‘Wife of Jesus’ reality checks, doubts and debunkings

We’ve all had our fun with the bride of Christ stories. While the mainstream media is not going to win any awards for doing a good job covering this story, I did want to highlight a few stories that stood out for not being ridiculous. A reader suggested this Huffington Post article be highlighted, commenting:

It’s far from perfect but at least the crucial word “Gnosticism” makes it into the article at all. The NYT article is very Indiana Jones.

… but so far I haven’t seen any article which touches upon the fact of a separate Gnostic tradition in which this sort of thing is common. The fact that it’s in Coptic tends to point to it being Gnostic, and I’ll bet if Dr. King were actually asked she would state right out that she believes that it is so.

And do they HAVE to bring up Dan Brown???

I don’t know. The word “Gnosticism” does make it into the article but not in any substantive way. And to answer the question, “Yes, ‘they’ do have to bring up Dan Brown.” It’s in the Journalist Code Of Conduct we all sign annually. Sorry.

Readers also sent in this piece that ran on an NBC News blog. Unlike many other stories about this explosive fragment that will undermine everything we know about Christianity (or whatever), the headline gives you a sense of where the piece is going: “Reality check on Jesus and his ‘wife’.” It does just that, explaining Gnostic thinking in some detail and showing how any significance that might be attached to the fragment isn’t to Jesus so much as to, well, Gnosticism. I was particularly impressed considering that the piece’s author is NBCNews.com’s science editor. He even called different scholars for some well balanced feedback and such.

And then the Associated Press took a radically different approach with its story on the explosive findings that will rock Christianity and particularly the Roman Catholic Church. Headlined “Doubts over Harvard claim of ‘Jesus’ Wife’ papyrus.” The piece basically catalogues the many questions posed by scholars and experts in the illicit antiquities trade:

Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster who was on the international advisory panel that reviewed the 2006 discovery of the Gospel of Judas, said the text accurately quotes Jesus as saying “my wife.” But he questioned whether the document was authentic.

“There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.

“I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the 4th century, he said...

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context. It’s a partial text and tiny, measuring 4 centimeters by 8 centimeters (1.5 inches by 3 inches), about the size of a small cellphone.

“There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. “It can be anything.”

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was “suspicious.”

We get some responses from the Harvard scholar and some background on the shady antiquities trade.

We learn that some archaeologists think that Harvard acted unethically, given how the fragment has no known provenance or history of where it’s been.

“There are all sorts of really dodgy things about this,” said David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk and author of the Looting Matters blog, which closely follows the illicit trade in antiquities. “This looks to me as if any sensible, responsible academic would keep their distance from it.”

He cited the ongoing debate in academia over publishing articles about possibly dubiously obtained antiquities, thus potentially fueling the illicit market.

The whole article is full of information that was not in those front page stories the day prior that were praising the find. For instance, the Archaeological Institute of America won’t publish articles about antiquities whose provenance is unknown. And it’s not just about not wanting to fuel the illicit trade but also because looting antiquities without benefit of their historical context also robs scholars of a wealth of information.

The article ends with the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo saying that the fragment was never heard of before this week and that, as a researcher, he doesn’t think it’s authentic since there would have been some mention of it. I’m sure we can squeeze a few more stories out of this before we all move on to whatever the next story that will destroy Christianity is.

And I’m sure — absolutely sure — that all of those media outlets that talked about Jesus’ wife will be explaining all of this with equal prominence.

Photo of a guy who doesn’t quite buy the latest sensationalist attack on the foundations of Christianity via Shutterstock.

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  • The Old Bill

    Thanks, Mollie. Any bets that Discovery will turn this into a “documentary” just in time for Easter? The trailer opens with a tight close-up of a man and woman’s joined hands. They wear wedding rings; his hand has an angry round scar. VO: “His mother claims to have been a virgin, but startling, new scientific evidence suggests Jesus was not.”

    Of course, we all know how much raw political power the Knights of Columbus wield. They will try to suppress this ruthlessly. No doubt they realize such important evidence would endanger their fanatical plot to avoid paying for Sandra Fluke’s contraceptives.

