Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife Latest

I realize that the story is now beginning to die down, and that large parts of the media are saying, "Nothing to see here; move on, move on", but there are a few things I would like to mention before the story drops out of everyone's consciousness, not least as my time has been a bit too limited to blog about it over the last few days.  Today's Chronicle of Higher Education is already looking to learn the Lessons of Jesus' Wife, but I am not ready to give up on the story yet.

There is one post in particular that rewards careful consideration.  In addition to Christian Askeland's video, which I mentioned the other day, there is an important post by Alin Suciu and Hugo Lundhaug, On the So-Called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Some Preliminary Thoughts (and see also the comments and the fresh post on a Peculiar Dialectical Feature).
For full round-ups of the latest material, James McGrath has continued with his excellent summaries and comments in Dating Jesus' Wife, and he also published a parody of Watson's article by Timo Panaanen.  All of his posts the topic can be found here.

It was interesting to see how the cumulative weight of the sceptical reaction from among many scholars was enough to cause some serious questioning of the fragment's authenticity.  At one stage, it looked like Harvard Theological Review were pulling back on the publication of Karen King's article originally scheduled for January 2013 but the confusion about this was eventually clarified with a statement that underlined the provisional nature of any decision (God and the Machine, with links, and elsewhere).

Nevertheless, what did become clear was that Smithsonian Channel were also anxious about some of the scholarly reaction and decided not to air the documentary last night.  I must admit to a little disappointment not to see it, especially after all the hype, but Bob Cargill is surely right to give them kudos for putting it on hold, at least for the time being.

I must admit that my own view on the fragment has further crystallized into outright scepticism.  I am cursed with a sceptical mentality, I know, and so you do not -- of course -- want to listen to me on these things.  Heck, I don't even believe in the existence of mainstream stuff like Q, or the independence of Thomas.  But the more I spend time studying what is available on the fragment, and the more I reflect on the studies by Watson, Askeland, Suciu and Lundhaug (and others), the tougher I find it to to slay the sceptical spirit.

In fact, I was even quoted in Lisa Wangsness's excellent piece in the Boston GlobeScholars begin to weigh in on ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’, to the effect that the problem with the fragment is that it appears to be dependent not just on the Gospel of Thomas (the work) but on our Coptic Gospel of Thomas (the textual witness).

One point keeps rearing its head in all of this.  It is repeatedly said that the fragment could have been dependent on the Gospel of Thomas in antiquity, and so the parallels between the fragment and Thomas do not tell us anything about the authenticity of the fragment.  Those who are making this point have either failed fully to understand Watson's case or they are failing to articulate their own counter-argument effectively.

The difficulty is this.  Watson's analysis shows that the Jesus Wife Fragment appears to be dependent specifically on our Coptic Thomas from Nag Hammadi Codex II.  (Note: this is our only complete textual witness to Thomas.)  In other words, we are not talking about literary parallels between works composed in Greek (like Matthew and Mark or Egerton and John) but detailed parallels between one Coptic text (Jesus Wife fragment) and a Coptic textual witness of a Greek work (Coptic Thomas from Nag Hammadi).  The reason the verbatim agreements + line breaks are important is that they suggest dependence on this one specific textual witness, not on the work more broadly.

As I see it, there are two options here.  Either the author of the Jesus fragment got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar in Nag Hammadi in the late fourth century to be buried for 1500 years, or s/he got hold of it after it came out of the jar in 1945.  While we cannot rule out the possibility that s/he got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar, it is much more likely that the author got hold of it in the modern period with its multiple reproductions, in print and internet, of that one witness.


reallyquitetired said...

Mark, are we not in danger of confusing what is extant with what has ever existed? Could the Nag Hammadi Thomas have not existed in other versions that were copied exactly (with the same line-breaks etc.) either from the source we have, or from an earlier one on which the NH text also relies?

I'm not suggesting that such a scenario is likely, but surely if it is possible then we need to nuance our arguments accordingly. Obviously we need to be very careful when making 'positive' arguments from silence, but do we not also need to be careful when making 'negative' ones too?

reallyquitetired said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timo S. Paananen said...

Medium-length clarification: what Mark calls above "a parody" (not an altogether impossible label), I would rather see as a reductio ad absurdum followed by an examination of the logic of the argument that so easily produces absurd results. Furthermore, I do not claim a general dependence between the Egerton Gospel and the Gospel of John, but a very specific dependence between Papyrus Köln 255 and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae rendition of the Gospel of John—I even get line breaks to match!

But let me put my serious-and-honest-to-God hat on for a while: I understand if Mark and probably some others as well do not approve of the tone of the essay (which I also find problematic), and I can only offer these two notions as a partial defense of myself: 1) it is hard to keep a completely straight face when making a reductio ad absurdum, because absurd = silly, 2) there is, I feel, a real danger in underplaying the silliness for the benefit of remaining more polite. Consider my PhD work on the Secret Gospel of Mark. I have amused myself over the years by coming up with a host of "hidden clues" that were allegedly left behind by Morton Smith. But I fear I can never make use of them in any shape or form, because the people who are prone to believe in the previous "hidden clues" discovered, incidentally, by Francis Watson among others, could turn my "discoveries" into further "proof" of the modern origins of the Secret Gospel. Regarding Papyrus Köln 255 the parody aspect of my analysis is necessary, I feel, to ensure that people do not turn it upside down and claim that it strenghtens Watson's case against the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife—and make the Egerton Gospel a fake as well!

