About the whole Jesus’ wife thing (Part 1)

Remember that front page New York Times story about Jesus’ wife? Yeah, about that …

Well, earlier this month we learned from WBRZ:

The Smithsonian Channel says the premiere of its documentary on a papyrus fragment that purports to show Jesus referring to his wife is being delayed until further tests can be done.

And another scholar has noted that the fragment that was the basis for the story somehow managed to replicate a typo from an internet site related to the Gospel of Thomas. Many folks had noted that the fragment seemed to borrow from the Gospel of Thomas but Michael Grondin noted the similarities a typo in his Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

In the first and third paragraphs of that New York Times story, we learned about the scholar who was making the claim about the Jesus’ fragment:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

So after the front-page treatment about Jesus’ wife, have you seen much coverage of the rest of the story? Of course not.

And yet all of the fallout has been more than a bit embarrassing for such an august scholar.

The Chronicle of Higher Education decided to ask her about it. That is a great idea for a story:

I talked to King recently about the reaction to the fragment. She said that while she was braced for some vigorous discussion, the avalanche of attention and criticism was much more than she expected. It has included angry, hateful e-mails (“pretty ugly and unprintable,” she says). The reaction from scholars has influenced her thinking, and she plans to incorporate some of their analyses into her paper on the fragment, which is slated to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January, assuming that the ink test now being performed doesn’t reveal the fragment to be a modern forgery.

Sometimes I wish I could show people the contents of my email inbox. Anyway, he asks her why she didn’t wait for the ink test to be done. She gives a response. The article ends:

But how do you roll out a potential blockbuster discovery like this? King said she’s been asking colleagues how they would have handled it differently, and they’ve reassured her that they would have done what she did. And while she’s been dinged by some for jumping the gun, others would have attacked her for keeping it to herself. “The longer I held back, the more criticism there would have been,” she said.

One thing she would change? The title of the fragment. Calling it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” seemed natural. And for scholars like King, one of the authors of a book about The Gospel of Judas, alternative accounts of the Jesus story are not shocking. She misjudged just how inflammatory that title would turn out to be. She’s been asking around for ideas on a new, less exciting name.

Great idea for a follow-up but why rely on just King here? So a Harvard prof asked her Harvard colleagues and they all told her she was just fine? Is that really that interesting? And we’re not able to find any critics to add insight into how she messed up her big, splashy, New York Times, Smithsonian Channel reveal based around the title she chose? Really?

I mean, these regular “shake the foundations of Christianity” stories in the media are getting embarrassing. You’d think that there would be some much tougher questions of the scholars who were relied on, no? And on that note, come back later for a devastating look at what those early stories about this fragment missed.

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  • asshur

    I think it was a good idea to ask Dr. King for an update (sadly before the “publishing” of the Interlineal Gospel of Thomas association) but i found it a bit lame comparing with the devastating response from the scholary community …
    The ink test -which btw can only prove it is a fake but not that it isn’t – will not save it

  • Bain Wellington

    Did you notice among the comments on the NT blog you linked, Mollie, that, according to Grondin, the typo (which only existed on the pdf available for download from his website) was public as from November 2002. Although in his comment he gives 2 November as the date, his own website records it as 22 November. See his explanation at http://www.gospel-thomas.net/x_gjw_ps2.htm

  • deiseach

    What I find interesting is what was pointed out in the discussion about all this; namely, that the Smithsonian had a big documentary ready to roll within days of this announcement about the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” shocking new revelations that would overthrow the foundations of Christianity as we understood it – in other words, this was in the works for a long time, Professor King picked her moment to make the announcement at the Rome conference to give maximum publicity for the associated book/tv special/DVD/souvenir teatowels, and didn’t seem to calculate that other scholars would fall on this like starving wolves on a baby fawn in the Siberian winter.

    I did wonder if she was primarily a historian and not able to read Coptic, therefore she relied on a translation by others, but on the linked site to the university, it says one of her courses is “Intermediate Coptic”, so she must have at least a basic reading knowledge of the language. That makes me wonder why she didn’t pick up on the grammatical error – I would expect her to handwave off any ‘Y’know, this is awfully like something out of the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ which we already have’ with “Sure it is! That’s just corroboration!” – but this kind of copy error makes me think that she was used as a catspaw by the mysterious owner of this fragment (which turned up out of the blue with no provenance and shrouded in anonymity, until the generous offer to sell it along with other elements of the collection was made) who banked on her having a particular hobbyhorse to ride (the role of women in religion and the relation of Gnosticism to Christianity) which would mean she wouldn’t be too fussy about looking for errors or fraud.

    I can’t accept, however, that she had no clue about the title she picked. It was very plainly chosen deliberately for maximum impact and publicity; calling a fragment a “gospel” makes it sound, to the public at large, as though there is a whole book stating that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus (instead of a fraction of a sentence on a palm-sized scrap of papyrus). Titles of her previous publications?

    “Her books include The Secret Revelation of John; The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle; What Is Gnosticism?; Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (with Elaine Pagels); and Revelation of the Unknowable God. Other publications include Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (ed.) and Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today (ed.). ”

    To jump from “Jesus and the First Woman Apostle” to “Jesus’ Wife” makes it sound like she had been told by her publishers to spice up the next one a bit to increase sales.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    Sensational headlines sell books, magazines, newsapers. Behind it all is lust for the money that sensationalism provides to the unscrupulous. The two big problems in blown-up stories like this are (1) the huge percentage of non-believing (according to reputable surveys) media personnel covering such stories but who themselves are seeking to justify their non-belief through promoting stories that attack Catholic-Orthodox-or Christian Tradition. The second problem is the almost worshipful attitude Americans have for academic institutions and for college professors. Few in the public realize what kind of a “dog eat dog” world “higher” education is with regard to advancement and salaries. The college or university campus is NOT some sort of morally pristine community of intellectual giants , unbiased researchers, and moral saints.
    Academics have even been known to use affirmative action to gain employment advancement although they are not of a minority race.

  • the fact that a feminist theologian answered an email from an person she doesn’t know (rather than a person she knows and has professional references about their veracity) says a lot more about the professor than an ink test.
    If I were planning to sell a fake but possibly explosive text, who would I chose? The Peabody institute or a naive feminist professor who will jump at the chance to get hold of my sale.

    • correction: it’s the Peabody Museum in Boston, not the Institute.

  • FW Ken

    The real question is why this is a “possibly explosive text”. That’s a journalism issue, not one of scholarship, because the material of the text is basically cribbed from The Gospel of Thomas, first published some 60 years so. Even the Dan Brown scam is a few years old. Jesus married? Old news.