Most people younger than me don’t know (or care) that before he was the king of late night TV on “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson was the young, engaging host of a pseudo-quiz show called “Who Do You Trust?” I think of that show’s title when, as is increasingly the case, I encounter stories like this one, which is described in excruciating detail in a plaintive article in the Chronicle of Hight Education.. The main facts are these:
—A 2014 Harvard Theological Review article by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King purported to have uncovered an ancient papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” This, coming after the sensational best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and its subsequent film version starring Tom Hanks, both of which were based on a fanciful conspiracy theory regarding Mary Magdalene’s alleged relationship with Jesus Christ, understandably caused quite a stir in academia, theological circles, and the popular press.
––King’s article was deemed unlikely to the point of absurdity by many scholars from the moment it was published. “Almost everything we know,” one expert wrote, “about the nature of historical evidence points to forgery.”
—King had failed to take basic steps to vet the manuscript, which she’d provocatively named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Worse, two of the journal’s three peer reviewers had decided the papyrus was a fake. Only one had not: an acclaimed papyrologist named Roger Bagnall. Bagnall, however, had helped King draft the very paper the journal asked him to review. This is called a conflict of interest, indeed a screaming conflict of interest. Not only had King identified him in the paper as her primary adviser, but Bagnall had been filmed declaring the papyrus’s authenticity for a forthcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary.
—To his credit, Bagnall warned the journal that he was too conflicted to review King’s article objectively as a peer-reviewer, but the journal, apparently eager to approve the exciting “discovery,” passed on his support as an anonymous reviewer to King, allowing her to claim that “in the course of the normal external review process” at least one referee had “accepted the [papyrus] fragment” as genuine.
—Though Bagnall, a former Columbia University dean and retired director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, knew he had been used to validate a thesis he had a hand in developing, he only confirmed that he was the unnamed favorable reviewer after a researcher into the fiasco discovered it from other sources.
—When the article prompted allegations that the papyrus was a forgery, King recruited scholars to rebut the claims: an MIT scientist who was a close family friend of King’s since childhoods and an usher at her first wedding, and a Columbia scientist who was Bagnall’s brother-in-law.
––Cambridge University Press, which publishes the Harvard Theological Review, has an ethics code that requires authors “to declare any potential conflicts of interest…(real or apparent) that could be considered or viewed as exerting undue influence on his or her duties at any stage during the publication process.” King and her allies did none of this.
––The journal never checked King’s hand-picked scientists’ reports. Had their studies been handled appropriately? Did their tests for forgery follow best practices? The journal also barred the news media from doing any independent investigation. Harvard Divinity School granted reporters exclusives on King’s article on the condition that they not contact scientists or scholars who King had not cited in her paper.
—Journalist Ariel Sobar, the author of the story in the Chronicle, blew up the “Jesus’s wife” thesis in an investigative report in the The Atlantic in 2016. He discovered that the owner of the Jesus’s wife papyrus was an internet pornographer and con-artist. It was, indeed, a fake.
—King then conceded that the papyrus was probably a fake, and admitted she had suspected from the start that it was forged. She was devoted to the study of female figures in early Christianity, however, so treating the hoax as genuine was irresistible. So she ignored evidence that pointed to forgery. She recruited biased scientists. She omitted critical facts, photos, and research.
—Five years after King herself disclaimed her paper and declared the papyrus a fake, the Harvard Theological Review as not retract her paper or explained to its readers of how such false scholarship was allowed to be published at all.
—King says she sees no reason why her piece of fatally flawed research should be retracted. “I don’t see anything to retract,” she told The Boston Globe. “I have always thought of scholarship as a conversation. So you put out your best thoughts, and then people … bring in new ideas or evidence. You go on.”
Believe it or not, there is even more corruption, incompetence and cover-ups in the tale. The researcher, the scholars, the scientists, the editors, the journal, the university, the news media—where is integrity? Where is honesty? Who do you trust? Who can you trust? Who should you trust?
Sobor quotes Brent Nongbri, a leading historian of Christian papyri, on the Jesus’s wife affair. “The lesson is this,” he wrote. “Be able to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Accept justified correction with humility and grace, and just move on.” Well, of course—but doing those things require functioning ethics alarms. The people in this episode have none, or at best flawed ones that were never properly installed. How many of our institutions are infested, indeed led, by similar individuals?
