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Thoughts inspired by “the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”

After reading the review of Ariel Sabar’s “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” I decided to follow Paul Alper’s advice and read the book, which was conveniently available at the local library.

At first I thought the book would be boring, not because of the topic but because I’d already read the review so I knew how the story would turn out. But, no, the book was interesting and thought provoking. It had good guys and bad guys but was lots more than that, and it had three major strands: (1) The document itself: where it came from, how it was revealed and publicized, and the ways in which people figured out that it was fake; (2) The story of the German dude who did the forgery; (3) The story of Harvard and the academic world of early Christian studies. Each of these strands was interesting, and they interacted in interesting ways.

As with the book about Theranos, there was something weird about the whole thing, in that the warnings come right at the beginning and never stop. Agatha Christie it ain’t. The big difference is that the Theranos story was full of bad guys—I was particularly annoyed at the lawyer who went around intimidating anyone who might be a whistleblower—whereas the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife story seems to have involved one bad guy and a thousand dupes, people who legitimately felt bad when it turned out they’d been scammed. The Harvard professor in the story, Karen King, was somewhere in the middle: she got fooled, and then when the evidence of the scam started to come in, she kept looking away, as if she could just make the unwelcome evidence go away by just dismissing it.

In comparison when my political science colleague Don Green learned that he’d been conned by Michael Lacour, a graduate student from another university, he (Green) was savvy enough to just hit reset oon the story. Lacour’s fraud was hard to detect because it required looking carefully at his data. I’d written that the published results seemed too good to be true, but I didn’t suspect fraud; I just thought there might be some methodological issue I was missing. On the other hand, to see the problems in Lacour’s data did not require any specialized knowledge of ancient languages or dating of documents.

As noted in my earlier post, the first thing that Sabar’s story reminded me of was various junk science ideas that got debunked, but often only after many defensive moves by the people who originally promoted the bad ideas, and even after the original experimental claims had been abandoned, the bad ideas remained in Cheshire-cat or zombie form. An example is the so-called critical positivity ratio; see here for the latest in that story. One difference is that the “Jesus’s wife” document was an out-and-out fraud, whereas most of the junk science seems more like delusion or what we call cargo-cult science. For example, I have no reason whatsoever to think that the ages-ending-in-9 or ovulation-and-voting or himmicanes researchers engaged in fraud; I just think they don’t know what they’re doing and then, once someone points out the problems in their work, they’re too committed to let go.

Another thing that struck me was the role of the news media, both in puffing up fraud or junk science or unsubstantiated claims more generally, then in shooting these claims down, then in promoting salvage operations, etc.

Sabar has this great quote:

King had correctly forecast the need to distance herself from a certain kind of coverage: the tabloids and clickbait sites that would inevitably mischaracterize the scrap as biographical proof that Jesus was married. But she failed to grasp something essential about the more responsible news organizations: they were not there to do her bidding and move on.

I’ve thought about this before. When academics get in the news for their research, they typically get uncritical coverage. So then when negative coverage does happen, it can be a real shock.

Later Sabar discusses two researchers who discovered a fatal flaw in the fake Bible document. These researchers had the insider-outsider perspective: they had professional training but were doing this particular research as a side hobby:

Though they groused about doing scholarship in basements alongside loads of laundry, they’d also come to see advantages: live outside academia’s high walls afforded freedoms unavailable inside. Bernhard and Askeland didn’t have to worry about what Harvard might think of them. They didn’t have to weigh the professional cost, as many young scholars do, of challenging powerful gatekeepers who might one day sit on a hiring or tenure committee.

Indeed, I get emails from people all the time who talk about bad things they’re seeing but request anonymity because they fear retaliation. That’s one advantage to me of being in the statistics and political science departments: the Association for Psychological Science can publish lies about me, and I don’t like it, but they can’t hurt my career.

This brings me to something that is notable by its absence in the Jesus’s wife story. There was no nastiness. Yes, the Harvard professor was a bit slippery with her evidence, engaging in wishful thinking long after it was clear that the document was a fraud—but neither she nor anyone else involved attacked their critics, either directly or through proxies. A couple years ago we talked about a ladder of responses to criticism, ranging from the most open (“1. Look into the issue and, if you find there really was an error, fix it publicly and thank the person who told you about it.”) to the most defensive (“7. Attack the messenger: attempt to smear the people who pointed out the error in your work, lie about them, and enlist your friends in the attack.”) In this case, the academics who were fooled by the forged document were somewhere in the middle. Lots of bullshitting but no attacks.

