Last night when I shared Craig A. Evans’ report that the Harvard Theological Review (hereafter, HTR) appears to have decided not to publish Karen King’s paper on the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (see “Update on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”) I felt a little bit like a “reporter” for biblical scholarship’s version of TMZ. Obviously Evans is well respected, and he is connected to many people in the field, so I didn’t doubt the authenticity of the news, though I was anxious to know the source if I was going to report it using my blog. Nevertheless, it seemed this announcement was a hurried response to a previously premature press release.
When Mark Goodacre shared the post from Evans on his Facebook page one person lamented that this was a poor decision by the editors of the HTR and that future scholars may chose to keep quiet on news like this until “after the documentary and the refereed article are published and just let the blogosphere go screw itself.” Apparently, this person was convinced that criticism of King’s paper on the internet is the main reason HTR retracted. I understand the angst and this is coming from someone who is a minor leaguer in the field of biblical scholarship. I don’t expect to be of the stature of Evans, Goodacre, King, or any of the other people involved. Yet even I can see how it does seem too fast, though I might say in response to the person who says that the blogosphere should “go screw itself” that it was news that was announced publicly before it was scrutinized by the “behind closed doors” process of peer review scholarship and therefore I see no other course than to address it in the same arena.
Leroy Huizenga in announcing the news on his blog (see “Harvard Theological Review Declines to Publish Paper on ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife'”) had a thought to share on this quagmire. He wrote:
“Is there a downside? Perhaps. In theory, this is the sort of debate that should be carried out in journals over months and years, so scholarship can get it right. (Note the parallels with journalism: the pressure to get it first and the pressure to get it right work against each other.) In this case, I think Watson and others contesting the fragment’s authenticity are getting it right — I’m no papyrologist, but it seems to me most likely that the fragment is a modern forgery — and I think that their work has been careful and solid. Yet time and peer review are lacking. What if we will have been too hasty in dismissing the fragment?
“We happen to live in a media and internet age, however, and as sensationalism abounds I think it’s well and good that sober scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre (to whom credit goes for the h/t on this story) have the ability to react in real time. Of course, they were also trained as scholars in a prior age, meaning more than ten years ago; one wonders if a younger generation of scholars raised in internet culture will be as painstaking and measured as they.
“Thought experiment: How different would things have been if the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered in the internet age?”
If one reads older books on the Dead Sea Scrolls one is aware that there was some angst over the slow release of data. Many conspiracy theories arose. Did the Roman Catholic Church seek to prevent the public from knowing the content of the scrolls because it told us something about early Christianity? Was there some other deviant plot afoot? Now we know that those who handled the discovery, study, and publication of the scrolls, while not perfect, sought to be careful and precise in their studies before informing the whole world of the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls (a process than continues in many ways today). I think King did a fine job of being balanced regarding her assessment of the fragment she received, and she did not participate in the swirling winds of the media’s imagination, but it remains important to acknowledge that the reporters were invited to discuss matters related to this story, the media’s articles made a public announcement before the peer review process could occur, the article that was going to be published in the HTR was available online in draft form, and things moved fast enough for the respectable Smithsonian Institute to plan a documentary on this discovery! So for better or for worse, Pandora’s box had been opened and I don’t think scholars like Goodacre, Watson, et al., had any other choice but to address this subject in a public forum.
I might add (as a blogger) that I think there is some good to this type of public scholarship. It is an opportunity for scholars to educate the public. Sure, ‘internet scholarship’ may be a tad too hasty, and we may wish for the old days when things moved a tad slower, but we live in the era in which we live, and if the public is going to be told about something like the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife prior to going through the scrutiny of the peer review process then educators are responsible to help the public think critically about what they have read and I venture to say that the aforementioned scholars (and others like them) did this very thing. For their willingness to educate the public I say, “thank you!”
There is another upside to scholarship being published quickly on the Internet: It reminds everyone that the pursuit of truth can be rather messy. We are therefore a lot less likely to fall victim to the “assured results” view of scholarship that has sometimes afflicted theological studies. Being able to see the responses of scholars like Francis Watson, Larry Hurtado, Craig Evans, etc … actually helps lay people (and most pastors) get a better idea of how scholarship is actually done.
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