If the rumors are true that Harvard Theological Review has declined to publish Karen King’s article concerning the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment, it will be a major blow to the credibility of both the text and King’s reputation. I don’t know if this shadowy collector played King like a fiddle in his hopes of selling his collection to Harvard or if the various news outlets took the story and ran with it without bothering to fact check or if King tried to get ahead of the story in order to control the narrative or if King’s own exuberance and quest for notoriety carried her away. Likely it was a mixture of all of these things and perhaps several more as well. There are several things that we can learn from this saga that has had more sordid drama than a TLC reality show.

  • In the age of multi-billion dollar university endowments scholarship should be carefully separated from commercial interests. In this particular case, the New York Times asserted that the collector who presented the Coptic fragment to King was interested in selling his collection to Harvard. So, let’s do the math, shall we? Collector wants to sell to Harvard + professor he lets publish the sensational text has an endowed professorship at Harvard + said professor wants to publish text in the Harvard Theological Review = too many Harvards in that equation. Seriously, even if there is not an inherent conflict of interest in all this it doesn’t pass the smell test. For the sake of propriety and for safeguarding scholarship, the professors who first publish texts should not be associated with institutions that are potentially going to purchase them.
  • Do all relevant tests of authenticity before posing for pictures, calling the New York Times, and inviting documentary film-makers to film you. I was gobsmacked to read this sentence after scholars started to question the authenticity of the fragment and the wisdom of HTR publishing King’s article: “King said further testing would be done on the fragment, including ink tests to determine if the chemical components match those used in antiquity.” You do this kind of testing before you start promoting yourself the text in question. Period. There is no reason for the Smithsonian Channel to film a documentary before this happens. King shouldn’t have participated until this was finished and the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves for putting sensationalism in front of true learning.
  • When you hear of unprovenanced texts that are “too good to be true” they probably are. And when I say “probably” I mean, like, 85% of the time when unprovenaced texts include biblical figures, or seem to support conspiracy theories, or reflect the plot lines of best selling novels, they turn out to be forgeries.
  • Single scholars cannot control the story of the texts that they publish. There once was a time when you could publish the first edition of a text and thereby control the conversation on this text for the next decade or so. Those days are dead and gone. The media is hungry for a new, sensational story that will grab eyeballs and as soon it is released they will take it and run with it. Furthermore, other scholars will instantaneously tear the situation apart, analyze every element of it, and make their reflections known in real time. But, this is how it should be. Ancient texts do not belong to one person, they are the common heritage of humankind and should be open and accessible for a consensus to form around them.
  • When you mess up be quick to apologize. King’s reputation is spiraling down the drain and if she wants to salvage much of it she should come clean on who presented this text to her and also apologize about the way she has handled this situation.
There is probably more that we can say about this and we can be sure that this story will take a few more twists and turns before all is said and done. Just one final piece of advice to King: If TLC comes knocking on your door wanting to make you the new Honey Boo Boo of the scholarly world, just say no.

About the author

Charles Halton

8 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. Pingback: Netzfunde Mittwoch, 26. September 2012 | Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott

  2. Pingback: Are Reports of the Death of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Greatly Exaggerated?

  3. Pingback: The Harvard Theological Journal, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and Karen L. King’s rejected (or not rejected) paper. | Near Emmaus

  4. Love it! All time best use of the phrase “Honey Boo Boo of the scholarly world.” Claim your title, Dr. Halton.

  5. by Gesine Robinson

    Rebuttal of the presentation of a Gospel of Jesus’ wife
    Gesine Robinson
    My objections to the claim of an ancient manuscript fragment and my reasons for regarding it a modern forgery are manifold:
    1. Claiming to possess an ancient fragment without knowing its provenance is unfortunate enough, but without giving the current owner is highly suspicious.
    2. Even the square format of the papyrus piece with its neat edges suggests that this, at best, is scrap-material, not a preserved manuscript fragment.
    3. The papyrus itself may actually be ancient (though this cannot be determined by simply “carefully examining” it, as was maintained), since at least the vertical side gives a rather genuine impression, but the handwriting on the horizontal side is very different, especially with regard to the space between letters and between the lines.
    4. On paleographical grounds, the handwriting cannot come from the 4th century; especially judging from the way the T is written, for instance; there is no resemblance to the other known 4th century texts.
    5. Miraculously, there are always full phrases preserved, something that hardly happens on a small single fragment.
    6. And amazingly, on this small piece there are, according to the editors, allusions not only to one but even to two of the more well-known non-biblical gospels, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas.
    7. In terms of the language, only the simplest vocabulary is used and only simple constructions are employed, as if the writer were afraid to make a grammatical mistake.
    8. Therefore, the rather rare phrase peje i±±±s+ (though frequently used in the Gospel of Thomas since we have to do there with a collection of Jesus’ sayings) is used even in both instances of speaking, instead of the form pejaF (+ pronominal/nominal object) + NCi + subject that is more common in dialogues or other literary texts. Here in the first instance one would expect something like pejau NIs+ NCi Nmaqhths, and in the second instance pejaF nau NCi i±±s+, or since Jesus answers the disciples, even aFouwvb= NCi Is+ pejaF nau je. It seems a cautious and perhaps unsure modern Coptologist was at work here.
    9. In addition, even though in Coptic dictionaries sHime is used for “woman” and Hime for “wife,” Hime is almost never used in comparable literary texts, not for the wife of Adam, Jacob, or any other male figures.
    10. In the 2nd century, a time for which the Greek original is presupposed, an author would never have let Jesus simply say, “my wife,” existent or not. Women were relegated to the household as soon as Christian communities ventured out into the public sphere. In case of a disciple married to Jesus, the author would perhaps have explained in a dependent sentence the married status, like “Mary Magdalene, my wife, . . .”. The plain phrase “my wife” betrays modern thinking.

    Finally let me express how deeply saddened and troubled I am by the latest trend in manuscript research. There seems to be a new integrity problem, starting with Marv Meyer’s “no comment” (regarding the Gospel of Judas) to Jim Robinson who had worked tirelessly for openness in textual research, up to the newest and most blatant example in Rome. Again secrecy was used as a means to maximize the sensational effect. For this reason, everything was intentionally orchestrated in a way that assured this outcome. It appears that the opening up of the Harvard website and the arrival of the press at the same moment the introduction in Rome was given were coordinated to that end. I am concerned that henceforth new manuscript discoveries will be widely assessed by experts in the field as something that individual scholars can exploit for their own profit.
    Scholarship always benefitted from letting colleagues know about current works, from having open discussions of individual research projects at conventions, or from peer reviews prior to publications – something that would have been very beneficial especially in this current instance. Instead it was chosen to hide information from peers and introduce something with so much fanfare and speculation that it surely has to be backtracked one day, just like the evaluation of the Gospel of Judas had to be reversed by the first editors.

  6. Pingback: Gesine Robinson on the “Jesus Wife” Fragment | Awilum.com

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