Of all the stories making the rounds in academia today–and they are legion–(e.g., Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, a controversial tenure denial)–the one that caught my eye involves what The Chronicle of Higher Education calls “a screw-up of biblical proportions.” The screw-up refers to the publication of an article in the Harvard Theological Review (HTR) in 2014 about the discovery of a papyrus that mentions Jesus’ “wife.” The papyrus reads, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” The story is trending again because of a recent publication entitled Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by Ariel Sabar.
Like the television series Colombo, I won’t wait till the end to reveal the mystery of the papyrus. Rather, I’ll do it up front. According to Sabar, the papyrus turned out to be a forgery created by an Internet pornographer (i.e., the con man) who dropped out of Egyptology school because he couldn’t handle Coptic or, presumably, walk like an Egyptian. The papyrus was written in such flawed Coptic that it invites comparison to the Latin of Pope Benedict XVI’s renunciation, except, of course, that Benedict is expert in Latin. But that raises other questions for another blog post.
The real story of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is not a fake papyrus written by an online pornographer (I never expected to write a sentence like that), but the coverup. This has been a staple in scandals since before Watergate, although Watergate crystalized the idea so well that we are left with two questions: What did they know and when did they know it? In this case “they” is the Harvard Theological Review. Did they know the papyrus was forged and when did they find out? Sabar suspects that Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, the author of the article, knew as early as 2016 and probably earlier.
It would be logical to assume that HTR knew well before that. Indeed, Sabar’s investigation exposes a cover-up involving colleagues, family friends, and a peer-review process filled with shortcuts, missteps, and what can only be described as crony publishing well before 2016. It may not come as a shock to learn that Harvard Divinity School publishes HTR. All of this occurred in an atmosphere of arrogance and elitism. But you can excuse all of that, because history was being made. In Sabar’s view, it was important for King to make the facts fit the desired outcome, which was a married Jesus. Think of what that would have done for religious history, gender studies, Christianity, and King’s career. It is no exaggeration to say that such a discovery had the potential to reshape our world. That it had all the absurdity of an Onion piece is so much poetic justice.
But, murder will out and so will fraud. When it did, King doubled down, claiming that she had nothing to retract and that scholarship is a “conversation.” It certainly is, but without honesty and integrity, the conversation can devolve into self-defensive and self-aggrandizing arguments that get nowhere fast and achieve nothing but pad lawyers’ fees. At least one scholar weighed in on the side of virtue, however, concluding, “The lesson is this….admit when you’ve made a mistake. Accept justified correction with humility and grace, and just move on.”
I have written before about how, as a junior-high school student, I forged a letter from Abraham Lincoln about diamonds and hid it in a secret drawer I discovered in an antique desk that my mother had bought at a garage sale (see Fabergé et Faux-Fauxbergé). I crumpled up some unlined notepaper, burned holes in it, and stained it with lemon juice to make it look and smell like parchment. Somehow, I associated lemon juice with parchment, and my mother had plenty of it. My parents not only fell for the subterfuge but framed the letter and displayed it on a wall in our living room, proudly showing it to dinner guests.
When I finally confessed, not being able to live with myself any longer and frustrated that no one had figured out the truth, they weren’t mad as much as shocked that I could do such a thing. My mother, who was particularly hurt, said, “What kind of a person are you?” I never answered, mainly because I thought it would have made things worse. But I did it, because I could do it. I didn’t understand why she found that so puzzling. Now, I understand, which is why I have decided not to publish an article about my recent discovery of a papyrus.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘My yoga instructor…'”
Image credits: feature by davide ragusa on Unsplash. Quotes and source material from Ariel Sabar, “A Scholarly Screw-Up of Biblical Proportions,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 29, 2021). Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”