19 thoughts on “Jesus’s Wife: A Depressing Example Of Why American Institutions Are Not Trusted And Don’t Deserve To Be”
A lot, most likely. The fact is that higher education and scholarship in this country bent irretrievably to the left in the 1970s, when all the lefties who avoided service in Vietnam by continuing to extend their student deferments and get professor-level degrees in the humanities (because math and science are hard and not as subject to bullshitting as history, literature, etc.), started to get hired by the universities and ultimately flood them, tipping the balance. Once that was done, it was only a matter of time before they started taking over the committees on tenure and promotion and making sure only those who believed like them would be hired. At the same time you saw the rise of non major majors (hint: if it ends with “studies,” except religious studies, it’s probably fluff), opening doors to still more liberal professors, only these were still more lightly credentialed and still more doctrinaire.
Gradually, the idea took hold that only the liberal were smart and only the smart were liberal. Gradually, higher education and scholarship became not so much about teaching the facts, telling the truth, and experimenting with new ideas to see what worked as about turning the existing order on its head, revolutionary thought, and anger at the past for being the past. The leaders in this swing to the left included linguist turned expert on everything Noam Chomsky, who somehow became the most prominent public intellectual in this country for a while, moving ever left until he reached intellectual menopause, and polemicist Howard Zinn, whose “People’s History of the United States” could be considered the Bible for a lot of the revolutionary thinking going on now. He is the original Columbus basher, and according to him the colonies were already moving away from Britain in a non-violent manner, and would have naturally done so if only guys like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and all those other slave holding Southerners hadn’t taken it into a violent revolution partly to make sure they could keep their slaves, partly to make sure that America could move past the Appalachians and take away the Indians’ land. However, these guys were just the tip of the iceberg. In their wake came many more “scholars” determined to knock the legs out from under every part of history that showcased the achievements of European males. Those scholars have finally reached the point where those who go to college often come away with the idea that America is a lousy country with a few good points rather than a good country with a few flaws. A recent fake proposal to cancel Memorial Day illustrated that when an approached college student said that once he started taking women’s studies and gender studies courses he came away thinking “fuck the USA.”
Since it is the bedrock of a lot of Western civilization, Christianity has also come under strong attack. Feminists are especially strong in that attack because of the fact that female clergy are still a relatively recent addition in some denominations and still nonexistent in others. Some of them, of course, resort to more outlandish attacks like saying that a lot of churches were built on top of temples to goddesses (name one?), or that Christ had a wife. Whether these attacks have a basis in fact or not is really secondary to whether they push this narrative further out into the mainstream. If they are discovered to be weak or insufficiently sourced, they either double down or spout platitudes about scholarship being a conversation.
I think it says something about the damage this is done when 18-year-olds walk onto college campuses talking about how they want to be doctors and lawyers and other professionals and contribute to society, and a year or two later they are smashing statues and beating those they disagree with. I was under the impression that scholarship was supposed to open your mind to learning and fill it with valuable information, but now it seems to be all about moral certitude and anger. God help us when one of those kids out there dressed in black and throwing Molotov cocktails is going to be president.
“Since it is the bedrock of a lot of Western civilization, Christianity has also come under strong attack.”
I think this is actually backwards – that Western Civilization is attacked because it has Christianity as its foundation.
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. … He who hates Me hates My Father also.” John 15:18-23, NKJV
“now it seems to be all about moral certitude and anger. God help us when one of those kids out there dressed in black and throwing Molotov cocktails is going to be president.”
God help us, indeed.
“The noblest of sentiments can be refuted if their bearer is beaten to death with a rubber truncheon.” – Hermann Goering.
That Hermann! What a card.
Nothing if not blunt. Annoy him, and you were doing your banking at the First National BONK!
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. –Mike Tyson
“The analysts write about war as if it’s a ballet. Yes, it’s choreographed, and what happens is the orchestra starts playing and some son of a bitch climbs out of the orchestra pit with a bayonet and starts chasing you around the stage. And the choreography goes right out the window.”
-Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf
When did “conversation” become so distorted a term? “We need to have a conversation about [fill in the blank]. Meaning what? “You sit down and I am going to tell you what you need to think about [fill in the blank].” “Science is a conversation.” Are you kidding me? Science isn’t a conversation, it’s a process for arriving at certain truths by eliminating falsehoods. This is truly Authentic Frontier Gibberish. I’m beginning to prefer Arrogantly Fantastical Gibberish.