    • deiseach

      Nah, it won’t last as long as next Easter, but Dr. King should be able to squeeze a book out of it for Christmas, which is as much as she probably expects. Publish or perish, doncha know?

  • Will

    If the papyrus is not authentic, how could it “accurately quote” Jesus or anyone else?

    I have to assume that he actually said that the TRANSLATION of the papyrus is accurate, and was garbled by a reporter who doesn’t get English.

  • Will

    Or are we going to be told that it is “fake but accurate”?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I know I used some humor in my post, but at 3000 words I also covered a lot of serious points as well, including writing extensively about how this all ties into the pet obsessions of Gnostic scholars (mentioned in your second paragraph). So, while I appreciate the link, I’m not sure “ridiculous” is the right word for what I wrote.

    • mollie

      Whoopsie! That is not what I meant. I rewrote to be more clear. I was referring to some of the more ridiculous mainstream media sensationalizing of the fragment story.

      • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

        Thanks! I mean, I was aiming for “rude” and possibly even “saucy”. I’d hate to think I missed the target and wound up merely ridiculous.

        • CarlH

          Particularly in light of NPR’s interview with Elaine Pagels, your irreverent and extensive commentary (“irreverent” at least with respect to the pop-theologists who manage to fill endowed chairs and sell lots of books) deserves to be linked directly: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/09/the-gnostic-noise-machine-and-the-wife-of-jesus/

          • CarlH

            Oops! I assume that the first link in Mollie’s post was to her post from yesterday, and therefore hadn’t followed it to know that it was in fact Mr. McDonald’s post.

  • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

    This interview with Elaine Pagels was pretty good, and talked about the gnostic tradition: http://www.npr.org/2012/09/19/161436258/ancient-paper-suggests-jesus-may-have-been-married

  • CarlH

    This is a great round-up of additional information that provide a helpful (essential?) counterpoint to the breathless “reporting” from many sources over the past few days. Thanks for posting it, Mollie.

  • JWB

    I thought the initial NYT piece was not all that bad (and quoted the Harvard prof as distancing herself from Dan Brown!), except for uncritically treating this as evidence (if authentic) of differing views among different sorts of early Christians as opposed to evidence of differing views between early Christians, on the one hand, and (some) Gnostics, on the other. Or is just treating Gnostics as so different that they’re by definition not usefully described as a variety of Christian a debatable minefield like deciding whether Mormons should or shouldn’t be included in the broader category “Christian” (which I assume a sensible journalist will try to dodge if at all possible)?

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Did anyone check if the Harvard Professor had any expertise in archeology (there was no “context” for the text)? Indeed,
    Harvard’s website says she is a professor of church history, specializing in gnostic heresies of the ancient church:

    Her particular theoretical interests are in discourses of normativity (orthodoxy and heresy), gender studies, and religion and violence.

  • John M.

    It’s good to see that some of the hyperventilating has slowed and normal levels of O2 are returning to some people’s brains. The first round of MSM stories looked to me like reporters and editors were trying to win the annual “story that made into print that most closely resembled an Onion story” contest in the newsroom. I mean, seriously? “Papyrus Fragment Smaller Than a Cell Phone Containing No Complete Sentences Threatens Foundation, Future of Global Christianity”?


    • deiseach

      John, it’s getting to the point that “The Onion” is more likely to give serious treatment to these kinds of stories.

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  • C. Wingate

    What is particularly striking is how quick the rejoinder came out. Typically these things are allowed to fester a few months so that when the rebuttals and qualifiers come out, they can be set aside as not being news; but here we’ve got big “probably not so” articles the next day? And what’s with the Smithsonian article? It’s a lot of work on one day’s notice. Either the standard for fact-checking (except of course at the Grey Lady) has suddenly jumped up a notch, or a lot of people in the field called their favorite media contact to object.

    • John Penta

      Just a hunch, but I think it was the latter.

      I mean, really? Really? A scrap of papyrus that doesn’t contain any complete sentences, of unknown provenance, where the testing for authenticity (ink testing in particular) isn’t complete?

