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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Where has all the Good Scholarship Gone?

Papyrus fragment: front. Karen L. King 2012

A couple of weeks ago, Prof. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School made a presentation in Rome on a papyrus fragment that made the sensational claim: Jesus said: "my wife". Prof. King breathlessly named this papyrus the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife." Here is a link to her draft essay

Modern scholarship seems to be on the decline. Here's why

First, a 3rd or 4th century Coptic Gnostic Christian papyrus fragment that is the size of a business card containing thirty words in eight fragmented lines is touted as the greatest find in Christian antiquity in the last several years. Seriously? The papyrus looks like it has gone through a paper shredder. It has absolutely NO context. We are being told that it reveals earth-shattering revelations about early Christianity. Hardly. 

Good scholarship avoids sensationalism and trite soundbites (the mainstream news media gave us both). Prof. King did not help matters by giving the fragment the exhilarating name of the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife". The Smithsonian Channel was ready to air a special on King and this papyrus this past Sunday (September 30). The Smithsonian Channel has postponed their special. However, you can read an article on the papyrus in the Smithsonian Magazine

Other scholars (and the Vatican) have raised concerns about this papyrus. The Vatican seems to have denounced it as a forgery. I think the Vatican has responded with a knee-jerk reaction. Further tests are welcomed. I do not doubt Prof. King and the tests that have already been conducted. Hopefully, after another round of tests are finished the Smithsonian Channel will air their special. I look forward to seeing more about this papyrus. I do not think it should, or will, have an impact in the Church. I am sure, however, that some fringe groups with specific agendas in the Church will make some hay from this papyrus. 

Second, there is no context for this papyrus. Prof. King has said that it is a fragment of an unknown Coptic Gnostic Christian text. It contains nothing earth-shattering. It reads like the average Gnostic Christian texts we already have, in particular the "Gospel of Thomas". True, Prof. King notes that this is the first document we have where Jesus says "my wife". Okay, fine, but this phrase appears in a fragment of disconnected phrases. This phrase is nothing extraordinary, for it is something I would expect to find in Gnostic Christianity given their views on Jesus, women and sexuality. Besides Dan Brown beat this horse to death with his DaVinci Code novel. 

Third, too often modern scholarship makes grandiose claims. I understand that part of this may be the desire to publish one's findings or add to the prestige of one's academic institution. This papyrus will probably be Prof. King's one shot at 15 minutes of fame, and I can't blame her for taking the bull by the horns. Early Christianity and Gnostic Christianity are, after all, here specialty. Sound scholarship, however, involves plenty of research (often tedious and dull), extensive testing, peer critiques and criticism. I think Prof. King has done her best to uphold good scholarship. Others on both sides of the issue have not labored as intensely on this papyrus. I do, however, think Prof. King has made some eager grandiose claims that have exacerbated the emotional claims of others, both pro and con regarding this papyrus. 

Prof. King (and her fellow Gnostic Christianity scholar, Elaine Pagels) would have us believe that the Gnostic Christians represent a purer and more authentic version of Christianity. The early Church, her bishops and theologians quickly and rightly challenged the claims of the Gnostic Christians. Furthermore, contrary to King's and Pagel's assertion, Gnostic Christianity was not a numerous movement, and it was not popular among the average Christians. Gnostic Christianity is simply a dog that won't hunt.  It did not vie for supremacy against the Church.

Fourth, too many Christians seem to be intimidated by scholarship. This ought not be the case. The Church and Christianity have traditionally encouraged scholarship. I look forward to passionate debate on this papyrus, Gnostic Christianity and the other topics such debate naturally brings into the fray. The Church has nothing to fear in quality scholarship and discussions. 

If this papyrus is proved to be authentic, then it still does not legitimize the claims made by. Prof. King. Authenticity does not guarantee reliability and truth. Historic, creedal Christianity has withstood struggles and adversities for two millennia. If it were not for The few Gnostic Christian scholars like Profs. King and Pagels, Gnostic Christianity would be forgotten and ignored by both the Church and the world. 

The collapse of sound scholarship goes hand in hand with the decline of traditional liberal arts education. Sound scholarship, with its rigorous debates from both sides of the issue, is sorely needed in this post-postmodern world with its instantaneous news and sensational claims. 

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