Jesus’s “Wife” Hoax: Smithsonian To Air Documentary About the Fragment

This Sunday! That was fast.

The Smithsonian Channel (unofficial motto: “Doing Our Part to Make America Dumber”) is airing a documentary about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” on Sunday, less than two weeks after its revelation to the world. It will be interesting to hear reactions from defenders of Karen King who said she handled this discovery in the right way by presenting her work for peer review (to a journal which is rapidly backing away from her) and at an academic conference, without going through the sensational media first.

Now we have a complete Smithsonian documentary ready to roll, clearly indicating that the mass media was always part of the plan to boost the profile of this dubious document. Smithsonian needed plenty of time to plan, film, edit, and schedule this documentary, and they’re using it as a lead-in to another documentary about the Titanic. How long has King been planning this academic/media blitz? If she had that much time to make a deal for an hour-long documentary, couldn’t she have spared little time for a few more experts and some spectrometry? Were they being held back to be revealed in the documentary? If so, how does that square with academic standards?

Note the description from Smithsonian’s page: this is not being described as insight into a fringe Christian heresy (the very most that could have been claimed for the Jesus’s Wife fragment, even if it wasn’t fake), but as “a new interpretation of a religious story we thought we knew.”

They then add the nonsense statement that “It doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but raises important questions about that possibility.”

Again: no it doesn’t. Karen King was trying to maintain a veneer of academic credibility in the initial reports by saying the fragment did not prove anything about Jesus’s marital status. That’s all over now. Watch this clip:

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About halfway through the clip she says bizarre things. We’ve spent “1500 years” talking about Jesus not being married? Actually, we’ve spent 2000 years talking about it. And what does she mean when she says that after years of assuming marital imagery in Gnostic texts was not about “real sexual intercourse, it’s not real marriage,” but now because of this new fragment the “best argument” to be made is that “Jesus and Mary were married.” She just comes right out and says it.

I need to really emphasize this point. After all her boilerplate disclaimers about how this fragment says nothing about the “historical Jesus,” we have King on tape saying they were really married. That sound you hear is the last tiny shreds of her credibility flapping out the window.

Now that the academic community is coalescing around a “probably–almost certainly–a forgery” narrative, will the Smithsonian documentary address those issues? It will be interesting to see. Even if it does, skeptical segments in sensational documentaries and stories have the effect of burying the lede.

UPDATE: Why have I switched to using the word “hoax” with this story? Because in this documentary, the fragment is now being presented as evidence of the marriage of Jesus and Mary. When the story first hit, there was at least some attempt being made to say this told us nothing about the historical Jesus. Now that’s out the window, and it “raises important questions” about a “story” we “thought we knew.” That’s a hoax. There also seems to be mounting evidence that the document itself is a forgery. My personal belief? I’m about 90% of the way to believing this thing was created in modern times. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Previous stories:

The Gnostic Noise Machine and the “Wife” of Jesus (original post)

Some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas.

Expert claims “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is probably a modern forgery.

More evidence that “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is a modern forgery.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Oh, my. That clip of Karen King is a spot-on parody of the Stonehenge theory videos that Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel did for National Geographic a few years ago:

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  • Ted Seeber

    I think she’s a liar. I think the first time she saw this papyrus fragment was when she tore a blank corner off of a larger document, then used carbon ink made with 4th century cooking fire ashes to write the coptic text on it.

  • Martin

    Jeannine Hunter reported yesterday that the Smithsonian Channel has now shelved the program, pending “further tests”:

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for the tip.

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  • Martin

    Don’t you agree, Tom, that the public deserves to be told what deals preceded the mediacademical launch?

    [1] We are told that National Geographic had set up an exclusive deal with a group of scholars over the Gospel of Judas. According to Professor April DeConick (in an Op-Ed piece for the NYT published on 1 December 2007) “it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication.” There is no suggestion that this obtained in the present case, BUT

    [2] Clearly, Smithsonian Channel has a deal of some kind with Professor King, since Smithsonian Magazine (which had been puffing the now shelved documentary) prefaced its interview with Professor King with this:- “Smithsonian magazine reporter Ariel Sabar has been covering the story behind the scenes for weeks, tracing King’s steps from when a suspicious e-mail hit her in-box to the nerve-racking moment when she thought the entire presentation would fall apart. Read our exclusive coverage below.” In his piece, Sabar says he visited King “in early September” (“two weeks” before she was due to deliver her paper at the Rome conference)

    [3] Christian Askeland added more circumstantial background to the type of media deals that might have surrounded the premature publication of the “marriage fragment”, in this blog post

    [4] The synchronized splash on Tuesday 18 September was, as we knew from the first reports, premeditated: Professor King having given an interview and photo-op to journalists from three selected outlets (NYT, Boston Globe, and Harvard Magazine) on the previous Thursday 13 September, subject to embargo so as to match press publication with the delivery of her paper at the Rome Conference. Smithsonian Magazine published its in-depth interview the same day, supporting the flighting of the documentary slated to follow twelve days later.

    [5] It was this mid-September deadline that excluded the possibility of having the ink tested – a suggestion seemingly first raised in August by one of the external reviewers called in by the editors of the HTR. In her draft article for the HTR, and in her interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Professor King took the view that authenticity had been satisfactorily established by non-scientific investigation, and that a rough dating by spectroscopic analysis would “further substantiate the document’s authenticity” (draft HTR article, p.12) and be no more than “the cherry on the cake” (Smithsonian Magazine interview, p.7). The general view, however, is that this should have been seen as an indispensable step before the launch, even though the result will only be a rough indication as to age.

    [6] In fact, there was plenty of time for Professor King to have had the ink analyzed, for she has been in possession of the fragment since December 2011. She took it to Professor Bagnall in March 2012 for his assessment, and on the basis of his assessment that it was “very likely an authentic ancient text”, she and Professor Luijendijk got to work in earnest on the fragment (see her draft article, p.3). Presenting the results at the quadrennial International Congress of Coptic Studies was the great spur to activity and effectively excluded the possibility of testing the ink before then.

  • Charles

    King and Satan’s other minions have no interest in proving their claims. Satan is the master of lies, not truth. They serve their ends by sowing confusion about the truth. The media launch, the headlines, the promotion of possibilities, and so forth are what they want.

  • DMcMillan

    I am sure that just like today,, there would be many wives who were married to a man named Jesus and some could claim to have been the wife of a Jesus. but not the Christ. = Gods only begotten Son. “The Lord Jesus Christ” died on the cross, was buried, Rose again, the 3rd day. and this action was all to pay the penilty for our sin. ” FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON THAT WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM SHALL NOT PERISH BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE” = JOHN 3; 16 It’s much more important to trust His Word than to make up lies about it to sell a story.

  • Mavis

    Newsflash from New Zealand

    So he couldn’t have been married to Mary of Magdala! :-)