      My knowledge of archaeology and historical research is sketchy, but even I know that you wait til the testing’s done, and that any interpretation of a writing *absolutely depends* on context and provenance.

      Sure, the articles linked aren’t bad, but it would have been nice to see it pointed out more clearly: Without a knowledge of the context and provenance of the papyrus, we can’t figure out with any accuracy what it means. Period. That’s basic Archaeology 101 kinda things.

      In short: It’d be nice to see the same skepticism and credulity applied to heresies and “paradigm-shifters” as are applied to the orthodox traditions of religion. This is only the latest in a string of recent alleged “paradigm-shifters”. The others were proved fake, so what’s with the breathlessness over this?

  • Eugene WR Gallun

    Ask yourself the question — if I was a forger is this the way I would do it? The answer is a definite yes. Two tantalizing words — My wife” — cut off from the rest of the line. As little as possible there to get you into trouble and maximun effect. What are the odds of a real document discussing the wife of Jesus being cut this way? Very very low. What are the odds of a forger wanting to create a sensation cutting a document this way? Almost 100%.
    Believe me, if any document existed that talked about the wife of Jesus it would be worth a zillion dollars and would never have been sliced and diced. This has fraud written all over it because it is exactly the way to go to produce the “safest” fraud.
    And the owner wants to give it away free! — if you will buy a shitload of other documents he owns. Notice how he is not even selling a fake document but selling a bunch of real but uninteresting documents at a high price. The fake document he gives away for free! You can’t even prosecute him! What’s the charge? Giving away for free a fake document? Fraud! Fraud! Fraud! Sometimes I wonder how some people in the academic community manage to cross a street without getting hit by a car.

  • Fr. John W. Morris

    Even if the document were completely authentic all this proves is that an unknown author wrote something in Coptic in the 4th century that implies that Christ was married. So what? There is no way that any serious historian would take this as definite proof that Christ was married.
    I have noticed that the pop Gnostic scholars tend to deemphasize the more bizarre aspects of Gnosticism. They seldom mention the Gnostic belief that the physically world is evil created by a lesser deity called the demiurge who sadistically imprisoned the spark of the deity that is our true identity in our corruptible bodies. They also tend to neglect the Gnostic belief that marriage and sex are evil. Those who want to believe that the Gnostics taught that Jesus married St. Mary Magdalena also conveniently forget that most Gnostics believed that Jesus was a purely spiritual being who only seemed to have a physical body, a doctrine called Docetism. Its takes a physical body to marry and have sex. Finally, they also neglect to mention that Gnostics were elitists who saw themselves as superior to the ordinary “carnal” Christian because they had access to secret knowledge denied to lesser persons. I frankly doubt that authentic Gnistics from the 2nd or 3rd century would recognized the sanitized proto-feminist version of Gnosticism as an authentic expression of their faith.

  • northcoast

    I guess it was about 5 years ago we were reading about “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”

  • deiseach

    Looks like the scholarly rows are about to begin; courtesy of Thomas McDonald at God and the Machine, an analysis that proposes the fragment is actually a modern forgery cobbled together from Coptic texts, and a proposal intermediate between Dr. King (4th century copy of new, authentic 2nd century document) and Professor Watson (modern forgery precisely for flogging off at great price to museum or deluded collector), that it is a 4th century production based on the already-known “Gospel of Thomas”; authentic, but not new, strange or startling.

    So when are we going to see the big splashy headlines about “Jesus still single”?

  • Karen Vaughan

    One of the many articles I read said that a number of the scholars who had questioned the fragment had done so only on the basis of a low resolution photo. Subsequent photographs (accompanied by dating of the paper and ink) apparently looked more authentic. Mollie, do you know if the scholars quoted were quoted based on the earlier photo? Professor King has been at pains to say that it does not provide evidence that Jesus was married, even if authentic. Pagels also discusses the potential symbolic meaning of “wife”.

    Am I correct that Mormons have also a belief that Jesus was married?

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