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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Yep, it's another article on the so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife, which in a saner world would have been called something more accurately descriptive like the Jesus Wife Fragment.

[Updated 8/16/16: a couple of days after my initial post, David Meadows at RogueClassicism provided a very helpful (if a little incomplete) timeline of the various actions and claims made by various supporters and critics of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, including tracing the biographical details and provenance claims of the fragment's owner Walter Fritz. I only noticed it today, somehow. I provisionally recommend treating his timeline as a corrective where we may differ. One major corrective is that he accounts for more scientific tests on the papyrus than I recalled -- although still much later than the initial marketing push by HDS and SI.]

In my previous article, I went pretty far charging Dr. King, and whoever supported this mess at the Harvard Divinity School and the Smithsonian, with fraudulently promoting the fragment. I'm going to boil that charge down to a more concise set of observations.

The way the story is being currently spun, Dr. Karen King was simply deceived by a genius hoax when she promoted the little Coptic fragment that she marketed as "the Gospel of Jesus' Wife"; and the Harvard Divinity School and the Smithsonian Institute were inadvertently dragged along in good faith, everyone making perfectly reasonable mistakes that anyone could have made under the circumstances. No one's at fault (except maybe the shady and socially deviant owner of the fragment), no autopsy no foul, let's just all have pity on them, the poor ignorant dupes who couldn't have known any better.

But that's a load of kopria, pardon my Biblical word.

Whatever the fragment's owner, Walter Fritz (perhaps with his wife), did or didn't do, Dr. King and her supporters at Harvard Divinity and the Smithsonian Institute, acting in a closely allied axis of conspiracy, most certainly chose to do and to not do various things.


1.) Dr. King refused to do due diligence on the provenance of the fragment. This should have been step zero after being offered the thing, assuming she didn't have the better judgment to be fatally suspicious of the offer's creepy terms to begin with. The holder of the oldest scholarly seat in the Western Hemisphere, cannot credibly beg off that she didn't realize that provenance can and should be checked -- that would be like Stephen Hawking begging off a persistent series of math errors because he didn't realize you're supposed to carry the remaining numbers during division. But it's even worse than that, because from day one critics kept harping on the terrible provenance of the fragment, its shady history which she herself was actively cooperating in obscuring! Now imagine the seat of Isaac Newton acting continually sullen about critics constantly complaining that he isn't carrying the 3 when doing basic math division, and grudgingly doing so in partial fashions under duress. Dr. King is not a Kansas farmwife fresh off the bus and attending her first day of class in antiquities. She knew from day one the fragment's history was suspicious. And she not only chose to forge ahead anyway, she chose to not even try to clear up the suspicion; and she not only chose not to do that, she chose to act as the firewall for preventing anyone else from checking on the fragment's history -- according to terms that should have been giant warning flags not to accept what this guy was offering.

Harvard Divinity School also refused to do due diligence on the provenance of the fragment. That was a choice someone, or several someones, actively made, to support Dr. King's plans for the fragment. Which were themselves grossly unwarranted. More on that later.

The Smithsonian Institute also refused to do due diligence on the provenance of the fragment. That was a choice someone, or several someones, actively made, not only to support Dr. King's plans for the fragment, but while working on their own project to make ideological hay out of the fragment.

Instead of refusing to proceed until the provenance had been checked out, they spun the lack in a positively "mysterious" way, feeding the narrative that this was secret knowledge someone at risk from authorities in power wanted to provide to the world, with Dr. King bravely taking up the shield in defense of the mysterious secret now being revealed.


2.) Dr. King herself knew the fragment was of no value to historical Jesus studies, and could not be legitimately 2nd century of composition in itself, since its language didn't start to be written until the 4th century -- but she dated it as early as she feasibly could on that basis! Nor even with a 4th century composition was this fragment going to provide any solid evidence at all for the beliefs of any Christian community, even a community living in the 4th century, much less the 2nd century. On any sane reckoning, the best case scenario was that it would be important to a small fraction of a small population of modern scholars, as an example of (bad!) early Coptic writing. And not Coptic sentence composition either, just the physical process of writing Coptic for some purpose.

But Dr. King actively chose to market the fragment as though it could possibly, or did definitely, have importance to Christian history. That was literally the same move the hoaxer was using to promote the thing to her. Dr. King wasn't dirt-ignorant; she showed on occasion that she knew very well that the fragment could not possibly have historical value in its contents. She regularly chose to defend its possible-or-certain historical importance anyway.

Ditto HDS. They knew better, and showed occasionally they knew better, and chose to promote it as challenging history anyway.

Ditto the Smithsonian, who not only made a whole documentary about its possible or certain importance, but doubled down on defending its importance later when appending a brief epilogue to their original documentary on the thing. Their final non-final word? "It will be some while yet before we can say whether the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a footnote or a new chapter in the greatest story ever told." No, it could not possibly have been even a footnote to the history of Jesus (which is what "the greatest story ever told" implies) or even to the story of Christianity. It would have been at best a footnote in the history of Coptic document production.

