Friday, May 09, 2014

Jesus' Wife Fragment: Another Round-Up

It's time for another quick round-up on the latest in the Jesus' Wife Fragment.  Now that the documentary has aired, and people have had time to reflect on some of the recent developments, it looks like we are at the point where the story will begin to receive less attention on the blogs, and certainly less attention in the media.  There is a kind of cycle here, and the experience of the last four weeks has been similar to the experience of September-October 2012.

The major difference this time around was that the documentary, originally scheduled for 30 September 2012, actually aired (trailer).  I must admit that I didn't watch it live, and although some of us have in the past live-tweeted documentaries like this, there didn't seem to be quite the appetite this time.  So I went to our local cinema grill to watch the first two episodes of the new 24 instead, and watched the Jesus' Wife documentary on the DVR when I got home.  I'm sorry if I sound shallow, but for me Jack wins over Jesus' Wife every time.

The documentary itself was very little changed from the version that aired in France several months ago.  There are several things I really enjoyed about the piece.  The interviews with Karen King were captivating, and I greatly appreciated her lucidity and enthusiasm -- she is an absolute natural in front of camera.  Likewise, AnneMarie Luijendijk was great.  I had not seen her on TV before, and she was also a natural.  Whereas all Prof. King's interviews appeared to take place at Harvard, Prof. Luijendijk was seen at Nag Hammadi (and we even got a retelling of the classic "find" story, jinn and all, in a single-person version, with an actor playing Mohammed 'Ali Al Samman) and the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The documentary tended to play to a narrative that scholars of Christian origins will find familiar -- an ecclesial authority that is associated with celibacy and suppression of women is pitted against an anti-ecclesial counter-narrative in which the Jesus' Wife Fragment is now alleged to play a part.  In order to represent this visually, those speaking in favour of the fragment's authenticity -- Profs. King, Luijendijk and Bagnall -- were all presented in academic contexts, at their computers, in archaeological sites, in museums, whereas the other contributors, Dom. Henry Wansbrough and Robin Griffiths-Jones, were presented in churches and in recognizably ecclesial garb.  In so far as the forgery hypothesis came up, it was generally linked with "the Vatican", and the viewer was encouraged to think that it is only conservative types who were doubting the authenticity of the fragment.

The most disappointing element about the documentary was that it only appended one minute of additional material at the end to reflect recent developments, showing headlines in which the fragment was declared authentic.  The documentary concluded with the following statement:
"In short, there's much new evidence for its authenticity and none that it's a modern forgery.  The fragment will continue to stir controversy.  Scholars will continue to debate its meaning.  It will be some while yet before we can say whether the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a footnote or a new chapter in the greatest story ever told" (emphasis original).
However, if the documentary itself came across as advocating very strongly for the authenticity of the fragment, the media more broadly has very much caught up with recent developments.  The highlight might just be Michael Peppard's remarkable turn on CNN:

(See the CNN HD version here). Like King and Luijendijk, Peppard is an absolute natural in front of camera -- he has a lightness of touch, and runs with the host's humour, but at the same time he is informative and lucid. By standing in front of graphic representations of the fragments, he is able to draw attention to some of the issues, including the writing round the hole.  (Yet still, we are dependent on images extracted from Harvard Divinity's PDFs; it would be wonderful to see good digital images released for detailed study).

Meanwhile, there are at least a couple of blog posts that are well worth reading for reflections on the fragment and the recent scholarly discussion.  First, Larry Hurtado comments:

The “Jesus’ Wife” Controversy: Scholarship, Publicity, and The Issues

And then Peter Head has some very helpful reflections on the lessons we can learn from this affair:

Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus' Wife as Case Study

Further, Münster has today issued a press-release that focuses on Christian Askeland's key contributions, featuring an endorsement from Prof. Stephen Emmel:

