Friday, April 11, 2014

Jesus's Wife Resurrected from Dead

In honor of the subject I'm stealing Christian Askeland's title and one of the net's favorite memes. As everyone who hasn't stuck their fingers in their ears on the matter is aware, Harvard Theological Review, just in time for Holy Week, has published an issue dedicated to the authenticity of the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife", a parchment fragment purporting to be from a gnostic text from antiquity. The first time around on this, after the first few breathless days in the major media, the scholarly community issued forth with a great deal of skepticism and indeed confidence that this scrap was a modern forgery. After that, a great silence ensued.

But now the issue is back, courtesy of radiocarbon testing and who knows what else. Laurie Goldstein at the New York Times at least was circumspect enough this time to couch her article so as to reveal the continuing doubt in the scholarly community and to give the facts baldly enough to where someone who remembers the original claims can judge what has changed. Others were not not careful, leading to many articles giving the impression that these tests vindicated believers in authenticity against skeptics.

The reader of these articles, however, needs to be aware of those old claims. Most important is that the original claim was for a fourth century parchment. This has been undermined by the tests, which gave dates ranging over nearly a millennium and a half. This is important because, of course, the historical context is utterly different in the two periods: the late date puts it as a testament to gnosticism under the caliphate or late in byzantine history, not a glimpse into early Nicene Christendom or perhaps earlier, and the earliest dates would imply that an ancient author must have used a papyrus several centuries old.

But the big issue continues to be that the initial doubts did not rely upon the authenticity of the medium upon which the text is written. Leo Depuydt's response, which has been reprinted with some additions in HTR, states that "I find nothing in these documents that could change in any way the fact that I am personally 100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I have otherwise never deemed ink or papyrus tests necessary or relevant in light of the evidence set forth below." Francis Watson's initial response to the test reports states that "It has never been doubted that the Jesus’ Wife fragment may well have been written on a piece of genuinely ancient papyrus, using ink whose composition followed ancient practice."

The basic problem beyond a general suspicion of so convenient a document is that the text itself shows signs of being a composite of phrases from the Gospel of Thomas, excepting the few words which have attracted all the media attention, assembled by someone with an imperfect knowledge of Coptic grammar and syntax. Indeed, one error in particular has suggested to some scholars that the forgery is dependent upon a particular scholarly edition of Thomas. Doubts have also been raised about the possibility of fitting the fragment into a larger text written on a page. Indeed, a number of scholars object to referring to any "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" given a complete lack of any evidence of any such larger work.

But even ignoring all these problems with the authenticity of the text, the big offense in all of this is the hype. Even with the seemingly carefully hedged statements from Dr. King it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that this affair has been managed by both her and her university to attract maximum publicity from media outlets who are credulous and sensationalist. Goldstein's headline, given enough page space, could more accurately have read "Unimportant Gnostic Text Apparently Written On Old Parchment; Textual Problems Unresolved". Even if the text is genuine (and I'm going with those who think it's forged, for now) it has no implication for orthodox Christianity. It's just another oddball Gnostic text. The takeaway, no matter how the authenticity debates wind up, is in what this tells you about the biases of the major media outlets who are culpable of promoting this.

No comments: