Flimsy Papyrus Draws Itchy Ears


Flimsy Papyrus Draws Itchy Ears | Robert Parham, Bible, History, Media, Harvard Divinity School

Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, appears in a scene from "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife," which aired on the Smithsonian Channel. (Photo: SmithsonianChannel.com)
A fragment has caused a global flutter about historic Christianity. The claim that Jesus was married has flashed around the world, saturating newspapers, online sources and TV news shows. It has sparked unbridled speculation about the future of Christianity.

The New York Times broke the news on Sept. 18 with the headline, "A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus' Wife."

The Times reported that it had seen the papyrus scrap four days earlier. Within a few paragraphs, the paper said the discovery "could reignite" the debate about celibacy in the Catholic Church, women in the priesthood and "boundaries of marriage."

An excited reporter for ABC's "Good Morning America" introduced the breaking news that morning.

"The discovery, if it is validated, could have major implications for the Christian faith. The belief that Jesus was not married is one reason priests in the Catholic Church must remain celibate and are not allowed to marry. It could also have implications for women's roles in the church, as it would mean Jesus had a female disciple," read the ABC News story about the show.

Drawing footage from the Smithsonian Channel, NBC's "Today" aired a brief story, warning viewers to "watch out for the lightning bolts."

At the epicenter of this excitement is a Harvard Divinity School professor, Karen King, who named the particle of papyrus "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife."

Associated Press soon had a story that countered all the exuberant speculation. One scholar called the fragment a forgery, and another noted an abundance of papyrus scraps without meaningful context.

Other scholars questioned the ethics of Harvard Divinity School dealing with someone in the antiquities trade who wanted to sell the item to Harvard.

But apparently the fix was already in, for the Smithsonian Channel had already breathlessly produced a show that began airing Sept. 30: "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife."

"Damaged and fragile, an ancient papyrus has unleashed a new interpretation of a religious story we thought we knew. In one of the most significant discoveries of all time, a team of scholars has confirmed that a 4th-century codex, written in the ancient Coptic language, refers to the wife of Jesus," read the Smithsonian promotion.

"Unleashed a new interpretation" and "one of the most significant discoveries of all time" is beyond hyperventilation.

Turning a few words into a gospel, as the public commonly understands the four gospels in the New Testament, is another shameful self-promotion.

Nonetheless, Harvard, the Times and others have created a narrative that Jesus was married – based on a flimsy piece of papyrus written in the 4th century and of dubious origins. The Smithsonian Channel and other sensationalizing sources put the narrative on steroids.

That narrative affords another opportunity for the anti-religion crowd to chunk rocks at Christianity, especially those who hate the Catholic Church and the atheists who hate Christianity in general. Anything that dents and dings historic Christianity is good news for some.

EthicsDaily.com posted two columns on the issue, attempting to bring an informed perspective to the hyped story.

One was by Baptist scholar Tony Cartledge – Papyrus Fragment Stirs Discussion Again about Jesus and a Wife. The other was by noted historian Martin Marty – Why Tiny Papyrus Triggered a Big Media Stir.

Since the story first broke about the particle of papyrus, skepticism has strengthened.

A rumor even circulated wrongly that the Harvard Theological Review had decided not to publish the paper from the professor who "discovered" the fragment.

Until scholars determine the veracity of the fragment, one wonders why Harvard rushed to announce "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife."

After all, King had had the scrap for less than a year, had not tested the ink to determine its authenticity, and had not done carbon dating on the papyrus. She admits to knowing little about the owner of the fragment.

Given that the seller would profit from the sale of the scrap and the Smithsonian Channel – in partnership with Showtime Networks – would profit from a sensational TV show, some motives are clear.

Only the naive would contend that Harvard had the purest of motives in the rush to hype the business card-sized document.

What explains how such a dubious fragment became such a blockbuster story? That question is much easier given our culture's itchy-ear syndrome.

Our culture has an obsession with celebrity and sex. Witness the barrage of stories in recent weeks about England's royal family. In a way, the "Jesus and wife story" is simply a continuation of that cultural titillation.

The New Testament writer Timothy knew about itchy-ear syndrome. He warned: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

It's tough for sound teaching to compete with wild myths.

What is truly interesting is how those with little interest in a time-tested document – the Bible – are energized by an unproven particle of papyrus.

The latter is believable; the former is unbelievable. Those who easily ignore the Bible or dismiss its teachings rush to embrace an untested, itsy-bitsy fragment.

Odd, isn't it?

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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