Gastforscher Dr. Christian Askeland entlarvt angeblich antikes Schriftstück / "Der sichere Beweis hatte gefehlt"
. . . . Prof. Dr. Stephen Emmel vom Institut für Ägyptologie und Koptologie der WWU, der den Nachwuchsforscher betreute, war von der Arbeit seines Zöglings fasziniert. Erstaunt habe ihn, der schon 2012 Zweifel angemeldet  hatte, die Entdeckung der Fälschung allerdings nicht, sei sie doch so offensichtlich gewesen: "Bislang hatte einfach der absolut sichere Beweis gefehlt", meint Stephen Emmel.
Dass Christian Askeland seine Wege von der Kirchlichen Hochschule Wuppertal, seinem derzeitigen Arbeitgeber, an die WWU führten, sei ein glücklicher Umstand gewesen: "Er hat über die koptische Übersetzung des Johannesevangeliums promoviert. Somit war er genau der Richtige, der das entdecken konnte", sagt Koptologe Stephen Emmel. Die Fälschung hält er sogar für recht jung. "Sie dürfte in den vergangenen zehn Jahren entstanden sein", mutmaßt der Experte.
Meanwhile, there has been some interesting discussion about the language in which some of the blog posts have been couched, culminating in a thoughtful piece on the Religion Dispatches blog:

"Gospel of Jesus’ Wife" Less Durable Than Sexism Surrounding It
Eva Mroczek

The article is well worth reading, and focuses on the issue of the language in which some of the discussion of the Jesus' Wife Fragment has been couched.  Eva is too gracious to mention that I also participated in the very thing she exposes here, by echoing language about the Lycopolitan John fragment as "ugly sister", and about which I apologized sincerely.  Since many have expressed bafflement at the use of this metaphor, and since Eva herself does not explain its origins, I should perhaps explain that it was an ill-advised attempt to play on Roger Bagnall's description of the Jesus' Wife Fragment on the day of its publication:
""We put it up on the screen, and we all sort of said, ‘Eeew,’ ” said Bagnall, one of the world’s leading papyrologists. “We thought it was ugly. And it is ­ugly. The handwriting is not nice — thick, badly controlled strokes made by somebody who didn’t have a very good pen.” (Boston Globe, 18 September 2012). 
The point was to note that its sister fragment was equally as ugly.  Nevertheless, I do see that the use of the metaphor is unfortunate and offensive, and I would like to reiterate my apology also in this context, and to thank Eva for drawing attention to it.

Update (Saturday, 1.42am): I forgot also to add a link to a characteristically interesting post by Jim Davila on Paleojudaica, Papyrus Forgeries?, in which he picks up on Roger Bagnall's statement, "I don’t know of a single verifiable case of somebody producing a papyrus text that purports to be an ancient text that isn’t" (New York Times).  See also Jim Davila's earlier comments in GJW: Another Goodacre Round-Up.

Note also that April DeConick is asking What are the facts about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife?, adding a note of caution about some bloggers' claims, and getting some strong support from James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, both of whom remain convinced about the authenticity of the fragment.  Simcha complains about pseudo-academic nay-sayers like me.  He calls us "sleeper-agents of Christian theology", though at the same time he notes that we "never sleep".


pithom said...

"Meanwhile, there has been some interesting discussion about the language in which some of the blog posts have been couched, culminating in a thoughtful piece on the Religion Dispatches blog:"
-Your description of the piece as "thoughtful" strikes me as bizarre. I consider the piece to be a laughable bit of irrational, self-oblivious pedantry.

Richie Dagger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comment, Pithom. Eva's article was written after an overwhelming number of critical posts in social media directly criticizing Christian, and some aimed also at me. Although I think that many of those critical comments were made without knowledge of the back story of the metaphor, as it were, there is no question that it was regarded as insulting, sexist and offensive by the vast majority of those commenting on it.

David Mackinder said...

Mark, I'm afraid your link to Peter Head's contribution takes one to Larry Hurtado's.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"I consider the piece to be a laughable bit of irrational, self-oblivious pedantry."

