Friday, 23 September 2016

Perspectives on Mary Magdalene

Lies, Damned Lies, and Post-Modern Academics

It's been some years since we heard about Jesus' wife.  The academic world was all agog in 2012 when Dr Karen L King, a professor at Harvard, announced to the world that she had possession of a scrap of an ancient text which implied most clearly that Jesus was married--to Mary Magdalene.  

Withing a few short weeks of this cacophonous announcement, serious New Testament scholars were debunking the claim.  But that did not put the Unbelieving academic world--let alone their tame, fawning media--in any doubt.
 At a splashy roll-out a stone’s throw from the Vatican in 2012, King presented a paper to more than 300 scholars from 27 countries, where she announced the discovery of an ancient scrap of papyrus in which Jesus refers to his “wife,” whom King said is probably Mary Magdalene.  “All of the evidence points to it being ancient,” King later said. “As historians, the question then becomes, what does it mean?” [Thomas D. Williams, Breitbart News]
"All the evidence" said the headline-seeking scholar indicated that the text was authentic.  In this venerable, most ancient artifact, Jesus is quoted as saying “My wife… she is able to be my disciple.”  That's it then.  Proof positive.  The heavyweight, high-brow organs weighed in.
The Harvard Theological Review published an entire journal edition on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” and the Smithsonian Channel produced a major documentary on the topic. National Geographic confidently announced, “No Forgery Evidence Seen in ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus” in its issue from April 11, 2014.
No evidence of forgery, huh?   Not a skerrick.  Hold that thought.
 Meanwhile in July 2015, Christianity Today published an article entitled 5 Reasons Why the Gospel of Jesus' Wife Is a Fake.  But what would Christians know about scholarly, academic stuff?  Yes, well, unfortunately someone who was very definitely not part of the academy [reporter, Ariel Sabar] did some basic research and investigation and tossed a hand-grenade into the whole shebang.  He has written up his findings in an article published in The Atlantic, entitled "The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus Wife".  [Full marks, by the way, to The Atlantic.]

Before we recount that "Tale" we need to regale you with the response of the academic world when Karen King first astounded us with an ancient papyrus proof that Jesus was married.  We have noted that some of the earliest reactions were deeply sceptical and profoundly critical.  Then the "Big Guns" weighed in:
A year and a half later, however, Harvard announced the results of carbon-dating tests, multispectral imaging, and other lab analyses: The papyrus appeared to be of ancient origin, and the ink had no obviously modern ingredients.
Well, that's it then.  The science settled it all.  Who could doubt carbon-dating, multispectral imaging and other lab tests.  And Harvard!  The Rolls Royce of academia.

Ariel Sabar was the obnoxious layman--actually, a tenacious journalist--who had the effrontery and audacity to say, "Hold on" and go about some basic research.  Where  did the papyrus fragment actually come from, and how did it come to light?  To be fair, Sabar appears to be a tenacious digger when it comes to finding the truth.  But the upshot is that the "all-the-evidence" Professor King had been fooled by a forgery.  And there are indications that she was credulously complicit in it all.  She wanted it to be genuine.

King had received the papyrus from a chap called Walter Fritz, whose back story and biography was painstakingly pulled apart by Ariel Sabar.
Dr. King had actually received the papyrus from a pornographer named Walter Fritz, who invented a story of how he had come into possession of the fragment. Described by people who knew him as “an eel,” Fritz told King that he had obtained the text from a colleague who had acquired it in Potsdam in 1963.  King was so excited with the possibilities of the find, however, that she never bothered to check up on Fritz’s credentials or the numerous inconsistencies in his story.  [Williams, op cit.]
Williams goes on to press the relevant point: Harvard scholar King was predisposed to believe the authenticity of the fragment because it confirmed her own zeitgeist and academic paradigms.
Sabar later accused King of shoddy scholarship, suggesting that what she called a “lack of information” was really just a “lack of investigation.”  In his later piece, Sabar noted that King was particularly interested in Gnostic texts that assign Mary Magdalene a prominent role as Jesus’s confidante and disciple, since proof that some early Christians also saw Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife “would be a rebuke to Church patriarchs.” Her ideological agenda, in other words, disposed her to believe Fritz’s account of the papyrus.  Harvard classicist Christopher Jones had already observed that a forger may have identified King as a “mark” because of her feminist scholarship. 
The most profound observation in this imbroglio of academic imbroglios actually belongs to the forger.  In the post-modern world, truth is fundamentally and completely relative.  It's all a matter of perspectives.  Professor King, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian had their perspectives.   But the one who played them all was the forger.  He is postmodernism's truest son in this whole mess. Truth is no more or less than how one conceives things or imagines them to be.
When Sabar confronted Fritz with his trail of lies and deceit, Fritz admitted the fraud, but then tried to hustle Sabar as well, proposing co-authorship of a new book on the Mary Magdalene angle of Jesus’ life and the “suppression of the female element” in the Church.  Sabar would do the writing and Fritz would do the leg work on the details of the story. Fritz assured him the book would make a “million dollars in the first month or so.”

“The facts alone, they don’t really matter. What matters is entertainment,” he told Sabar. “You have to make a lot of stuff up,” he said. “You cannot just present facts.”
In our postmodern world, it's the only way to go. It's a conman's paradise.

[Editor's note: there is a backstory to all of this.  As Sabar points out in his Atlantic piece, recent decades have seen the burgeoning of the "Dan Brown phenomenon".  Posing as serious historical reconstruction, Brown (and others) popularised the thesis that the historical church (the Western Catholic church in particular) was guilty of suppressing heaps of genuine historical material when Constantine officially recognised both Christianity and the Church.

[Lots of material was destroyed, or hidden, which showed a far more prosaic historical background to Jesus.  It presented a view far more condign with the modern Western mindset.  There was "plenty" of historical evidence that Jesus was just an ordinary bloke, married in fact.  The female aspect had been suppressed by the anti-feminist, male dominated Roman Catholic Church after 330AD.

[With the rise of feminism, scholars like Karen King have devoted their lives to studying and researching this feminist interpretation of Jesus life and times.  The research is coupled with an inevitable conspiracy theory: viz, the Church has suppressed the truth in order to maintain its male hegemony and power.  Dan Brown popularised the hypothesis and made millions and millions of dollars out of it.  It has been a con-man's dream.  The culture was predisposed to believe it even before it was written in popular form.  Meanwhile many an academic career could be forged on the back of the populist theory.  And so it has come to pass.  The post-modernist forger is the hero-king in our "truth is what you make it" credulous world.]

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