June 20, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, June 20, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
When sensationalism masquerades as scholarship—and then is unmasked: The unraveling of "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife"
The entire theological world changed back in 2012, at least that’s what we were told at the time, and the announcement came in none other than Smithsonian, that is the official journal of the Smithsonian Institution. Back in 2012 we were told that an ancient papyrus manuscript written in Coptic, a fragment, had been found that indicated that Jesus might have had a wife, that indeed Jesus Christ had probably been married. As a matter of fact, the papyrus fragment became known as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and it became so precisely because a renowned professor at Harvard Divinity School had put her own personal reputation behind the claim, and she presented the claim at an academic conference held in Rome in the year 2012. The professor was Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity of the Harvard Divinity School; she announced that she had identified an ancient papyrus fragment that includes the phrase,
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”Show Full Transcript
Back in 2012 within just hours of that announcement, headlines around the world advertised the announcement with headlines like,
“Ancient papyrus could be evidence that Jesus had a wife”—that from The Telegraph.
The article in the Smithsonian stated that,
“The announcement at an academic conference in Rome is sure to send shockwaves through the Christian world.”
As I wrote back in 2012,
“The magazine’s breathless enthusiasm for the news about the papyrus probably has more to do with advertising its upcoming television documentary than anything else, but the nation’s most prestigious museum can only injure its reputation with this kind of sensationalism.”
Now looking at what happened back in 2012, sensationalism is the only word that comes to mind. Within just days of the announcement of the conference held in Rome, headlines all over the world were claiming that there was now ancient textual evidence to the fact that Jesus had a wife. In actuality, the tiny fragment includes only about 30 words on eight fragmentary lines of script. The New York Times described the document as,
“Smaller than a business card with eight lines on one side in black ink legible under a magnifying glass”
The Smithsonian announced that the fragment believed to be from the fourth century A.D., was delivered to Professor King by an anonymous source to secure the artifact from a German American dealer who had supposedly bought it years previous from a source in East Germany. Back in 2012 it was clear that that little piece of ancient papyrus, or what was presented as a little piece of ancient papyrus with just fragmentary lines of text, was instead transformed into proof that Jesus had a wife and that she was most likely Mary Magdalene. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it is almost exactly the argument and the narrative told by fiction writer Dan Brown in his best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. That work, of course, brought a great deal of controversy because it claimed to have documented a reversal of Christian orthodoxy. Furthermore, Dan Brown claimed at the time that Christianity as we know it in terms of its orthodox claims of Christology—that is, the doctrines concerning Jesus Christ—was actually a political settlement forced upon the church by the Emperor Constantine.
Dan Brown claimed that all of this was basically a form of orthodoxy that was forced on the church by a conspiracy led by the Roman Emperor in order to suppress the knowledge that Jesus actually had been something other than fully God and fully man and furthermore to argue that Jesus had been married and supposedly also had children.
Karen King, the professor at the Harvard Divinity School, did not go quite that far, but she bears personal responsibility for identifying the fragment as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Professor King claimed that just a few words and phrases could be understood as presenting a different story of Jesus, a different gospel. She then argued that the words could be read or even should be read as claiming that Jesus was married, that Mary Magdalene was likely his wife. She argued further that while the document provides evidence of Jesus’s marital status, the phrases do not necessarily mean that he was married—more than anything else, she argued against the claim that Christianity is and has been a unified body of commonly held truths.
The point I made back in 2012 was that the argument was never credible and furthermore that it was sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. But of course, it did so with the reputation of the Harvard Divinity School, after all, and with the Hollis Professor of Divinity—that is the holder of the most ancient endowed professorship in the entire United States of America. Even back in 2012 it was abundantly clear that basic questions should have been asked about the authenticity of the document, and many of those questions were asked. But the document was defended steadfastly by Professor King.
Those familiar with Professor King’s research and writings will recognize the argument. Well back before the 2012 controversy, King’s 2003 book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, argued that yet another text from the era presented Mary Magdalene as the very model for apostleship. The thread that was apparent even then that tied all the texts and arguments together was the 1945 discovery of about 52 ancient texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts are known to scholars as the Gnostic literature, the texts present heretical narratives and claims about Jesus and his message, yet they have been a treasure trove for those seeking to replace orthodox Christianity with something different.
