Monday, June 20, 2016

Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Last Chapter Round-Up

Since the remarkable piece of investigative journalism from Ariel Sabar was published last Wednesday (The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus' Wife), in which the owner of the fragment, Walter Fritz, was unmasked, the discussion in the media has taken off at a pretty pace. In this post, I'd like to draw together several of the key developments. 

On Thursday, Christian Askeland filled in some further details on Walter Fritz in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog:

More on the Gospel of Jesus Wife and Walter Fritz

And then on Friday, Owen Jarus of Live Science explained the key role he played in following leads on the text's provenance and finding his way to Fritz:

Gospel of Jesus's Wife Likely a Fake, Bizarre Backstory Suggests

Meanwhile, Karen King herself responded to Ariel Sabar's article and called him to say that she found it "fascinating" and "very helpful". In a short follow-up, Sabar explained that for Prof. King, the new information "presses in the direction of forgery":

Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’
The Harvard scholar says papyrus is probably a forgery

These reported comments led to further media reaction as more read and digested Sabar's compelling story. One of the three original journalists to cover the story on 12 September 2012, Lisa Wangsness, author also of a fine piece entitled "Is the 'Gospel of Jesus' Wife a Revelation or a Hoax?" last November, returned again to the story in the Boston Globe:

‘Jesus’s wife’ papyrus likely fake, scholar says

Wangsness featured more comments from Karen King, as well as a tidbit from me. One of the questions in the article was whether there ought perhaps to be some kind of comment on the latest news from Harvard. A comment was soon forthcoming. Today (Monday 20th June), they added an update to the Gospel of Jesus wife website:

Update: June 20, 2016
Statement from HDS Dean David N. Hempton on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”
The June 15, 2016 issue of The Atlantic Monthly published an article entitled The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus's Wife. The article called into question the provenance and authenticity of a papyrus fragment, purportedly stating "Jesus said to them, My wife" that is the subject of research by Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School. 
Reached for comment by The Boston Globe after publication of the Atlantic article, Professor King was quoted as stating that "It appears now that all the material [owner Walter] Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus ... were fabrications." 
On June 16, 2016, The Atlantic published an interview with Professor King by the same author, in which Professor King stated that the Atlantic's investigation "tips the balance towards forgery” and that the preponderance of the evidence now presses in that direction. 
The mission of Harvard Divinity School, its faculty, and higher education more generally is to pursue truth through scholarship, investigation, and vigorous debate. HDS is therefore grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians, and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment. HDS welcomes these contributions and will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve. 
David N. Hempton
Dean, Harvard Divinity School
Over the weekend and today there have been more and more articles on the story. Most of them simply repeat, summarize and comment on The Atlantic, Boston Globe and Live Science pieces, though there is a fresh piece from the Associated Press that is finding its way into several places, including The Guardian:

Jesus' Wife Papyrus Probably Fake, Say Experts
New evidence indicates the fragment in which Jesus refers to ‘my wife’ is likely to be a modern forgery

They interviewed me for this piece too, just after a Skype interview on CBN that is available here:

Debunking the Myth: Did Jesus Really Have a Wife?

Also today, the Boston Globe followed up its earlier article with a comment from Harvard Theological Review:

Harvard Theological Review won’t retract ‘Jesus’s Wife’ paper
. . . . Jon D. Levenson and Kevin J. Madigan, editors of the Harvard Theological Review, said in a statement Monday that their journal “has scrupulously and consistently avoided committing itself on the issue of the authenticity of the papyrus fragment.” 
The editors say King’s article and the articles on scientific tests King commissioned on the fragment “were represented or misrepresented in some circles as establishing the authenticity of the fragment.” . . . . 
There have also been several comments in the blogs that are worth viewing. As well as Christian Askeland and Peter Gurry on Evangelical Textual Criticism, there is interesting commentary from Roberta Mazza on Faces & Voices, Carrie Schroeder on Early Christian Monasticism in the Digital Age (Provenance, Provenance, Provenance, More on Social Networks and Provenance, and On Kindness and Critique), Jim Davila on Paleojudaica, and Malcolm Choat on Markers of Authenticity. I have certainly missed others; please let me have any links that I should add.

I don't have much fresh to add, at this point, to what I've already said. Perhaps I will say more in due course. My overwhelming feeling at this point is a profound sadness about the whole affair. Yes, it's been fantastic to see scholars like Christian Askeland and Andrew Bernhard exposing the hoax so skilfully. And it is true that the twists and turns of the story over the last four years have made fascinating reading. But at the same time it's very sad that we have all spent so much time and energy on what, in the end, is someone's attempt to dupe the academy. We are all victims of this appalling episode.


