It all began in Harvard, where feminist theologian Karen King (pictured above) announced that an ancient fragment of papyrus contained the words in Coptic, “Jesus said to them, my wife…” Wow. So Jesus was married! Way to go—and to get attention. For it certainly did get attention. The papyrus was promptly dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, and those dubious of its authenticity (such as the Vatican) were written off as partisans in the church’s continued struggle against women priests. Harvard scholars with long lists of initials after their names solemnly released a series of articles defending Ms. King’s position. Time magazine solemnly announced that several “teams of scientists” had therefore “proved its authenticity”. With all the gravitas they could muster, journalists intoned “the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery”. The pieces appeared, of course, just before Easter as modern journalism’s contribution to religious dialogue in the West. The hubbub over the “Gospel of Judas” in about 2006 had died down, so it was time for something else. What better news for a journalist could there be than the explosive discovery that Jesus was married, and that the Church had been wrong all along about yet something else? Stop the presses!
Then it quickly began to unravel. A Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University, Christian Askeland, said that a few factors immediately indicated that they were dealing with a forgery, one of which was the fact that the Coptic dialect used in the papyrus fell out of use before the date that radiometric tests indicated that the papyrus was made. Mark Goodacre, New Testament prof and Coptic scholar at Duke University came to the same conclusion: “It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake”. So did Alin Suciu, researcher at the University of Hamburg and Coptic manuscript specialist: “Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus over.” Okay then. Nothing to see here. Move along everyone. Let’s just forget the whole thing. Sorry, Ms. King.
I think though that it would be a mistake to just forget the whole thing, however much Ms. King and her Harvard colleagues might like us to do so. For the episode reveals something important about how our culture, and some in academic circles, look upon the traditional views of the historical Church—namely, that our culture is predisposed to accept any story, view, or discovery which casts doubt on the Church’s traditional faith. Any news release or theory which could embarrass the Church or portray it in an unfavourable light as a collection of hide-bound obscurantists, will find an eager and ready audience, what sales people call “a motivated buyer”. Certain sections of the academic world and the totality of the mass media will jump on any band-wagon or story deemed to be destructive of the Church’s traditional beliefs. No sense sitting on the story until real scholars have pondered it, tested it, and subjected it to rigorous proof. Easter is coming, and there is nothing that sells better than the latest revelation that the Church has been proven wrong once again.
This means that we should sit lightly on The Latest Thing that comes down the journalistic pike when it announces in its customary solemn tones that the Church’s faith has been again proven to be bogus. Whether it’s an ossuary or a papyrus presented for our excited consideration, it is likely that when the dust settles the debate between believers and unbelievers will be pretty much where it was before. It is a mistake to let journalists or academics get us worked up. It has all been done before. Easter comes around every year and the media will be hard at their work of coming up with something new. Two years ago, a feminist scholar from Harvard helped them out. Who will help next time? Stay tuned.