Jesus wept.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, David. Fixed!

pithom said...

"after an overwhelming number of critical posts in social media directly criticizing Christian"
-Ah. This does explain some of the backstory behind this piece. Though my opinion of the content of the piece hasn't changed, my puzzlement regarding why it appeared has.

Unknown said...

I've followed the "Jesus' Wife" Fragment since the announcement of its discovery some two years ago (or so) although I lack any background in the area. Given the apparent age of the papyrus, are there any tests available to discern the depth and/or types of indentures on the underlying papyrus?

It seems to me that the contact between the papyrus and the pen/quill might potentially evidence differently depending on the age and/or condition of the papyrus. The correlation I suspect might be that contemporaneous writing on papyrus might reveal more substantial contact (or indentures) on the papyrus as I assume there would be less potential concern w/ damaging the papyrus as compared to subsequent writings on comparatively old and brittle papyrus.

In any event I appreciate the updates, thanks!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Pithom. I've been tempted to write a follow-up post on the affair to offer a bit more context, but I don't think I can face it at the moment. Perhaps in due course.

Thanks, Corey. Good questions. Several have suggested that the scribe used a brush, which looks plausible to me.

Stephen Goranson said...

Thanks. The NY Times (Sept. 18, 2012) reported that of the three HTR reviewers "Two questioned its authenticity, but they had seen only low-resolution photographs of the fragment and were unaware that expert papyrologists had seen the actual item and judged it to be genuine, Dr. King said. One of the two questioned the grammar, translation and interpretation." Instead of presuming that reviewers would change their minds, they could have been sent more information and high-resolution photos, to test if they would change. An early warning dismissed.

Stephen Goranson said...

It remains to identify the forger, if possible. In the Demotic Thomas case it would also be interesting to read the text by B. D. Sealing, to compare it with "R.S. Walker" and supposed anonymous New Orleans committee members. Does anyone have a full copy of "Three Unrecognized Demotic Texts" by B. D. Sealing, 12 pages, Forthcoming in Discussions in Egyptology. -- v. 19 (1991) (or Mark J. Smith's following contribution)? The two hoaxes may involve different people, but both used Thomas, and both may have targeted a preselected scholar. Both had a "star" ms, but other mss too.

Stephen Goranson said...

Not forgery, but a somewhat related question on Coptic papyri. The proposed identification of a Coptic version of 2 (Slavonic) Enoch from Qasr Ibrm has been questioned:
"The Angel of Tartarus and the Supposed Coptic Fragments of 2 Enoch," Böttrich, Christfried, Early Christianity, Volume 4, Number 4, December 2013, pp. 509-521(13).
In the course of questioning Joost L. Hagen's proposed identification, Qumran Cave 4 fragmentary texts are mentioned. I would be interested, for comparison, whether the author accepts some proposed identifications of small Greek fragments from Qumran Cave 7 as from 1 Enoch.

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks, Stephen. That's a good point. The same element features in the draft of Karen King's article:

"In August, 2012, a version of the present article was submitted to the Harvard Theological Review for consideration for publication. In the course of the normal external review process, reviewers differed in their judgments about authenticity. One accepted the fragment, but two raised questions, without yet being entirely certain that it is a fake, and suggested review by experienced Coptic papyrologists and testing of the chemical composition of the ink. The third reviewer provided detailed comments on a number of difficulties with the text’s grammar and paleography. Neither of the reviewers who questioned the fragment’s authenticity were aware that Bagnall had already seen the actual fragment and judged it to be authentic. Their own views were based on relatively low resolution photographs of the fragment." (3-4).

In retrospect, it looks like it was a mistake not to follow up with high-res. photographs for these two reviewers as well as the "suggested review by experienced Coptic papyrologists" which could have made such a difference.

Jason Pratt said...


