Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus Wife as Case Study

In his article in the Wall Street Journal entitled 'How the 'Jesus' Wife' Hoax Fell Apart', Jerry Pattengale concludes with an interesting comment: 'this episode is not totally without merit. It will provide a valuable case study for research classes long after we're gone and the biblical texts remain.'

So, given that the whole debacle is basically over (except for mopping up exercises), what lessons can be learnt?

a) It is possible for a forger to get hold of papyri, mix ink according to ancient conventions, compose a semi-plausible pastiche of a text, and mislead scholars, academic institutions, the media, and the public. Exactly what he (or she) hoped to gain from it is not clear, but if it was simply mischief, then he has probably far exceeded his wildest dreams. Given this possibility it is important that if someone approaches you with an unpublished text which meshes in with your own academic interests, then critical skepticism rather than credulity should control your responses. Nothing is innocent until proven guilty in this scenario. Also the forger will target a scholar who he thinks is persuadable, not a manuscript expert, and who has wider credibility to make the discovery known (remember that in this case Prof King at first didn't respond to the invitation, but the forger didn't go to some other scholar, he waited a year and then went back to reel in Prof King).

b) Get the back story straight and get all the documents involved. Although at the time and in retrospect we may think that the problems of palaeography, subject matter, and textual composition with the Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus' Wife* were sufficient to conclude it was a fake; the additional confirmation of that came from the Pseudo-Gospel of John Fragment and the proof that it was copied from a published form of a text. That conclusive anachronism becomes the nail in the coffin which is universally convincing (just as its demonstrable dependence on a published edition of Mark finally did for 2427). So the people calling for access to the whole collection in 2012 are vindicated.

c) The results of scientific tests need to be carefully interpreted. Don't just read the summaries that are repeated in the press releases. Get hold of the full scientific reports. Again, that was an incidental key step in this process (because the scientific ink report also happened to have a photo of Ps-John).

d) Careful observation of the actual manuscript (or good images) may generate suspicion and even offer pointers to forgery which may be individually persuasive, but generating a consensus requires multiple points of suspicion (and/or clearcut anachronism).

e) Get high resolution images on the internet and let some crowd-sourcing do the critical work. In this episode the scholarly blogs on the subject come out pretty well, while the Harvard folk are looking a little gullible. The blogs sorted in a month what Harvard couldn't. We all know when bloggers get their teeth into something they can be tenacious and feed off each other. Surely there will now be scholarly articles on this mess, in NTS and hopefully in HTR, but I doubt they'll offer more than the blogs have already done.

f) Composing a plausible ancient text by free composition is difficult. Several recent forgeries have involved creating text by copying and adapting existing published texts of similar type (both of these obviously Ps-GJW as Watson, Bernhard and others showed; Ps-John as Askeland, Suciu, have now shown, and presumably some of the others in the same collection which haven't been made public yet; the lead codices, etc.). So scholars should look, not only at comparing new documentary finds with other ancient texts, but also with published forms of similar texts. Here tell-tale anachronisms (like following the Grondin misprint or having 17 line endings agree except when a page is turned) are perhaps the most generally conclusive bits of the evidence.

g) Forgers invent fake histories, provenance and documents to bolster the authenticity of the forgery, but these are a potential weak link. No surprise that in this case all these documents have been kept from the scholarly community. 

h) don't worry if your PhD is in something other people think is obscure (like Coptic manuscripts of John) one day you might have the very bit of information that the rest of us need. 


  1. It may be helpful to note that this sort of problem, and a detailed set of proposals to deal with it, was addressed by the eminent epigrapher Christopher Rollston almost a decade ago on the SBL blog. Not sure I've seen NT or Coptic people refer to it, but I think there may be things they can learn from North-West Semitists' travails.

    Also, the first line of this post may be slightly inaccurate: while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are both major outlets, they're not precisely the same :)

  2. Thanks. That and another spelling edit corrected.

  3. Also the forger will target a scholar who he thinks is persuadable, not a manuscript expert, and who has wider credibility to make the discovery known...

    King did have Bagnall and Luijendijk examine the fragment. How do you think the process of analyzing the fragment encountered a point of failure there?

    Perhaps I am overly skeptical (or have too devious a mind), but I was surprised by the comment that "it would be impossible to forge."

  4. If you are worn out on the Gospel of Jesus Wife, here is something you can help me with. I am currently collating GA-2892. Am almost finished. But I found something odd in this image:

    The second to last line ends Colossians 2:12. But then the next line begins with Colossians 3:4, meaning 14 verses were omitted. I am trying to determine what went wrong. The only thing I thought possible here is perhaps a missing leaf from the exemplar. The missing content amounts to about 90% of the content found on a regular page of 2892, meaning the exemplar would have been a little smaller, if this theory is true. However, what are the chances that such a missing leaf would happen to start and end at the beginning and end of a verse?

    Any other ideas?

