Posted by: Ken Brown | September 23, 2012

“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and the Perils and Potential of Online Scholarship

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Image by Karen L. King. Click for full images and translation; posted by Harvard Divinity School.

As everyone knows by now, this past week Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, publicized the discovery of a small, purportedly 4th-century, Coptic manuscript in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” Besides contacting the New York Times, King also posted her academic paper (provisionally accepted for publication in Harvard Theological Review; PDF), along with a set of high-resolution photos, just before flying off to Rome to present her findings at the International Congress of Coptic Studies.

While the media, public and talk-show hosts have been speculating about what this means for modern debates concerning marriage, ordination and the latest bridal fashions (probably), scholars have been eagerly debating the authenticity of the manuscript itself. Bloggers James McGrath and Mark Goodacre have collected links to much of the discussion, including three brief articles by Francis Watson, a professor at Durham University. Watson argues that the manuscript was produced by copying texts from the Gospel of Thomas and other sources, perhaps even from a modern edition of the former. McGrath has expressed caution concerning Watson’s critique (and posted this humorous but instructive observation about the difficulty of telling coincidence from allusion), but at least some of Watson’s points appear to be valid, and the comments section of Goodacre’s posts include additional substantive observations. Other discussions–mostly critical–have spread across dozens of blogs, raising many points that will need to be addressed before this Coptic text could be accepted as authentic. Even the mainstream media has begun to acknowledge the issues raised in these debates.

Personally, I’m reserving judgment, but it is looking less and less likely that this is truly a fourth-century translation of a second-century document, as King claimed. As Richard Bauckham has suggested, even if Watson’s observations about the close parallels to the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas fall short of proving that this is a modern forgery (though that is a distinct possibility), they may well indicate that it was composed in Coptic originally, rather than being a translation from Greek. That would suggest, to me, one of two conclusions: Either it is a later Gnostic text first composed in the fourth century, or it is a sophisticated modern forgery by someone familiar with the Coptic language. At the very least, the shape and cut edges of the manuscript, and the maximum plausible length of the missing parts of the lines, all raise serious doubts about the nature of this text and its subsequent handling.

What is more interesting to me today, though, is what all of this reveals about the nature of scholarship in an age of round-the-clock news service and social media. Amidst so much press attention, it is a little disconcerting to hear that King’s paper met with extreme skepticism at the conference in Rome. Worse, yesterday it came to light that Harvard Theological Review is not committed to publishing King’s article after all, in light of the concerns already raised through their own internal review process (which King frankly acknowledged in the draft of her paper). The whole thing is starting to look rather embarrassing for Harvard, but more importantly, it indicates the danger of going to the press (or the internet) with one’s research before it has been fully vetted by one’s colleagues. “Accepted for publication” is not the same as published.

Now King’s article is not a bad piece of work. Though its conclusions are a bit overstated, to my mind, it is a well-researched and level-headed discussion that avoids the hyperbole that has swirled around it in the press. King has also been consistent in publicly rejecting speculations that this could “prove” that Jesus was actually married, emphasizing that at most it would show that the issue was discussed in the early church. Her academic treatment of the material may not be completely above reproach (questions here center mainly on the anonymous source of the manuscript), but its submission for peer-reviewed publication and presentation at the International Congress of Coptic Studies are entirely appropriate avenues for publicizing such a potentially ground-breaking discovery.

Beyond that, though, King’s publicizing of the manuscript raises real issues. Inviting the New York Times to publish such a discovery is not unusual, but allowing the Smithsonian to produce a documentary showcasing the “sensational” find before it has even been presented at an academic conference is hardly a mark of careful scholarship, regardless of whether this manuscript turns out to be authentic. The decision to post the draft of a peer-reviewed article online, before its appearance in the peer-reviewed journal itself, also seems problematic. King has won a great deal of attention for her work in this way, but she may dearly regret it if it turns out that she has been taken in by a fraud.

In this day and age, the media can be counted upon to broadcast such a story regardless of how it first comes to light, so the decision to hold a press-conference and at least try to limit the over-reaction is defensible. Nevertheless, the recent trend to go to the media first with such stories only deepens the public’s misconceptions about the nature of biblical and archeological research, giving everyone undue opportunity to celebrate the unmasking of traditional Christian belief, or the impiety of ivy league professors, as their taste may be.

In light of all that, it would be tempting to say that King’s going public in this way has done nothing but undermine the careful, reasoned debate that should be the mark of good scholarship. But the reality is much more complex and interesting, as the last week has demonstrated. By making both her paper and the high-resolution images of the manuscript public, King has also succeeded in facilitating an engaging and fruitful online discussion among her colleagues that would hardly have been possible before the rise of blogging and social media. Without the online publication of her work–premature as it may have been–the discussions that would have followed any leak to the media might have been much more superficial and speculative, and certainly would have been much less widely known.

To be sure,  the fractured nature of online discussions (spread across the comment threads of a hundred blogs) can seem a poor medium for sustained academic discussion–and sometimes it is!–but the collaboration this enables has indeed quickly and effectively sketched out the major issues that will need to be addressed in relation to this discovery, as well as made some substantial progress towards evaluating them. Such debates can only occur to a limited extent at conferences, and would take months or even years to sort out through traditional publication, but it has happened in a matter of days online. It is only unfortunate that King herself–who has been traveling–has not been party to these discussions.

Given the speed of the media cycle, such a quick response from the scholarly community is indispensable. In the past, the publicized reactions to such announcements have too often been limited to knee-jerk responses from religious organizations, with a few skeptical but uninformed soundbites from established scholars, if we’re lucky. Substantive scholarly responses normally only came much later, long after the press has moved on to other news. Now such academic discussions can happen in real time, and have in this case directly impacted the media’s portrayals of the story–at least to a certain extent.

Additionally, all of this should help ensure that the peer-reviewed publications that do eventually follow will be better-focused than otherwise–though one wonders how, or if, they will explicitly credit these discussions for whatever insights the latter have provided. Blog-conversations are certainly no substitute for such scholarly publications,  but neither are they irrelevant to them, and are essential in cases of “breaking news” like this. The days of dismissing blogging as an unimportant side-light are long over, and both its perils and potential for the advancement of research are here to stay.

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Responses

  1. [...] tentativeness, until all relevant aspects of the question have been adequately addressed.Ken Brown has a useful reflection on what the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and the discussions [...]

  2. Olá meus queridos irmãos Graça e Paz.
    Parabéns pelo blog, muito edificante. Aproveitamos a oportunidade também para compartilhar o nosso blog
    Mensagem Edificante para alma. Ficaremos felizes por vossa visita e mais ainda se nos seguir-nos.
    Deus continue vos abençoando
    Josiel Dias
    Mensagem Edificante para Alma
    http://josiel-dias.blogspot.com.br
    Rio de Janeiro


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