Sabar also discusses the writings of Robert Funk, a scholar of the Bible and collaborator of Karen King:

“The Bible, along with all our histories, is a fiction,” Funk said in his inaugural 1985 speech to the Jesus Seminar. Like all stories, the Bible was a series of “arbitrary” selections by an author who picked characters and events, then forced them into a causal chain with beginning, middle, and end. It was only by exposing the Bible’s fictive underpinnings that scholars could conjure a new, better tale. Unaccountably, however, this new tale wouldn’t necessarily be truer than the one it replaced. “What we need is a new fiction,” Funk told his colleagues . . .

This makes sense to me. When it comes to millennia-old stories, we have to distinguish between truth/fiction of the provenance of the documents and truth/fiction of the stories themselves. Lots of Biblical stories (not the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s wife, but many others, canonical and non-canonical) really were written down between 1500 and 2500 years ago (roughly), so it’s true that the stories existed as stories, even though there’s no independent evidence for the content of the stories. Similarly we can say it’s a fact that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings even though hobbits are no more real than unicorns.

But this brings us to an interesting point, the argument that it wasn’t fair to diss the “Jesus’s wife” document. Sure, it was a modern forgery, but so what? Lots of genuine Biblical documents were written hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe, then there’s the Book of Mormon, etc. So why hold the Jesus’s wife document to a higher standard? I don’t really know the answer to this one. I think we should describe its provenance accurately. If it was really created around the year 2000, then don’t say it’s from the year 400 or 800 or whatever. But, sure, if you want to argue that Jesus was married, you can argue it now as much as you could argue it in the year 400. The reason why the document, if real, would’ve been relevant to Biblical scholarship is because it inform claims about what was being debated about Christ in the centuries after his death.

Remember that Keynes quote about the stock market as a beauty contest where the goal is to predict the face who other contestants think is most beautiful? Similarly, this sort of biblical scholarship is studying not what happened in Jesus’s time but, rather, what people 200 years later were saying happened around 0 A.D.

Here’s another quote, this time from Roger Bagnall, one of the scholars who was fooled by the forged document:

It’s hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this.

This reminds me of the findings from cognitive psychology that we evaluate hypotheses by their “availability.” Remember Linda the bank teller?

Oh, and I like this line from Sabar after a lab test provided evidence of forgery:

There were no press releases from Harvard Divinity School this time.

Is this a cheap shot? I don’t think so. Especially given that, even now, years after the fraud was publicly exposed Harvard Divinity School continues to host this page, “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which lists three early “Scientific Reports” that purport to support the authenticity of the document, but none of the definitive followups. This is flat-out poor scholarship, especially given that James Yardley, the Columbia professor who did one of the studies, explicitly told Sabar that his earlier report was “never intended to be a proper scientific presentation of the results.” That Harvard webpage also deadpans it with a “transcription” of the document without any indication that it is a fake or any crediting of Mike Grondin’s interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas, which is where Walter Fritz had stolen this from. No need to credit Fritz, perhaps, but they should definitely credit Grondin.

What’s up with you, Harvard? Presenting a fake document as real and not crediting the source? That’s not cool. Not at all. Give your sources. Always.

Ummm, ok, yeah, here it is:

Members of the Harvard College community commit themselves to producing academic work of integrity – that is, work that adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to our ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problem sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.

Sabar writes:

The story came first; the data managed after. The narrative before the evidence; the news conference before the scientific analysis; the interpretation before the authentication.

This reminds me of what goes on with junk science. Someone does a sloppy analysis—no fraud, just some run-of-the-mill bad science. But then the claim gets out there and people work hard to prop it up.

Elsewhere, Sabar talks about some academic politics regarding Harvard’s Divinity School. In 2006 a university committee proposed a new program:

“Reason and Faith is a category unlike any that Harvard has included in its general education curriculum,” the task force wrote. The classes would treat religion academically, covering topics like church versus state, the history of religion, gender and worship, the Vatican as an institution . . .

