Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gospel of Jesus' Wife Fragment: the Discussions Continue

Discussions about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment, some academic, others a little less so, have continued over the last week, several of them focusing on Andrew Bernhard's article and my related blogpost.  Both have been picked up by the press in recent days, and James McGrath has another of his great round-ups, with a characteristically witty title, Obituary for Jesus' Wife.  Today the latest developments have been covered by Fox News, among others.

I don't have any fresh information to share at this point except to draw attention to a helpful comment tonight from Kevin Madigan, co-editor of the Harvard Theological Review, to the following effect:
Professor King has informed us that she is making arrangements to submit the fragment for extensive testing, and the specialists she has contacted have indicated that testing, with the specific expertise needed to produce and interpret reliable results, will possibly take several weeks, if not months. Yes, HTR has postponed publication of the article, so that she will be able to incorporate results of the testing. In the interests of furthering scholarly debate, we are waiting on the testing.
Madigan was commenting on an article by Hershel Shanks that appeared in the Biblical Archaeology Society's Bible History Daily that was critical of the journal's decision to postpone the publication of the article.

A couple of reflections on the broader discussion as it has developed over the last week or so.  It is sometimes suggested that asking questions about the authenticity of the fragment is in some way inappropriate or insulting to Karen King.  On the contrary, Karen King was the first to ask these questions, they form a key element in her draft article, and she has herself encouraged continued questioning.  This is simply a necessary part of the academic process when new discoveries come to the light, and it is always a keen question in relation to unprovenanced texts and artifacts.  Asking the questions, studying the evidence, discussing different ideas -- this is what scholars do all the time.  And as I have repeatedly said, Karen King is beyond reproach in this affair.  It ought to go without saying that she is an outstanding scholar who has made massive contributions to the field.  She is in fact a role model for many of us.

Another theme that has emerged in some discussions has been a kind of dualism between "science" and textual study, with the suggestion that "science" alone will be able to settle the question of authenticity, and that textual scholarship is a kind of parlour game that can be played by anyone.  The way that scholarship actually works is as a collaborative enterprise, in which different scholars study the evidence, talk to one another, try out ideas, put forward hypotheses and test them.  Physical examination of manuscripts has a very important role to play in discussions like this, but it is one part of the discussion, not inately superior to the work done by experts on Coptology, papyrology, textual criticism, source criticism and so on.

The difficulty with scholarship in this generation is that we are still finding our feet.  Most of us are digital immigrants who were not brought up with the internet, still less with blogging and social media.  So there are always going to be contributions that are -- shall we say? -- a little unhelpful.  But to the extent that scholarship is a collaborative, interdisciplinary business,  the internet has facilitated fantastic advances in cases like this, where many pairs of eyes, from people with different areas of expertise, all over the world, are able to make their own contributions to a debate.


Stephen Goranson said...

Some of Hershel Shank's comments (linked above) may be beside the point. He apparently assumed, perhaps not reliably, that HTR delayed publication against Prof. King's wishes. He wrote (dated Oct. 16) that Luijendijk and "Bagnell" (read Bagnall) "regard the text as authentic"--using present tense. That would be interesting news, if that is true, despite recent findings. (I have no knowledge of their present views.) Did Shanks hear that from them recently or did he just allow himself ample editorial rhetorical scope? Shanks calls HTR's postponement "shameful," when a more apt word might be "prudent." In any case, Prof. King already generously made available a draft of her HTR submission as well as good photographs. It is, in a sense, already published. Debate is already here. Don't scholarly journals have better things to do than to publish fakes?

Stephen Goranson said...

"Muphry's Law" suggests that if you correct a typo in someone else's writing, your correction will include a typo. For the 4th word above, please read Shanks' not Shank's.
Sometimes, typographical errors-- even in Coptic, even if made in November, 2002, by Michael Grondin, in an online Coptic Gospel of Thomas--turn out to be rather significant.

Stephen Goranson said...

Shanks also wrote that the "only authority I know to declare it unqualifiedly 'a fake'" is someone that Shanks declares is not known for his competence in Coptic.
Be that as it may, and leaving aside numerous scholars who say it is, more or less, exceedingly likely a fake, Brown Prof. Leo Depuydt is an example of an authority who has been quoted as calling the ms precisely "a fake."

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your helpful comments, Stephen. Yes, and Prof Depuydt's article was, if I have understood it correctly, specifically commissioned by HTR.

Brett Provance said...

I wish Marv Meyer were here for this one.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I think Karen King ought to be commended for making the image of the fragment available online, along with her preliminary analysis. This openness has really contributed to a thorough peer-review and vetting that would otherwise have maybe taken months if not years to do in the old print paradigm.

Although this new way of peer-review has not quite gone the way I suspect that she would have preferred, I hope it nonetheless does not discourage later scholars from being as open about the primary source material as she has.

Stephen Goranson said...

I wonder whether the testing will include analyzing and comparing the ink on both sides.

Stephen Goranson said...

On the one hand, so to speak, if the ms fragment is from an ancient codex, as the HTR draft proposed, the ink on both sides should probably be very similar, and ancient (or ancient-compatible).
If the ms fragment is from an ancient scroll, with ancient writing on one side and modern writing on the other, the inks probably should differ. If the ancient papyrus scrap was blank on both sides but written upon in recent years by the same writer, the ink on both sides should probably be identical chemically.

Stephen Goranson said...

Opistograph. Apparently there are two definitions. William A. Johnson, Books and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (p. 342): "Opistograph. A bookroll where the text is written on both front (recto) and back (verso). This term does not apply when both sides are written upon because the papyrus has been reused." The Oxford English Dictionary, for what it's worth, entry spelled opisthograph, does not include the limitation in the second sentence; nor does it limit to writing on papyrus. Examples of the broader use, including papyrus and skin, and in cases of Qumran mss where the second writing is from a second, later scribe: Michael O. Wise, Thunder in Gemini and Emanuel Tov, Scribal practices and approaches reflected in the texts found in the Judean desert.