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
yourselfthe 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.