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?