was so before I met Goodacre. But I think it’s good to observe tendencies in various scholars. Myself, I find I have an ingrained suspicion of received scholarly wisdom, whether it concerns JEDP, Q, the Suffering Servant as a significant type in Jesus’ day, or even Markan priority. Good to be aware of it in myself and aware of others’ tendencies.

    If you’re curious, there’s a video making the rounds examining the fragment on papyrological grounds: http://youtu.be/7LtRVtLXpkQ

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