Peter M. Head said...

Good job in that interview Mark.

Peter Gurry said...

The difference between HTR editors and the HDS website on whether they claimed authenticity is pretty striking.

Stephen Goranson said...

1) Yes, the HDS website statement ‘Testing Indicates “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient’ is/was misleading. Prof. King had withdrawn that title. The papyrus writing surface (which is medieval) properly is distinguished from the inked inscription upon it (which is 21st century).

2) A somewhat related paper and discussion led by Eibert Tigchelaar concerns "Dead Sea Scroll" mss that appeared on the market in the 21st century--are some of them genuine and some fake? What texts? What hands? What provenance information? (Also mentioned in the discussion: so-called "palm pen/stylus" objects supposedly from Qumran sold to two private collections and an apparent mix-up of Qumran silver hoarded coins mixed in with non-Qumran provenance coins in the Amman museum, apparently leading a few to misdate the Qumran coin hoards.) If interested see:

Jason Pratt said...

Nope, I don't care to put Dr. King, and her supporters at the Harvard Divinity School and the Smithsonian Institute, in the "victim" category. The relevant people involved took a scrap with terrible provenance, a vague interpretative grammar, suspicious physical characteristics, and literally no chance even if it had been legitimate of it being of any importance except to the history of paleography in a branch of Coptic -- and invested ludicrous amounts of time and money (including a documentary produced and ready to show before the carbon dating tests had even been made), trying to make it important in Christian history somehow. While regularly downplaying scepticism about the fragment as motivated by ideological fear.

They are not victims. At some early point they became willful perpetrators. None of that can be blamed on Fritz or his wife.


Stephen Goranson said...

If it is true, as has been suggested, that the "Jesus Wife" and "provenance" mss were forged after the death of Peter Munro, it may be worthwhile to note the correct date of his death, misreported in the King 2012 HTR draft paper page 2 (2008), and in a typo (2008) in an English translation of a German obituary by Ch. E. Loeben, and elsewhere online. He died on Jan. 2, 2009, as confirmed by the statement that he was born in 1930 and died "six days before his 79th birthday" and as confirmed in the following locations:

Prof. King reportedly did not show much interest when first contacted by Fritz in 2010. When he wrote to her again on July 9, 2011 he claimed to inform her "before I sell it" to a European dealer.
But did he really have an offer to buy it, or was that a salesman tactic?
Also, his wife's blog account of a 2nd century AD Coptic gospel may not be reliable.

jim kerr said...

The number of all too common errors (myths?) regarding church history and the NT canon in the Atlantic article are more than a little annoying. I appreciate his efforts in helping to expose this fake fragment, but it would've been nice if Mr Sabar's editor(s) had cared enough to run his copy past a knowledgeable (non-Roman Catholic) NT historian before going to print.

Jason Pratt said...

Yeah, I commented on Mr. Sabar's own mythic propagations in my more-detailed earlier rant about the conspiratorial irresponsibility of the axis of Dr. King, HDS, and the Smithsonian in marketing the fragment. (My more focused article a few days later calling that "axis of shockery" out for consciously choosing to contribute to the fraud even though they didn't hoax the thing themselves, can be found here. Mark's blog gets a recommended link each time for tracing back through articles and links over the years.)

But I cut him some slack on those, since he was only repeating lines fed to the media by scholars who certainly know better.

What bothered me more about Sabar's article, was that after everything he discovered and everything that happened, he was still trying to present the fragment as being ultra-important for history had it been legitimate. Which I guess shouldn't be surprising, since Sabar had been instrumental (on extended assignment from the Smithsonian as their chosen journalist for doing so) in helping market the hoax at the beginning! Surely, surely all the foofaraw from the axis couldn't have been about practically nothing in the best case after all? {wry g}


Stephen Goranson said...

David Meadows made some interesting comments about this case. For example, the photo of a Greek papyrus posted by the Walter Fritz Nefer Art that looks like a modern fake may include a "fascinum." If so, it apparently would be the winged variety.

Stephen Goranson said...

On potential "Dead Sea Scroll" forgeries among fragments sold post-2002:

Eibert Tigchelaar:

Kipp Davis:

Owen Jarus:

Stephen Goranson said...

More on proposed DSS fakes: