Probably a fake. That's what a Harvard professor is saying about the "Jesus' wife" papyrus she once believed to be authentic. Why did folks fall for it in the first place?
Back in 2012 and in 2014 I told you about a papyrus fragment in which Jesus purportedly refers to His "wife."
On both occasions, I said there were many reasons to be skeptical about the fragment, both about what it said and about the authenticity of the fragment itself.
Well, a recent story in the Atlantic Monthly has so thoroughly debunked the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" that even the Harvard historian who has championed its authenticity admits that it's probably a fake.
And that leaves us with the question: Why were some people so eager to believe in it in the first place?
The fragment was first said to date from the fourth century A.D., which would make it roughly contemporary with the oldest complete manuscripts of the Gospels. The prospect of an "alternative Christianity" was exciting to people who question the veracity of biblical accounts (including the resurrection) and whose definition of Christianity includes everything but the real thing.
Well, further testing concluded that the fragment dated from the sixth to ninth century A.D. long after the biblical canon and the great creeds of the faith had been decided upon. Undaunted, the fragment's promoters held out the possibility that it could shed light on what Harvard's Karen King called "questions about family and marriage and sexuality and Jesus."
That possibility died a fittingly ignominious death in the July/August issue of the Atlantic. The story, written by Ariel Sabar tells a tale filled with red flags. These include issues of what museums call "provenance," which is the "chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object." Sabar quotes the American Association of Museums, which compares establishing provenance to "detective work."
And in the case of the "Jesus's Wife" fragment, it is clear that people failed to do their homework. If they had, alarms would have gone off, starting with the fact the alleged original owner was a "onetime Florida pornographer" who had studied Egyptology in Germany and had money troubles.
In other words, the source was a financially desperate man with the knowledge needed to forge this fragment who had already shown that he was willing to do almost anything to make a buck.
Within days of the article's publication, King admitted that the fragment is probably a forgery. Even more damaging, she told Sabar that "I haven't engaged the provenance questions at all" and that she was "not particularly" interested in what he had discovered.
Coming from the holder of one of Harvard's oldest endowed chairs, this behavior is shocking. But maybe it's not surprising. King's work posits the existence of "other" forms of Christianity that were suppressed by Church authorities. Thus, she was an easy mark for a forger. She saw what she expected to see, even as others were sounding the alarm bells.
But we should abstain from any glee or sense of smug satisfaction. King's failure was the product of all-too-human and all-too-common failings. There's even a name for it: confirmation bias, something all of us are prone to. We gravitate toward information that confirms our already-existing beliefs and overlook even the most obvious evidence to the contrary.
Confirmation bias, along with pride, is why academic pronouncements should be taken with a grain of salt. The myth of disinterested scholarship is just that, a myth. Finite and fallen human beings, including us, tend to see what we want to see. No matter how red the flags — or the papyrus — might be.
Originally posted at breakpoint.org.