Harvard Rejecting “Jesus’ Wife” but Truthiness is Served – UPDATES

When the New York Times published this piece and kicked off the whole breathless week of speculation that “Jesus had a wife!” I was surprised.

I thought it odd that the Times would report on a story as potentially huge as this, without first making sure that a credible academic imprimatur accompanied it.

Now, it seems such an imprimatur is being denied; it is being reliably “rumored” that Harvard’s Theological Review has rejected the conjectures of Professor Karen L. King:

The rumor is that Harvard Theological Review is now declining to publish Karen King’s paper (available here as a draft pdf) on the Coptic fragment she calls the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” It’s a rumor that appears to be true, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans writes:

Is the Coptic papyrus, in which Jesus speaks of his “wife,” a fake? Probably. We are far from a “consensus,” but one scholar after another and one Coptologist after another has weighed in pointing out serious problems with the paleography, the syntax, and the very troubling fact that almost all of the text has been extracted from the Gospel of Thomas (principally from logia 30, 101, and 114). I suspect the papyrus itself is probably quite old, perhaps fourth or fifth century, but the oddly written (or painted) letters on the recto side are probably modern and probably reflect recent interest in Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The decision of the editors of Harvard Theological Review not to publish Karen King’s paper is very wise. Perhaps we will eventually learn more about who actually produced this text.

The ultimate source is apparently the great Harvard scholar Helmut Koester.

Read it all. Leroy Huizenga asks serious questions about the impact the internet is having on the careful examination of new material — and whether it imperils genuine knowledge with a too-ready acceptance or rejection of matters that require further study.

If the Theological review has, in fact, rejected the paper, it’s not exactly a surprise. As Thomas McDonald has been pointing out, the thing was never so cut-and-dried and experts have been suggesting a modern forgery and expressing doubt since the story went public.

But there is another side to the story that is interesting to me. When the fancifully nicknamed “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” first hit the headlines, Mollie Z. Hemingway and I were thinking along similar lines: we “questioned the timing.”

These meant-to-be-earthshattering “deconstruct and revise Christianity” announcements are the staples of Lent and Christmas. Why was this thing floating in September, and not December, when believers could really get a kick in the pants?

I have an idea why the story came to us in September, and why it was given unusually early coverage by the New York Times. The papyrus and its supposed revelation was a hand-to-glove fit for the era, and for the feminist narratives currently in-play: the “war on women” narrative; the “church hates women” trope. As Mollie wrote:

The discovery of this lost fragment, if interpreted in just the right way, matches the views of the New York Times editorial page! It’s another early Christmas miracle!

Pure speculation on my part, perhaps there was a hedging of bets: suppose those supporting King’s theories suspected that her case was weak, and realized that if the Theological review rejected her paper, there was simply no discussion to be had on the papyrus, and no opportunity to insert a tantalizing corkscrew into church-bashing feminist rhetoric that has begun to grow stale. So, to the press it went.

The news that NatGeo has already filmed, edited and scheduled a documentary on the fragment — how quick was that? — only solidifies my suspicion that academic validation was less important to this story than getting the idea of “Jesus’ wife” out into the public, whether it is true or not.

Because, as Stephen Colbert has told us (and and cognitive researchers have confirmed) the “truthiness” of a thing is what matters. Put the message out there, and it doesn’t have to be factual; it just has to seem true enough for some — hey, it was in the New York Times! Hey! It was on NatGeo, so it must be true!! — and you’ve done your job.

This is why the press routinely prints the headline they want us to absorb when it comes to certain persons or institutions, and then discretely clarify things a few days later.

Thus, the truthiness is served. We seem to have an increasing appetite for it.

Of course, it could be the story came to us in September because it was meant to lay groundwork for a really big revisionist headline, come December, but let’s not entertain commonplace conspiracy theories. Yet.

UPDATE: In a semi-private chat, Tom McDonald addressed my thoughts on the timing:

I think the timing was probably determined by the Coptic Conference in Rome, so she could present it academically, which is the preferred way of revealing things like this. The NY Times report and the Smithsonian deal, however, were quite obviously made prior to the presentation of the report [emphasis mine - ed], which makes it clear that this was a more organized media campaign. It’s not necessarily wrong, but certainly raises some eyebrows, particularly with an unprovenanced piece.

Okay, is it rejected? Is it not rejected?. Everyone is having their say, expressing their opinions. I knew the fragment hadn’t been carbon tested (it’s too small) but the suggestion that publication now depends on date-testing of the ink makes me wonder why those i’s and t’s hadn’t been crossed from the start?
And certainly before media headlines and documentaries were initiated?

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About Elizabeth Scalia