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When Harvard professor Karen King decided to go public with her recent finding -- the parchment fragment that mentioned Jesus' wife -- the timing seemed a little odd. King said that she planned to send the fragment for chemical testing to confirm that it was actually from the fourth century, as she suggested, but decided not to do that before the big announcement. According to the New York Times:

Dr. King has arranged to have the chemical composition of the ink tested by the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard in mid-October. The testing could provide an approximate date for the ink used on the fragment. Dr. King said in an interview this month that the center had been unable to schedule the testing before she presented her paper.

What an odd way for a scholar to proceed. Here is a document that is 1600-something years old (supposedly) and you can't wait a few weeks to present your paper to the public for some chemical tests to actually determine whether it's even conceivable that this fragment is what you say it is. Why the rush?

Well, the answer becomes clear in Charlotte Allen's deeply informative piece on the matter in the Weekly Standard. She describes how this fragment, like the Gospel of Judas that was discovered a few years ago, have been subject to some less than scholarly investigations. Of the former instance, Allen writes:

The National Geographic Society bought the rights to translate and publish Judas for a reported $1 million, then assembled a team of scholars to transcribe the Coptic words and produce an English translation, all in utmost secrecy over a few months, so that the release would coincide with a National Geographic television special about it, all nicely timed for Palm Sunday 2006.

The result, according to the scholars Allen interviewed, was that the translation was rushed to make this television deadline and some passages were mistranslated in part because the scholars who worked on the project were not supposed to share their work with others in the field. She sees a similar situation occurring with the new fragment.

Standing in for National Geographic this time around is the Smithsonian, which has scheduled a “Jesus’ Wife” television documentary for September 30. As happened with the Gospel of Judas in 2006, the massive press coverage has focused more on the possibility that the historical Jesus actually said “I do” than on what some obscure group of Gnostics might have believed about his marital status a couple of centuries later. And as before, scholars knowledgeable about Coptic manuscripts wonder if King was rolled.

Now it seems that the television special has been put on hold and the fate of King's forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review is also unclear as a result of doubt being cast by various experts on the fragment's authenticity.  The notion that Jesus had a wife and that it was covered up for centuries fits in with the views of King and others that Christianity has somehow been corrupted by the patriarchal church. And Allen perhaps has the best explanation for why King has perhaps fallen for a forgery: "People really do find what they are looking for."

The details of the matter are worth reading about, but two things jump out at me from the description of the way King and some of the other Gnostic Gospel scholars are behaving. First they are acting in haste for the purposes of media coverage and second, they are restricting access to their findings, preventing other scholars in the discipline from examining the text, prior to the big media reveal. These things are not supposed to happen in the academy.

Indeed, one of the arguments you will hear again and again about the need for tenure and the protection of academic freedom is that scholars need time to act slowly and deliberately. So it would be unfair to judge their performance every year because it often takes longer than that to really have work that reaches full fruition. And then you hear that academics must be treated differently from employees in, say, a business, because their work is collaborative across institutions. They are not supposed to be shutting out other scholars just to get more of the media spotlight.

Obviously not every discipline or historical finding is going to have the potential for a major TV special, but it is interesting to see that when the opportunity presents itself, some prominent academics do not seem to demonstrate much integrity.

1 thought on “Jesus’ wife: Scholarship succumbs to siren song of media coverage”

  1. David says:

    Naomi, Naomi. Always talking about what you don’t know.

    This has nothing to do with tenure or other academic matters you refuse to try to understand.
    This is all about scholarship itself.

    King had it on good authority that the fragment was authentic, though she did not wait for all the testing to be done. She probably should have waited.

    The great experts on these materials, who all have tenure for the most part, have not been able to weigh in definitively on this. They will little by little as they examine it for themselves or see the results of testing.

    King already has tenure. She wasn’t trying to rush something to meet the demands of a tenure system. It is only someone with tenure who could present and propose ideas on this fragment. Without tenure she’d have kept it quiet for fear of reactionaries like you.

    Furthermore, it is the tenure system itself which recognizes real, painstaking scholarship which allows the existence of the real scholars who can judge the authenticity of the fragment. They are specialists who work on obscure languages and become experts on manuscripts you’d simply throw away in a vain effort to be efficient. Their technical work comes from years of training in the midst of teaching more general courses on ancient history to undergrads. Of course, you understand none of that, so it doesn’t matter.
    If only they could be more productive and teach loads of classes and write meaningless books with titles like “Faculty Lounges” or “Acculturated.”

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