I will add that the press routinely lapped this up and spat it back out, even when reporting on the controversy. Even to this very day, one of the original marketers, Ariel Sabar, when describing the history of the controversy, in his article decisively revealing the owner of the fragment as a conniving liar, assures his readers that the controversy was important: it "would have shaken the world of biblical scholarship" and would have "rebuked" church "patriarchs" by providing "proof that some early Christians also saw Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife". Sabar agreed with Dr. King about "how high the stakes were, for both history and her own reputation."

This is all the height of silliness (and par for the course among non-specialist reporting); but whether or not Sabar could have known better, Dr. King and her supporters at Harvard Divinity and the Smithsonian definitely knew better. This axis of shockery insisted on talking about the fragment's completely impossible importance, and worked hard to get the press to falsely market the importance of the fragment along with them. In doing so, they went far beyond whatever Fritz had done on the exact same path.


3.) Dr. King refused to wait until carbon dating results were in before forging ahead publicly. Even presuming that someone with her clout and academic chair couldn't have demanded the slightest actual scientific testing before proceeding with her "shocking" and "challenging" plans, she could have demanded to wait before attaching her name to it.

Ditto HDS.

Ditto the Smithsonian, who was not only in a better position to ensure the tests were done first, but who produced a whole documentary with plans to air it immediately after the initial press conference without any scientific tests having been done!


4.) From the moment the first critical complaints came rolling in, Dr. King promoted a story of opposition being driven by ideological fear of her (rather vague) theories about the fragment being true. Even when she was taking criticisms with professional seriousness, she would tend to add a motivation explanation of this type.

Ditto HDS, as their website entries on the fragment suggested.

Ditto the Smithsonian, who didn't even wait for critical backlash before framing their documentary that way!


5.) The Smithsonian, as noted, produced a documentary months in advance of the planned public unveiling of the fragment. The only purpose for spending their money this way, ahead of peer study and any scientific tests at all, was to salt public opinion in favor of the fragment and Dr. King's theories about the fragment. Pro-fragment scholars were presented as scientists in scientific settings; anti-fragment scholars (who couldn't have had any real exposure to the fragment yet) were presented as church authorities in churchy settings.

I'm not sure how much HDS was involved in this doc, but Dr. King sure was! I personally find it difficult to believe they weren't engaged in making this documentary up to their necks, but since I don't know for sure (yet) I'll give them a pass on this point.

Someone at the Smithsonian had enough sense to cancel screenings of the doc in North America (although later shown in France), after even the non-technical press outlets generally presented scientists having scientific arguments against the fragment's legitimacy. But as soon as the Smithsonian had one bit of scientific evidence kind-of in favor of the fragment, they launched multiple screenings of the doc, during an Easter season for no topical reason other than a vague religious connection plus manufactured controversy, with an actively false epilogue tagged to the end claiming simply that there was "much new evidence for its authenticity" -- a lie, because there was barely any new evidence, and in fact barely any evidence at all for its legitimacy -- "and none against it" -- another lie, emphasized by their own italics, because new evidence had been developed on a regular basis against it. Keep in mind, the production of the original documentary pre-dated public scholarly criticism of the fragment! The evidence against the fragment started after the doc's production! I mean all evidence against it, except for the evident evidence which the axis of shockery knew about but chose to ignore or downplay from the beginning.

This didn't happen by accident. Flagrantly misleading documentaries do not spring up out of a long series of random mutation copy-errors preserved by small increases in coincidentally better successful breeding rates over a period of a billion years.


6.) All three axis conspirators treated the eventually usable carbon dating result, as though it counted as positive evidence, not only in favor of the text's legitimacy but also Dr. King's theories about the text. All three occasionally admitted (I think including the Smithsonian -- I don't recall for sure but I'll assume so in their favor) that all the carbon dating did was count as some level of evidence in favor of the parchment itself being ancient. So they all knew it didn't and couldn't weigh much, if at all, in favor of textual legitimacy; but they all marketed the result heavily, especially through press releases, as though it counted strongly.

(I'll set aside that they all downplayed or ignored the ludicrously unreal primitive date, except as a dutiful curiosity, since maybe such wide results make no difference in practice to the reliability of a feasible result. But I did notice scholarly critics treating that crazy-early dating and the general difficulty in getting any date at all, as weakening what little importance the final Mid Dark Ages dating had.)

Dr. King especially stretched thin threads of relevance ever-thinner in trying to explain how an inept scribe jotting words he barely or didn't understand in a language form that would have been dead to him, somehow counted as evidence that a significant community of early Christians, five to eight hundred years earlier, thought Jesus had a wife. At best, the goofy late scribal dunce would have been testifying to the existence of a text several hundred years older (300s to 400s) from which he was copying his phrases several hundred years later (700s to 900s), but then by his ineptitude would be making the contents of that hypothetical earlier text even less knowable! -- it might have also been some other magician writing out totally invented phrases in Coptic, not copied from somewhere else (unless copied from Coptic GosThom), unconnected to one another aside from suggestive sounds and phrasing. (The fragment's phrases, on close examination, could only have been independently written phrases plopped down in disregard of any sentence structure.)