Karen King established her academic reputation according to that quest, and she was not alone. Several motivations are very clear behind this. Feminists have sought to use the Gnostic documents to argue that women have been sidelined by the orthodox Christian tradition and that the Gnostic texts actually prove that women were central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even with a spirituality superior to the male disciples. Others have used the Gnostic literature to argue that Christianity was from the very beginning a diverse movement marked by few doctrinal concerns until, according to the conspiracy theory, it was hijacked by political and ecclesial leaders who constructed theological orthodoxy as a way of establishing churchly power in the Roman Empire and then using that power to stifle dissent.
There’s another ambition behind the claims about these documents, and that has to do with sexuality and in particular with the sexual revolution. The very same argument made by feminists that there was a suppression of the female role in the church was also made by the sexual revolutionaries—that was the claim that there was a conspiracy to suppress a pluralism of understandings about sexuality and gender roles and morality in the ancient church.
As I wrote about this back in 2012, Professors King and Pagels both reject traditional Christianity and they clearly prefer the voices of the heretics. They argued for the superiority of heresy over orthodoxy. In the article published in The Smithsonian back in 2012, Professor King’s scholarship was described as,
“A kind of sustained critique of what she calls the master story of Christianity, a narrative,” it was explained, “that cast the canonical text of the New Testament as a divine revelation that passed through Jesus in an unbroken chain to the apostles and their successors, church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carry these truths to the present day.”
Now evangelicals have to understand what’s at stake in this argument. This is nothing less than a rejection of the authority of the canonical New Testament and in particular of the four Gospels. We are told that the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were basically just imposed upon the church by an imperial edict and that made official, especially at the Council of Nicaea, in terms of the declaration of an orthodox Christology, the claim that Christianity rests upon the truth that Jesus was both fully God and fully man.
Even back in 2012, as I said, there were basic questions about the authenticity of the document—that is, outright claims by some scholars that the document was fraudulent. In 2014 Karen King and others at the Harvard Divinity School responded with a major issue of the Harvard Theological Review, again, that was published two years later in 2014. In that document Karen King actually dealt with the claims that the document was a forgery. She defended the document, saying that it was unlikely that anyone would be able to forge what was considered to be such a likely authentic document. In her own article published in the Harvard Theological Review, King said,
“The scientific testing completed thus far consistently provides positive evidence of the antiquity of the papyrus and the ink including radiocarbon spectroscopic and oxidation characteristics with no evidence of modern fabrication.”
She then said, very crucially,
“Hypothetically, a clever forger could acquire a piece of ancient papyrus and fabricate ink from ancient papyrus fragments or other vegetable matter, both of which would pass these kinds of inspection.”
Then in that 2014 article in the Harvard Theological Review, Professor King embedded this very important sentence, understood to be extremely important right now. She wrote,
“The lack of information concerning the provenance of the discovery is unfortunate since when known such information is extremely pertinent.”
Provenance refers to the source of the fragment, and here the professor was acknowledging that there was no line from the source to the present that would explain how this fragment had been discovered and by whom and when and how it could be entrusted to have been made available by authoritative sources. In that 2014 edition of the Harvard Theological Review, however, Professor King appeared to backtrack somewhat from the claim she had made just two years previous. She said in 2014,
“It is not entirely clear, however, how many women are referred to in the fragment, who they are, precisely what is being said about them or what the larger issues are under consideration.”
That’s a rather radical concession considering the fact that she spoke to the headline stories, indeed she caused them back in 2012 by herself identifying the document as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” That issue of the Harvard Theological Review, however, did include an article by a professor at Brown University who argued then that the fragment’s authenticity is actually out of the question. The Brown University professor pointed to several factors, including the fact that a set of typographical errors in the fragment matches precisely a set of errors in an online edition of one of the Gnostic documents, that is the gospel of Thomas, an ancient Gnostic text. But the typographical error dated to very recent times, not to ancient times. The professor said that the chances of coincidence in terms of that typographical error was actually “one in a trillion,” to use his words. He stated that he,
“Has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery and not a very good one at that.”