I read all the articles and the supplementary information on this incident at the time. The best analysis on this incident was ignored, but I think it teaches some good lessons. Based on what I saw, I would not call this a forgery. I would also say it is not what it was purported to be.
As stated in the original material, this was a small fragment of papyrus found in a garbage dump. The relevant part of the papyrus basically contained the words “And then Jesus said “my wife…” (I don’t ahve the articles in front of me) and that was the end of it. There was no context to the statement. With the number of parables Jesus told, it would be risky to base new theology on this.
Why did I think it is not a forgery? Well, the Arizona State U.’s carbon-14 dating was obviously flawed and they recognized it. Dating it to hundreds of years before Christ is not right. However, I am not going to say that Tim Swager can’t read an infrared spectra. His data (and I am speaking about the infrared spectra published as I read them) clearly showed that the papyrus was old. At the time I did wonder how Tim Swager got pulled into this. This really didn’t seem like his area and it seemed like a trivial analysis for someone like him to do. (For disclosure, I did meet Tim Swager once at a talk, but it was a long time ago).
What was the evidence that it was a forgery? The poor grammar, penmanship, etc was said to indicate a poor attempt at a forgery.
Why am I suspicious about this now being revealed as a forgery? Because the best explanation I could find for this papyrus would discredit much of what is passed off as authentication and manuscript scholarship. Revealing it is a forgery is much less damaging to the field and everyone’s reputation than it being genuine.
What was this ‘best explanation’? Well, this scrap of papyrus was purportedly (at the time) found along with a great deal of other papyrus manuscripts in a garbage dump. Where are your college notes from your sophomore year? In a garbage dump. Did they have expert (scribelike) penmanship and perfect grammar? Do your notes or the typical notes of a student give an accurate picture of what the teacher is teaching? I know a bunch of students who wrote down that Booker T. Washington was responsible for the Holocaust based on their notes from a professor’s lectures. I also have students who say that the Pledge of Allegiance says that you can’t see the US (it is invisible).
When you realize that this is probably some junk student notes from a 10th century religion class, the entire set of articles becomes laughable. Here are esteemed professors from top schools debating the grammar nuances and penmanship of 1000 year old student notes from the garbage. They make no acknowledgement that people in the past were not all inerrant scribes with perfect grammar and penmanship. This shows a serious blind spot in manuscript authentication and a field not well grounded in reality. These articles were featured in several issues of Harvard Divinity Review and would be a good example of the Emperor having no clothes.
Now, if it actually was a forgery, it would mean that several researchers lied about the sources and further degrade trust in our authority figures. Of course, if it isn’t a forgery, it does that too. I still have a sneaking suspicion the forgery story is a cover. If you were going to try to pass this off as important, you wouldn’t admit it was found in a garbage dump. Stating it was in ‘a private collection’ (as they are now) would give it more credence, so why initially tell a lie that brings your entire work into question?
“The lesson is this … Be able to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Accept justified correction with humility and grace, and just move on.”
Or just double down …
Whither the discussion of established theological interpretations of Scripture?
Jesus Is The Head of the Church. The Church is His Bride, ergo, “Jesus’s wife.” DUHHHHH!
So just forget about all that authentically frontierizing gibberish for a minute. Even if there was an authentic, ancient papyrus fragment that said something that could be interpreted as an inference to “Jesus’s wife,” what’s the big deal?
Sheesh! And to think it’s the fundamentalists who are accused by allegedly, self-appointedly “superior scholars” of “absurd literalism!” Oh… That’s it. That’s what the arrogant assholes really are trying to say: “We know best when a scratch on an old piece of papyrus must be taken literally, versus when it must never tempt any single soul to take it any way but metaphorically.” Self-validating virtue: “I’ve studied more, therefore, I know more and understand better [than you, ignorant bigot].”
I love how God Knows that all human wisdom is foolishness to Him.
I hate how some people try to play God with all the rest of us.
None other than James Cameron once tried to finance a similar archaeological fraud, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and have it made into a History Channel-style documentary.
There’s a big market for scams and fake history when it’s in the service of undermining Christianity. Hmm.
I first heard this controversy on a podcast by a professor who covers New Testament studies-
Y’all may find the short conversations interesting:
I guess Word Press doesn’t like the links.
So I goofed somehow on linking.
It’s a two episode conversation.
The links with “94” and “95” in the HTML code are the correct ones. The one with “92” is a different topic.