  5. Peter, yes blogs have triumphed where a peer reviewed journal failed. Caroline T. Schroeder astutely concludes that "We need to develop better mechanisms for integrating our online scholarship and traditional scholarship". This is an important point and I think that the crowd sourcing that you mentioned could be used for all journal papers, not just for those about "new" manuscripts. My suggestion, then, is that journals should post draft versions of their papers on a blog. Anyone would then be able to post comments that could suggest supporting arguments, corrections, counter arguments etc.. The authors and official reviewers would then be able to take those comments into account and make appropriate changes before publication. The published versions would then be stronger for having been exposed to worldwide critique.

    So, crowd sourced peer review? Could Tyndale Bulletin take the lead on this?

  6. On point (f), it should be Watson and Bernhard, not myself. I'm friends with Andrew, but the work was his. More generally, you're assuming things here that haven't been shown to be true. Concluding that a forger will attempt to contact a person who might be susceptible, for example, implies that the forger was the collector who approached King. There's no evidence of that so far. More generally, I have the feeling that rumors of the death of JWF are greatly exaggerated. It depends on linking the lettering of the two fragments, and so far there seem to be disagreements between experts on that issue.

  7. Richard, as editor of the Tyndale Bulletin I would naturally be interested in new ways of peer review and crowd sourcing is certainly a powerful tool.

    However, my reservation is that (a) as soon as you put the submitted manuscript up for crowd source peer review it is already 'published'. Copies are made of it such that it can never be retracted. Even manuscripts by good authors can have embarrassing errors which are tidied up before publication and this would therefore expose the authors to scrutiny they would not want. (b) crowd sourcing is great when you have items of major interest, e.g. GJW, but it would be hard to elicit intelligent comment on the vast number of mss which are submitted to biblical studies journals, which is several times larger than the number published.

    In one sense, HTR unwittingly ended up encouraging crowd source peer review by providing an original pre-publication version of King's article in 2012. They are to be commended for the high resolution images and transparency. Unfortunately HTR didn't listen as carefully as it needed to to the critical and knowledgeable voices.

    On another note, I don't know of any journal (including mine) which does not let articles through from time to time which, with hindsight or greater scrutiny, one can later see would have been better left unpublished. Journal articles are part of an ongoing conversation, and blogs are now essential dialogue partners.

  8. So one lesson would be (w.r.t. Mike Grondin's comment): don't try to draw lessons too early (before the dust has settled).

  9. Re Andrew's comment. Obviously that is a key step which should be taken - show the document to some knowledgeable peers. I think in retrospect the weakness probably was that the GJW piece was isolated from the rest of the collection, that the back story was accepted as basically true, and that the inspection was more or less on the basis of 'is there anything here which definitely indicates forgery'. As you say forgery was thought by them to be very unlikely. But we haven't ever heard much from either Anne-Marie L. or Bagnall.

  10. Darrell,

    I have made your question a blog post. Scheduled to appear tomorrow.

  11. Mike,
    Thanks for the comment. I have fixed point f).

    You are right that I am presuming a fair bit. I think the presumptions are reasonable given the timeline and all the dead witnesses in the back-story.

    It will be interesting to see if there is any life left in the GJW.

  12. Archepoimen follower5/08/2014 3:54 pm

    As an interested observer without any expertise in this area, it is an unique experience to watch, in almost live time, the discussion of the GJW. One observation I would make is that scholars on blogs such as this often lament the unwillingness of non-scholars to accept the results of scholarship, yet, as evidenced by the comment above, Grondin, and Prof. King elsewhere, this weakness exists within the community of scholars as well.

  13. A yet old suggestion, Richard Fellows : see Claire Clivaz’ Blog… (Sept. 23rd,… 2012 !)

  14. The NY Times (Sept. 18, 2012) reported that of the three HTR reviewers "Two questioned its authenticity, but they had seen only low-resolution photographs of the fragment and were unaware that expert papyrologists had seen the actual item and judged it to be genuine, Dr. King said. One of the two questioned the grammar, translation and interpretation." Instead of presuming that reviewers would change their minds, they could have been sent more information and high-resolution photos, to test if they would change. An early warning dismissed.

  15. It remains to identify the forger, if possible. In the Demotic Thomas case it would also be interesting to read the text by B. D. Sealing, to compare it with "R.S. Walker" and supposed anonymous New Orleans committee members. Does anyone have a full copy of "Three Unrecognized Demotic Texts" by B. D. Sealing, 12 pages, Forthcoming in Discussions in Egyptology. -- v. 19 (1991) (or Mark J. Smith's following contribution)? The two hoaxes may involve different people, but both used Thomas, and both may have targeted a preselected scholar. Both had a "star" ms, but other mss too.

  16. The activities of King at the Free University of Berlin while studying with the persons the alleged provenance implicates on behalf of its authenticity needs to be thoroughly examined, too.

  17. Is there any evidence that Matthew the tax-collector, John Mark, Luke the physician, and John son of Zebedee, wrote the four Gospels of the New Testament other than Papias' very brief, non-specific statements in 120-130 AD and Irenaeus' declaration of their authorship at the end of the second century?