We were told back in 2012 that this little fragment was going to revolutionize the theological world; of course, the shock waves that were promised never actually happened, and that’s because the claim itself was simply not credible. What was even more incredible, however, was the complicity of the Harvard Divinity School in terms of the entire controversial story and the fact that the professor, Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School, did not back down whatsoever even in light of the incredibly serious questions about the authenticity of the document that were raised even two and four years ago.
But the academic world was rocked last week with a major story that appeared in The Atlantic. The title,
“The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.”
“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story requires a big leap of faith.”
The Atlantic article, an excellent example of long form journalism, was written by Ariel Sabar. That’s absolutely crucial, because it’s the very same Ariel Sabar, who wrote the 2012 article that broke the story back in 2012 in The Smithsonian. It turns out the Mr. Sabar had big questions then and clearly even bigger questions now about the document as a potential forgery. By the time you conclude reading the article in The Atlantic, the case has been conclusively made. It is a story that is like the very best of espionage or detective fiction, but this isn’t fiction at all and it’s published in The Atlantic. The long article describes exactly how Ariel Sabar, using investigative techniques that should’ve been available to just about anyone and should have been a moral imperative when it came to the world of scholarship back in 2012 and 2014, Sabar traced the document to the man who, in all likelihood, had actually forged it. He was able actually to locate the man not in Egypt, not even in Germany where the document at least was supposedly most recently to have been discovered, but instead in Florida where it turns out the man was a major pornographer.
The individual Walter Fritz turned out also to be a person with a very interesting background, and that’s an understatement. At one point he had done academic research at the graduate level in Egyptology, but he never completed the degree. He also is understood to be a very capable artist. All that, of course, plays in to the understanding of how this document arose in the first place and why the apparent forgery convinced so many people, including a professor at the Harvard Divinity School. Also central to the story is what Sabar described in terms of the background of—here comes the fiction—The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Sabar makes the point that Dan Brown’s bestseller is fiction, of course, but as he points out, that fiction draws on the work of feminist religious scholars such as—you guessed it—Professor Karen King,
“Its premise is that conservative forces in the Roman Catholic Church silenced early Christians who saw sex as holy and women as the equals—or even the saviors—of men. Threatened by these vestiges of pagan goddess worship, Church fathers,” according to Brown based on King, “defamed Mary Magdalene and enshrined the all-male priesthood to keep women out.”
Sabar presents the argument in this most recent article published last week that Walter Fritz is the likely forger throughout his most recent research on the authenticity or the inauthenticity of the document. Ariel Sabar had contacted Professor King who was basically extremely uninterested in engaging the question. As he wrote in the article published last week, Professor King “wasn’t interested in talking.”
“I haven’t engaged the provenance questions at all (that is the source questions). What she did know,” Sabar wrote, “she’d already reported in her 2014 Harvard Theological Review article. ‘It’s all out there,’ she said. “I don’t see the point of a conversation.’”
It turns out, as Sabar documents, for any number of reasons, Walter Fritz, who did not want to speak to the reporter until he basically had to when confronted with evidence, also has a major animus against orthodox Christianity. By the time virtually any fair reader would complete the article published last week by Ariel Sabar, it would be no question that this was a forgery and should have been recognized as such even back in 2012. Furthermore, what’s also revealed is that what I described as “sensationalism masquerading as scholarship” back four years ago in 2012 should now be a major embarrassment to the entire world of academic scholarship, at least to the portion of that world that defended the controversial and sensationalistic claims that Jesus might have had a wife and furthermore those claims that there was credible scholarship behind the supposed papyrus fragment.
Ariel Sabar’s major article, this most recent article in The Atlantic—keep in mind by the fact that he was the author of the original 2012 article in The Smithsonian—his article appeared online last week, even as it will be published in the print edition of The Atlantic for the months of July and August. But what’s really interesting is that by the end of the week, Professor King, who did not want to deal with the questions when Ariel Sabar was writing the article, did respond by an article also published in The Atlantic, also by Ariel Sabar. Sabar’s piece last week on Professor King’s response to his Atlantic article begins with these words:
“For four years, Karen L. King, a Harvard historian of Christianity, has defended the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” against scholars who argued it was a forgery. But Thursday, for the first time, King said the papyrus—which she introduced to the world in 2012—is a probable fake.”
