Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Jesus was married! what folks write about in the information age

I am not an expert on the topic of Gnostic Christianity, gender studies, or textual criticism. I am just a wide-eyed Jesus historian with a big dream and the faith of a mustard seed. My dream was that the San Francisco Giants would win the World Series. In this post-2010 resurrection reality, all I have left is this magic bean I scored from a shifty dairy farmer. So I have to rely on the kindness and expertise of scholars who know a thing or two about Coptic fragments.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with a very fine Coptic scholar. I'm not too sure what constitutes a social media taboo, so I won't give his/her name.  What is important, and this is true of my last three conversations with such experts, is that this scholar was utterly perplexed at the odd and awkward results of the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife".

The latest suggestion is that the fragment revealed by Harvard scholar Karen King is a forgery based off of a webpage that shows the Coptic Thomas text with English subtext (i.e. an online interlinear). Simply put, a person with only a very basic grasp on the language copied a couple phrases from the web.

What troubles me, and most of the experts I've spoken with, is not the possibility of forgery, but the embarrassment that this brings to several scholars with very fine qualifications. How on Earth did this fragment pass the vetting process of three of the very finest Coptic scholars in the world? While Karen King is left hanging in the wind, the peer reviewers of Harvard Theological Review remain comfortably out of the public eye.


If this fragment is a forgery, and I will wait for a verdict from more qualified folks, it is an embarrassment that should be shared by many. But I fear that the Prof. King will not be supported. I'm not trying to throw a pity-party for a tenured professor at Harvard, but the peer review process failed on some level.

It pains me to use the word "failed", but I know that this is how I would feel if I found myself in a similar situation. Perhaps, as was suggested to me today, the days of publishing a "final draft" of anything are over. In the world of social media, perhaps we should think of publications as "drafts" that are always subject to revision. Perhaps HTR availed itself of a brave new vetting process.  Is the fact that Prof. King's essay was "vetted" through the channels of the New York Times, Mark Goodacre's blog, and Christian Askeland's youtube lecture indicative of a new peer-review process?

I don't have answers, I'm soliciting you for your thoughts...



  1. Two out of three of the HTR peer reviewers expressed doubts about the authenticity of the fragment. On that basis HTR required further consultation and scientific analysis of the ink. So I wouldn't worry about that aspect of peer review - it comes out of this looking reasonably robust.

    1. Thank you Peter, it looks like you and I are working with variant strands of the oral tradition. I sincerely hope (and wouldn't be surprised at all) that yours is correct. It would assuage my concerns a great deal.

      As for this waiting for the ink test business, nobody with whom I've spoken seems confident that the ink will prove conclusive one way or the other. Of course, I've only spoken with three people on this matter.

      again, thanks.

  2. I was dealing with the written text of King's (provisionally accepted) article: (see p. 3-4).

  3. Though I suspend judgement about whether the Coptic fragment was a forgery, it wouldn't be the first time that very reputable scholars have been fooled. Old examples from evolutionary palaeontology like 'Piltdown Man' come to mind.

    Anthony, you've touched on some very crucial blind-spots or vulnerabilities in the dissemination of scholarly information. First, it is getting harder to spot forgeries as imaging technology advances. Top-notch scholars are not necessarily experts on the image software that can be used to generate forgeries. Moreover, the desire for academic acclaim can be a distorting bias that makes even the best of us more susceptible to ignoring the usual checks on academic publishing.

    Anyway, for these reasons, i am not surprised if the fragment fooled qualified scholars, if in fact it was a forgery.

    1. Thanks for your comment hopebeyondreason,

      I'm not sure that imaging technology had much to do with this particular controversy, but I can imagine that this will add further complications in the future.

      As for scholars being "fooled", I'll wait to see if Peter's comment above ends up bubbling to the top.

      What remains interesting to me is that HTR hasn't yet (to my knowledge) decided to publish the essay that was provisionally accepted. Have the folks at HTR been influenced by blogs and youtube? If so, I find this a fascinating development in the peer-review process.