The New York Times (NYT) is a good newspaper. Certainly, it's one of the finest in the nation. But when it comes to matters of religion, the NYT seems to stumble around a lot. It strikes me that the NYT usually jumps on board with much of what is said by the Harvard Divinity School. (One would think that the rivalry between the two states in sports would make them a little more hesitant to side with a Massachusetts university, but such is not the case.) So, it was much to my surprise when the Old Gray Lady published an article a few days ago entitled "How the 'Jesus' Wife' Hoax Fell Apart" subtitled "The media loved the 2012 tale from Harvard Divinity School" by Jerry Pattengale.
The article notes (rightfully) that:
"Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery," [Christian Askeland—a Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University] tells me. "First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century." Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and "concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries." In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the "Jesus' wife" fragment was written in a dialect that didn't exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.Yep, it ought to be closed. But what does the episode tell us about why the press was so quick to accept this particular ancient manuscript as genuine? The article asks that question in the final paragraph.
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor and Coptic expert at Duke University, wrote on his NT Blog on April 25 about the Gospel of John discovery: "It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake, and this conclusion means that the Jesus' Wife Fragment is a fake too." Alin Suciu, a research associate at the University of Hamburg and a Coptic manuscript specialist, wrote online on April 26: "Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus' Wife papyrus over."
It is perhaps understandable that [Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King] would have been taken in when an anonymous owner presented her with some papyrus fragments for research. What is harder to understand was the rush by the media and others to embrace the idea that Jesus had a wife and that Christian beliefs have been mistaken for centuries. No evidence for Jesus having been married exists in any of the thousands of orthodox biblical writings dating to antiquity. You would have thought Thomas Aquinas might have mentioned it. But this episode is not totally without merit. It will provide a valuable case study for research classes long after we're gone and the biblical texts remain.Why, indeed? The simple answer is that there are certain people -- probably a majority of the people -- in the media today who would like nothing better than to see Christianity struck down. They do so for the best of reasons (so they believe), but it certainly slants their viewpoint. I, for one, always expect a rush to judgement against Christianity whenever some new information comes out that might take out a leg of the faith. It's to be expected. So, next time you see one of these articles about new ancient manuscripts being found that proclaim, "New evidence shows that Jesus had a wife" or "Ancient Text reveals that Jesus didn't die on the cross" or "Dusty old manuscripts expose that Jesus fathered alien babies," understand that this is just the press (or, at least, a misguided portion thereof) wanting you to leave your Christianity behind so that you can enter their idea of utopia, i.e., a world free of God. Wait for it -- it is almost always debunked within a few years and the Christian foundations are always reaffirmed.