At the bottom of this all, I think, lies the inability of human cognition to effectively deal with a host of similarities, because of our double tendency to produce patterns out of random data and assign agenticity to it, as explored by contemporary cognitive psychology. For the study of history this means, I think, that we need to be extremely specific with what we do with our data. This specificity is, to my mind, lacking in Watson's analysis as it seems to me that in there coming up with verbal parallels and a line break or two is enough to make a manuscript fragment "derivative". My point is: if presented as Watson does makes it look reasonable while presented as I do makes it look silly (even though the underlying logic of the argument is not changed), then we have, in this specific instance, allowed our cognitive tendencies to carry us forwards to conclusions we would otherwise find inacceptable. Generally speaking, any decision to treat the data one way or the other is fine by me, provided that it is used consistently across the board ("fair play", or "no special pleading"). If Watson's analysis makes other manuscript fragments "derivate" and "fake", we need to roll with those results, or (preferably) adjust the criteria of the analysis until it falls in line with the rest of our arguments about history.

Mark Goodacre said...

Agree, reallyquitetired, that we need to acknowledge the possibility that there were other texts with identical line breaks that were used by the author of the fragment, but drawing attention to the possibility tends to underline the point about our very easily available, multiple copies of the text.

Stephen Goranson said...

From Smithsonian Magazine page 3: "When I asked King why neither Fecht nor Munro would have sought to publish so novel a discovery, she said, 'People interested in Egyptology tend not to be interested in Christianity. They’re into Pharaonic stuff. They simply may not have been interested.'"
Gerhard Fecht did not publish only on "Pharaonic stuff," but also on Coptic, as can be seen in the bibliography in his 1987 Festschrift, Form und Mass. For instance, Fecht's article on Evangelium Veritatis from Nag Hammadi Codex I (the "Jung" Codex), Orientalia 30 (1961) 371-90.
Matthew Hamilton noted (on Rogue Classicism) that the reported Fecht dating of a Coptic Gospel of John ms as 2nd-4th century would be remarkably early. Would Fecht have made a such a, for Coptic, narrow dating? This might show some interest in Christianity.
Christian Askeland (at Evangelical Textual Criticism) noted that Karen King studied at the Free Uni, Berlin in 1982-3; the letter mention Fecht of Berlin is dated 1982, an odd coincidence not noted in the HTR draft. (Apparently Wolf-Peter Funk, who has expressed reservations about this ms, was there then too.)
Previously I wondered whether Fecht would conclude that a Coptic ms could be "evidence for a possible marriage."
Has or had anyone heard of this ms before recently (1982 to 2010), besides the deceased Fecht, Monro, and Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, and the anonymous collector?

Stephen Goranson said...

Mike Grondin noted (on Alin Suciu's blog): "....It’s remarkable to me that the top cut of the fragment occurred almost exactly between lines on both recto and verso. It could happen, of course, but the probability seems quite remote."
Then I commented "Also, the same word appears in line one on both sides." Coincidence?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Timo. I didn't think you would mind the term "parody", which I think gets at the heart of what you are attempting here, but yes, I do see that it is an attempt at reductio ad absurdum.

A couple of things make your example a difficult one to sustain as a good analogy, though. One thing that makes the parallels between the Jesus Wife Fragment and the Gospel of Thomas striking is that they occur in Coptic witnesses. No one seriously thinks that the Gospel of Thomas was composed in Coptic. Your analogies are Greek witnesses to works composed in Greek.

The line break issue with TLG rather illustrates the remarkable nature of the Jesus Wife Fragment / Gospel of Thomas parallel. Not only is your parallel a bit weak, [U]MW[N] / UMEIS, but also one could select from many editions of John that do not have a line break there (e.g. NA27).

Further, it is a serious possibility that the author of the Egerton Gospel *is* dependent on the Gospel of John, so that extent your analogy is self-defeating.

The parallels with Morton Smith may be instructive. We come down on different sides of the fence on that one, Timo, but there is a difference for me here between the Jesus Wife Fragment and the Letter to Theodore. I could definitely compose something like the Jesus Wife Fragment. But I don't think I could produce something like the Letter to Theodore. If it is a forgery (as I think), it is a work of genius.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Stephen. Interesting observations about Fecht. I'd noticed too that King's quoted remarks about Fecht here are unwarranted given his bibliography. I would like to see the handwritten note getting released too. It would be good to take a look at the handwriting and so on and to get a feel for provenance. I agree that we need too to find out if anyone is known to have handled or even heard about this fragment between 1982 and the present. Good point too on the identical first lines on recto and verso.

georgeosdiazmontexano said...

Published the 'Secunda Recensio' of my Palaeografical Report of September 18, 2012 about Coptic Papyrus of the alleged "Gospel of Mary, wife of Jesus". More than one score of objections and arguments based on evidences. Evidence about ethnic origin-cultural of the author of the Papyrus...

Kind Regards,

Geoff Hudson said...

"But the more I spend time studying what is available on the fragment, and the more I reflect on the studies by Watson, Askeland, Suciu and Lundhaug (and others), the tougher I find it to to slay the sceptical spirit."

I have to wonder why you waste your time with such considerations which have no bearing on reality.