Friday, September 21, 2012

Shreds and Noise

You may or may not have heard the publicity noise over a supposed gospel fragment which may or may not suggest that Jesus had a wife. Well, the upshot is this:
  • Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced that she had examined a papyrus fragment from a private collector, and had determined it to be genuine. The recto side of the papyrus was translated from the Coptic to read "Jesus said to them, 'my wife'..." at one point. The fragment, which she dubbed the "Gospel of Jesus’s Wife", was dated to the 4th century, and claimed to translate some lost 2nd century Greek version.
  • Not surprisingly, the MSM jumped on this, and not at all surprisingly, Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times was first in line. Others followed, all with the usual breathless "will this change everyone's understand of early Christianity" pseudoquestion.
  • Surprisingly, though, there was a major pushback the next day, which also appeared in the some mainstream publications. The most prominent story was this AP wire story, in which there seemed to be almost a line of other early text types queued up to cast doubt upon the text. It seems that the lack of provenance of the fragment is a problem in itself, but many of the scholars quoted were dubious about its authenticity.
  • Also making a "day after" appearance was this NBC news blog post, which stepped up to deal with some of the historical and theological context familiar to those of us with at least a passing knowledge of the field.

It's clear that, if it be genuine, we're looking at a gnostic text: that it is in Coptic is a warning bell to begin with, and one of the phrases in the text parallels a portion of the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps the best known gnostic text. And as such it fits the type pretty well: these texts say a lot of odd things about sexuality and Jesus, and it isn't clear that any of them are to be taken literally. These texts are all, as a rule, pretty late (typically 4th century), so their relationship to ante-Nicene patristic Christian is controversial. For a long time the picture of gnosticism we had was largely formed out of patristic condemnations; it wasn't until the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1945 that we could really begin to pull together a solid picture of gnostic writings.

And this is the point at which the plot thickens, because Dr. King does not come into this with clean hands. She is part of a group who doubt gnosticism as a category, which is not entirely bad. Far more problematic is her willingness to sit as part of the Jesus Seminar, which is anathema to real scholarship as far as I am concerned. And there is a far more damning problem, beyond the doubts about the paleography. Here is Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica:

[T]his fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I'm wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, "The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged."
It is far too reminiscent of letter to Harry Potter's mother that he finds in the last book, which has been truncated at a point which allows a reading wildly divergent from the text read as a whole: how convenient that we get this tantalizing phrase, cut free (literally) from any context, which fits so nicely into the restorationist tropes of mainline liberalism with their vision of a purer faith captured by those, well, patriarchs and then enslaved by the Constantinian state.

If I were a betting man, I could put my money on this coming to nothing. Orthodox theologians are not going to be disturbed that the corpus of gnostic writings has gotten one text larger anyway, but I would lean towards counting it as a fake. What is more significant is the will to believe it, and possibly to create it. If you want a snarky read of this, you'll prefer Thomas McDonald's analysis, but I would also recommend this longer and more dispassionate take from Smithsonian magazine. But one should also consider, on one's own, the rush toward any text which stands outside the particularity of orthodox Christian faith. Where is the need to have faith in these scraps coming from?