Peter has written a very fine, precise, and ‘all you need to know about the ‘Jesus Wife’ fiasco’ piece here.
What do we learn from all this?
First, we see a number of layers of spin in this tale. Dr. King’s original decision to call the media and to label the fragment a ‘Gospel’ just set the ball rolling. Soon media reports copied each other, and started to suggest that this was a discovery to revolutionise or challenge Christian teaching. By the time this arrived at popular perception, the transformation was complete: a piece of historical evidence suggested that Jesus actually had a wife. The majority impression given by the media was that this was an authentic piece, and the message that, even if genuine, the fragment was of little historical consequence was not heard. Public attitude will have been affected for the worse.
So we are reminded that the secular media appear incredibly powerful at getting false messages across which it is hard for us to redress.
Secondly, it could have been worse. To her credit, from the beginning Dr. King released high resolution photos and the technical information she had. This enabled quick scrutiny. Had the person responsible for the fake been better at his or her job the story could have had yet more negative impact. As it was, it’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown ofThe Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.
It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.
It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.
Amen and amen. With thanks to Mark Goodacre for mentioning it on the twitter.