This proposal was slammed by psychology professor Steven Pinker who wrote, “universities are about reason pure and simple . . . Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so–has no place in anything but a religious institution, and out society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology.'”

I wasn’t there at Harvard for the conversation, and if I were a student I think I’d be annoyed if they tried to require me to take a religion course, in the same way that I’d be annoyed if they tried to require me to take an astronomy course or a psychology course—but I feel like something’s off in the discussion of that religion program, something off in the way it was discussed by its proponents and its opponents. On the “pro” side, there’s the claim that there’s something wonderful and unique about this program—but how is it different from the teaching of literature? If you take a class on Shakespeare, you learn about the history of the plays and about their content, but you’re not required to believe that the story he was telling about Richard III was real. If you take a class on Tolkien, you’ll learn about Beowulf and all sorts of things, but you don’t have to believe in orcs. So, yeah, have the religion program, but I don’t see how it’s so damn special. On the other side, the opponents seem a bit extreme. Universities are not all about reason. You can take art and music at Harvard. You can take a poetry class. Sure, these classes involve reason, but they’re not “about reason pure and simple.”

P.S. Sabar isn’t perfect, though. I noticed this line:

Peer reviewers are academia’s highway patrol—the officers who pull over speeders before they hurt themselves and others.

I don’t think so!

Adam Marcus of Retraction Watch tells it:

Coptic cop-out? Religion journal won’t pull paper based on bogus ‘gospel’

What the Harvard Theological Review giveth, it evidently will not taketh away.

The venerable publication about religious matters is refusing to retract a 2014 article by a noted scholar of early Christianity despite evidence that the article — about Jesus’s wife — was based on a forgery. . . .

However, the journal issued a statement about the article, a cop-out of — bear with us — Biblical proportions:

Harvard Theological Review has scrupulously and consistently avoided committing itself on the issue of the authenticity of the papyrus fragment. HTR is a peer-reviewed journal. Acceptance of an essay for publication means that it has successfully passed through the review process. It does not mean that the journal agrees with the claims of the paper. . . . Given that HTR has never endorsed a position on the issue, it has no need to issue a response.

Good to know they’ve “never endorsed a position on the issue.” We wouldn’t want them calling a forgery a forgery. That would just be rude.

For the straight story, you’ll want to read this article by Leo Depuydt written in 2012 and published in the Harvard Theological Review in 2014. Depuydt’s article, refreshingly, begins:

The following analysis submits that it is out of the question that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source. The author of this analysis has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.

Too bad the editor of the journal can’t write so clearly. On the plus side, at least they’re not personally attacking their critics. So let’s appreciate that they are showing some restraint.

P.P.S. Completely unrelatedly and much more consequentially, there’s this story from Shane Bauer:

Five months before Monterrosa was killed, the Vallejo [California] Police Officers’ Association had replaced its president, Detective Mat Mustard, who had run the union for ten years. Mustard was notorious in Vallejo for the investigation he led into the kidnapping of a woman named Denise Huskins, in 2015. Someone broke into the house where she and her boyfriend were sleeping, blindfolded and drugged them, and put her in the trunk of a car. When the boyfriend reported the crime, Mustard suspected that he had killed Huskins and invented the kidnapping story. At the police station, the boyfriend said, officers dressed him in jail clothes, then Mustard and others interrogated him for eighteen hours, calling him a murderer. Huskins, who was being held a hundred and sixty miles away, was raped repeatedly. After she was released, the Vallejo police publicly accused her and her boyfriend of faking the kidnapping, comparing the situation to the movie “Gone Girl.” The police threatened to press charges against the couple, and after the rapist e-mailed the San Francisco Chronicle, confessing to the kidnapping, the police accused Huskins and her boyfriend of writing the e-mail. Soon, the rapist was arrested in South Lake Tahoe, after trying to repeat the crime. Even then, the Vallejo police insisted that Huskins and her boyfriend were lying. The couple sued Mustard and the city, eventually winning a $2.5-million settlement. In a show of defiance, the police department named Mustard officer of the year.

I guess a book might be coming out about this one too. Authority figures do something wrong, don’t back down, then reward the perpetrators: that’s a tale as old as time.

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