According to this Atlantic news story, Professor King reached this conclusion after she had read the article by Ariel Sabar published on the website of The Atlantic the previous night—that is Wednesday night. By Thursday she was openly declaring that the evidence had now tipped in favor of the fact that the papyrus is a forgery, a fake. Sabar then wrote,
“Critics had argued for years that errors in Coptic grammar, similarities with the Gospel of Thomas, and other problems pointed to forgery. But King had placed her faith in the opinions of expert papyrologists, along with a series of carbon-dating and other scientific tests, at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, that had turned up no signs of modern tampering or forgery.”
Sabar then continued,
“When I called her in March while reporting my Atlantic story, she said she was not interested in commenting on—or even hearing about—my findings before publication. Thursday afternoon, however, she called me to say the story was ‘fascinating’ and ‘very helpful.’”
When presented with the massive detective work undertaken by Sabar as published in The Atlantic, the professor said, according to this most recent article, that she hoped nonetheless that Walter Fritz would allow the scrap to remain at Harvard so that scholars,
“Could continue to probe questions of authenticity.”
In an amazing statement, Professor King said,
“I’m finding myself not even really angry. I’m mostly just relieved. I think the truth always makes me calm.”
That calm she claimed might be of surprise to readers of the Boston Globe who back in the midst of the early controversy recorded her as saying,
“If it’s a forgery. It’s a career breaker.”
Well, we will see. But what is well documented here and visible for all to see are the extents to which many academics will go to try to subvert orthodox Christianity. Also evident in this controversy from 2012 onward is the propensity of the press to report on these things as if, especially coming from a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, these claims must be true. But it now turns out there is something of a seamless circle from Karen King to Dan Brown back to Karen King, including this forged document, now forged as a fake beyond any reasonable doubt.
But evangelical Christians looking at this story also need to understand that this tells us a great deal about the trajectory of American higher education, as illustrated here in the history of Harvard University and the Harvard Divinity School. Harvard University was established as a bastion of Christian orthodoxy, as a Protestant institution that was intended to serve the church by providing ministers who were grounded in Christian orthodoxy. Professor King’s endowed professorship—that is, the Hollis Professorship of Divinity—is, as has been known, the oldest endowed professorship in any American institution of higher education. It was endowed by a gift from a British Baptist in the year 1721 with the stipulation that the incumbents of that chair must hold to “sound theological principles.”
The very first incumbent of that chair back in that founding in the early 18th century was Professor Edward Wigglesworth, who was required actually to sign devotion to Calvinist orthodoxy according to the tradition of the reformed theologian William Ames. Harvard University in general and the Harvard Divinity School in particular, though, by the very end of that century had already capitulated to the heresy of Unitarianism. By the time you come to the 20th century, George Huntston Williams, a prominent Unitarian church historian, was the incumbent of that very same chair. George Huntston Williams, however, was a very credible church historian whose specialization was largely in the Reformation. But by the time you come to the late 20th century, Professor Harvey Cox, a Baptist who was an advocate of liberal theology and what he described as the “secular city” was the incumbent of the chair. Karen King was elected to that chair in the year 2009.
The theological trajectory from Edward Wigglesworth back in the 1720’s to Karen King in 2009 tells you just about everything about the abandonment of Christian orthodoxy on the part of the American secular Academy.
The Hollis Professor of Divinity, America’s first endowed chair that, interestingly enough, came with the rights of the professor to graze cattle on Harvard Yard, is a portrait in miniature of what has happened to the American Academy and in particular to America’s most elite academic institutions. The news story that appeared last week will no doubt be a major embarrassment to the Harvard Divinity School. But the bigger story for evangelical Christians is not just the fracas about a forgery, but the theological shift from Protestant orthodoxy to the contemporary theological positions advocated at the Harvard Divinity School. That is indeed the larger lesson, and one of the chief reasons why this story was so important that too it was devoted an entire edition of The Briefing.
For the Christian church, everything stands or falls on the declaration that Jesus Christ was indeed fully God and fully man. Without that there simply is no Christianity. But as this story makes clear, that truth claim has enemies. This story documents all too clearly and all too sadly the extent to which those enemies are willing to go.