As I was working up a (not yet posted) status summary of the forgery question over at the Cadre Journal, and was paging through the arguments collected (at a previous digest of yours downpage) by Andrew Bernhard, comparing with Michael Grondin's pdf of GosThom... {inhale!} {g}

...I noticed that line GJW (or JWF) line 3, with the form of Mary's name unusual (at least) in Sahidic Coptic, doesn't seem to translate into something useful for controversy purposes.

In its JWF form it ought to translate something like "deny Mariam be-worthy of-her [something]", shouldn't it? (With possibly the beginning of a Coptic "not" as in line 362 of GosThom.)

It occurred to me, though, that if an English forger was using Grondin's interlinear, and meant to write that someone (e.g. the disciples from line two) was denying Mary to be worthy of the Father (rather than going with the more easily detectable infamous GosThom verse where the disciples want her sent away because women are not worthy of life), porting together two phrases on lines 362 and 363 which happen to conveniently read next to one another on successive lines might seem like a handy idea.

And then, while in the labor of brushing on the letters, the forger realizes to his horror he has fell prey to a common scribal error in reverse and started to write the actual next word after "be-worthy", "of-him" instead of "of-the-father" on the line below. So trying to make the best of the situation the forger finished with a feminine pronoun instead of GosThom's masculine, suggested a ripped Coptic negative next (as does follow next on the GosThom line), and moved along.

But since the result doesn't really fit the intended controversy, the forger tries for something more like the intended translation after all: "deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it", "it" being the feminine now.

Any ideas about this theory?


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Jason. Interesting. I'll forward to Andrew Bernhard for his thoughts too.

Jason Pratt said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm sure that at best my theory there could stand a LOT of polishing and revision/correction by someone who knows vastly more about the data than I do. {g} Mainly I was curious whether you'd seen anyone else attempt that explanation yet.


Stephen Goranson said...

Perhaps this book is relevant: Kopie und Fälschung :
[Katalog zur Ausstellung] /
Christian Gastgeber
German Book Book 158 p., [10] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 21 cm.
Graz/Austria : Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, ; ISBN: 3201017698 9783201017695
Warnung, Fälscher am Werk / Hermann Harrauer -- Fälschungen im griechischen Kulturraum : Versuch eines Uberblicks ; Kopie : einige Vorbemerkungen zur kopialen Tradition im griechischen Kulturraum / Christian Gastgeber -- Fälschungen auf Papyrus, Pergament und Papier / Ulrike Horak -- Die Bibel, das meistkopierte Buch der Geschichte / Jutta Henner -- Die neutestamentlichen Apokryphen zwischen religiöser Literatur und literarischer Fälschung / Hans Förster -- Der Fälscher Konstantinos Simonides (1820-1867) / Christian Gastgeber -- Gefälschte und verfälschte antike Stoffe aus Ägypten / Ulrike Horak -- Siegel in Kopie und Fälschung / Alexandra-Kyriaki Wassiliour.

Timothy N. Mitchell said...

Dr. Goodacre, I do not understand how Dr. Askeland's our your comments on referring to the fragment as ugly could be seen as personally offensive but your willingness to be sensitive to others and apologize is a generous gesture that other academics should take as an example.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your kind words, Timothy.

Anonymous said...

AnneMarie Luijendijk: "It is impossible a forger could have done it." (What we have in her and King and apparently the shills who produced the documentary is s kind of reverse-Eusebianism. Reality is forged first and foremost. I am sorry, but I find it hard to take seriously ALL of American NT scholarly anything. Has the false energy of a Mormon/Masonic cabal!

Anonymous said...

Prof. Jo Annn Hackett (Harvard University) has written:
"Because we have seen that there are forgers at work who are very sophisticated, we must make epigraphic (grammatical and palaeographic) conclusions based solely on inscriptions found in situ by trustworthy scholars and excavators." [Near East Archaeology 68:1-2 (2005):63] ...sure.

Blog Owner said...

I'm glad this finally got some closure.