Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Jesus Wife Fragment: Approaching Judgement Day for Biblical Scholarship

In all my years at the periphery of this field, I never imagined that a perfect storm would arise that would put Biblical scholarship effectively on trial.  The Jesus Wife fragment - amazingly - has now lined up almost every major authority on early Christianity against it.  The decisive discovery it would seem is Andrew Bernhard's theory that it is an amateur forgery using a patchwork of individual words and phrases taken from Michael Grondin's Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

I have just seen David Trobisch come over to accept that Bernhard's discovery of 'a copying error from an online source will carry the burden of proof that it is a forgery.'  This is a stunning development.  As I have said many times here before, I have no dog in this fight other than many of the individuals who always suspected that the Mar Saba document was a forgery will claim their suspicions have been vindicated (this even though Bernhard actually rejected a key part of Francis Watson's claims).

Nevertheless if turns out that this is a modern forgery the scholars who raised doubts about its authenticity before Bernhard's discovery will have a right to smile.  They will be able to point to the fact that 'they had good instincts' to spot a forgery.  At the present moment scholarship is very confident of the outcome.  All the greatest minds in the field have 'come on board.'  It is only a matter of time before the ink tests are carried out and the consensus of academia is sealed with a kiss.

History may well prove them right.  It is hard to believe that having every scholar sitting on one side of the bench doesn't tip the scales - let alone the bench - in their favor.  Yet it must be recognized that it has been reported that the owner of the manuscript has agreed to have his property tested.  Surely if he had a part in the forgery he would have resisted this final embarrassment.  Couldn't he or she have put up a struggle claiming the tests were too invasive, leaving an air of mystery which would not allow the critics the satisfaction of proving their assumptions?

Does this mean that the current owner of the fragment does not know the text is a forgery?  I certainly think the odds are against that.  I also am quite certain that Karen King is innocent of any wrong doing. What then are the parallels with Morton Smith's discovery of the Mar Saba document other than both were presumed to be forgeries by at least a few scholars based on circumstantial evidence?  I have yet to see any proof of contemporary Biblical scholars involving themselves in the manufacture of forged texts.  Maybe that will be demonstrated after the ink tests confirm the accepted hypothesis.  But it has yet to be demonstrated.  In fact everything points to a 'clumsy amateur forgery.'

Yet I think there is something far more significant at work here.  This is judgment day for Biblical scholarship.  If the test turn out to prove that the text is indeed ancient - it should forever question the legitimacy of this field of research.  It would raise questions about the objectivity of textual criticism and the group-think of most people in the disciple.  It is unquestionable that almost all scholars are on one side of the issue.  However it is yet to be demonstrated whether this consensus is representative of an enlightened rational body or the kind of association referenced by Nietzsche in one of his notebooks - 'where the herd gathers there also rises a stink.'

Time will only tell.  All that is certain is that we are approaching judgment day.

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