7.) All three axis conspirators lauded the parallel test for the ink composition, as though it counted for anything more than verifying someone brushed the letters in lamp-black ink. They would occasionally acknowledge, where they thought fellow scholarly peers might call them on it, that they knew better, that the test only showed someone didn't write it in magic marker or some other modern ink type. So they weren't ignorant about the relative non-value of the test; they all three knew better. But in promoting it to the public, especially through non-technical press articles, they treated it as positive confirming evidence in favor of the writing's legitimacy, instead of a purely neutral negative result.


8.) Harvard Divinity School must be called out especially for its choice not only to refuse to keep up to date on scholarly analysis (which was mostly critique against the text's legitimacy), ostensibly the reason for their special website on the fragment; but also for the choice to eliminate links they temporarily provided to such analyses on occasion. Granted they might have been following the letter of copyright access law somehow, but they still could have been providing accurate summaries. The fact they did include some criticism and took it down, and also included reports of other criticisms in their FAQ page, shows that whoever was authoritatively responsible for the page knew the critiques were happening. The lack of keeping the public up to date didn't happen by accident; it was an active choice to obscure the issues in favor of the text's legitimacy. Their job was to provide a link base for the ongoing discussion, not to take a side and promote that side. That they chose to do so despite all the other incriminating factors, only makes their choice more incriminating.


For these reasons at least, maybe also others, I regard Dr. King and whoever supported her plan at the Harvard Divinity School and the Smithsonian Institute, as fellow frauds, conspiring between themselves to leverage their axial positions to manufacture a shocking fake -- not in the sense of actually making the fragment and its false provenance markers, but in being actively and irresponsibly responsible in their promotion of something they knew very well could not even possibly count for the purposes they pushed it for. They used institutional funds (possibly government funds in the case of the Smithsonian?) to do this, their own paid salaries at the very least -- but we know for a fact the Smithsonian expenses, for that documentary, went far beyond the mere salaries of whoever authoritatively was supporting this fraud.

So no, I don't have any pity for the people who chose to inflict this fraud for their own ideological reasons. They should be shamed for the rest of their natural lives for abusing their positions, which should be stripped from them at the first feasible opportunity. They have shown they cannot be trusted to serve the public interest or even to honor their own institutions.

Nor do I understand the soft inclination to forgive this axis of shockery, or rather to downplay their misdeeds to something that can be easily excused as though they did nothing or barely anything morally wrong. Forgiveness is divine; but when there is no sincere repentance for what happened, then to treat the matter as forgiven would be to compound the lies, and in such a way as to encourage such people (them or others) to try such shockery again if they think they can get away with it this time.


What burns even more, however, is that all this was done to promote a philosophy and lifestyle which has been taken to its logical conclusion by Walter Fitz and his wife, the (apparent) architects of this fraud. Dr. King's moral relativism and promotion of a(n ostensibly) spiritual hedonism, is not a mere coincidental detail to the fraud. When Fritz is trying to sell a new historical fraud to the reporter Sabar at the end of that now-famous article, he is appealing to principles of living and operating in the world which he finds being promoted and supported by scholarly authorities like Dr. King -- promoted and supported, in this case, by fraudulent appeal to something that should have been rejected by her and all her conspirators as a fraud beforehand, had they been acting with a truly scholarly attitude about the importance of truth and reason over rank emotionalism and solipcistic wish-fulfillment.

There was an attitude and mindset which brought forth, promoted, and protected this fraud, in a unified axis of allies, even if not all the allies were working directly with and for one another on all points. I have no reason to believe Dr. King or anyone at HDS and the Smithsonian created the Jesus Wife Fragment or any of its false supports. But they worked just as hard as the forger, in some ways much harder, to get people to lean along with them on what they themselves knew to be worthless supports, contributing themselves to a cloudy axis of shockery --

-- in order to lead human culture to be more like the sort of people who would create and promote and live such fraudulent shocks to satiate themselves.

3 comments:

For any visitors unfamiliar with basic claims and marketing about the fragment, our article from a few years ago covers the salient points.

For the kind of discussion-collection HDS should have been supplying, Professor Mark Goodacre's blog is still the best I know of. (The link should go to a search there for "Jesus Wife" sorted by date, latest first.) He's also very much kinder than I am about the good intentions of Dr. King and her institutional supporters, which is admittedly helpful in presenting a balanced account.

JRP

Interesting stuff there Jason. Thanks for the information. I liked the whole article, but this analogy really jumped out at me:

The holder of the oldest scholarly seat in the Western Hemisphere, cannot credibly beg off that she didn't realize that provenance can and should be checked -- that would be like Stephen Hawking begging off a persistent series of math errors because he didn't realize you're supposed to carry the remaining numbers during division.

Yes, in the same way that it would strain credibility to suggest that a leading physicist can't seem to get his head around the concept of carrying a remainder in division, these super-scholars cannot reasonably plead ignorance when "forging" ahead with the marketing of a sensational but suspicious finding in order to maximize its shock value.

On the other hand, I guess Dr. King is showing that she'd make a sufficiently par Secretary of State or President of the United States! {lol!} -- basic security practice or even knowledge is not required for such lofty positions, or can be set aside when inconvenient to promoting one's self.

JRP

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