In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with investigative journalist Ariel Sabar about his new book Veritas as they explore the following questions:
- What does veritas mean?
- Did Jesus have a wife?
- What was the significance of Karen King’s discovery?
- Is the historical accuracy of the Bible tied to truth?
- What is coptic?
- How was the Gospel of Jesus wife disproven?
- Can we crowdsource truth?
- What does the Gospel of Thomas contain?
- How do scholars usually protect against forgery?
- Should the pursuit of religious truth be separated from the pursuit of secular truth?
- What is Ariel’s advice for normal people in seeking factual truth in the media?
- How do different people go about truth-seeking?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Ariel Sabar you can share.
- “If someone comes to you with a sensational claim you have to vet it.” @arielsabar
- “Anyone of us can fall victim to these scams.” @arielsabar
- “I think what’s dangerous is when a theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for historical investigation.” @arielsabar
- “Depending on which scholar you give [the papyrus fragment] to, you’re going to get a very different interpretation of what precisely is being said.” @arielsabar
- “I believe that there are facts out there… there’s a process one can follow to arrive at the sort of verifiable facts.” @arielsabar
Mentioned in This Episode
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Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you do anything, right now, if you’re not driving, I would encourage you to just hit pause, go to wherever you get –
Pete: Or pull over!
Jared: Yeah, sure.
Pete: Pull over!
Jared: Pull over right this minute.
Jared: And if you wouldn’t mind, pretty please, cherry on top, go and pre-order the book Love Matters More: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. My goal, I’ll tell you straight up, my goal is to sell enough copies that they let me write another one. That’s it! That’s the goal I have, so help.
Jared: Help me.
Jared: Help me be able to write more books.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Jared: But no, honestly, I think this book, for me, the message that love matters more couldn’t come at a better time, and as we get some feedback from people who have read the first chapter, which you can get free at https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/, the feedback we’re getting is that this is really helpful during this time of being able to talk about things that we fundamentally disagree with, with our friends and family, in a way that’s still loving and how love matters more than pretty much everything else. So, I would encourage you, if you can, do it now before the book comes out September 8th. It helps us. Go to https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/ or just go straight to wherever you buy books and order it.
Jared: All right, what are we talking about today Pete?
Pete: Our readers have done this before, they’ve ordered books.
Jared: That’s right.
Pete: They know how to do this. Okay, anyway, hey folks, very excited about today’s interview. The topic is telling the truth about Jesus’s wife. Yeah, you heard that right. Our, yeah, sort of sounds weird, but of course, the podcast will clarify that, but our guest today is Ariel Sabar. He is an award-winning investigative journalist, and I like that, investigative journalist. And he’s written stuff for like, Washington Post, New York Times, and The Atlantic, and he put out a book that just came out recently called Veritas. Veritas, by the way, is the model for Harvard, which is really sort of important here, there’s a double meaning. But, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, it’s pretty cool, huh Jared?
Jared: Yeah, I like that he’s an investigative journalist because it felt like we were talking to like, a detective or something throughout the episode, which was really intriguing and cool. I felt like I was in a Dan Brown novel or something. But yeah, I think –
Pete: But what was he investigating?
Jared: So, it’s this interesting story and I asked my wife about it after we had recorded with Ariel, you know, do you remember this idea or this thing floating around that Jesus had a wife? And she said, yeah, I kind of remember that. It’s like, we kind of interviewed the guy who was at the heart of that story and she was really impressed, so. Yeah, it’s kind of figuring out, it’s all these clues, but it’s also bigger than that, which is why I think we were interested in interviewing Ariel –
Jared: Because it really has to do with truth finding. And for those of us who grew up thinking that historical accuracy of the Bible was kind of central, we get into that and we talk about, well, what does that mean and how do you find those truths and what happens when things kind of go sideways.
Pete: And it’s also about just the world of, in this case, biblical scholarship and I mean, in today’s world, Jared, there are, there’s a lot of distrust about experts.
Pete: You know, elite experts and they don’t know, you can’t trust them, can’t trust them. And what safeguards what experts do is usually some form of being accountable to other experts and when that process is followed, it helps to say, it’s never perfect, but it helps to safeguard the integrity of the scholarly pursuit. But the whole point is that in this case, it wasn’t followed.
Pete: Right. And that’s exactly what Ariel was investigating, and he tells a story at the beginning, so he explains it all. And then we get into some of the nuts and bolts of it, and it’s, you know, it relates to biblical studies directly, because biblical scholars are basically, see, trained biblical scholars are historians, that’s basically what they are.
Pete: They’re trying to talk about what happened, when did it happen, who wrote it, why did they write it, what’s the meaning of this text, not for me today in my life, but for back then. Yeah, it’s just a lot of interesting stuff and a lot of angles on this.
Jared: Yeah. Well, I’m getting excited all over again, so I think we should just jump into the conversation.
Pete: I know! It was really fun to do this interview and to have a journalist on, it was great!
Jared: All right, let’s get into it.
Ariel: One person reading a Gospel text in the 6th century may read it in a completely different way than someone reading it today, and that’s okay. You can go to that same text and draw completely different meanings from it and on some level, each of those meanings, at least in my view, is valid. I think what’s dangerous is when a theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for historical investigation.
Jared: Well, welcome to the episode Ariel. It’s good to have you.
Ariel: Thanks for having me.
Jared: So, we have an interesting story to hear about. Just a fascinating tale of biblical scholarship and intrigue and investigative journalism. Can you give us just the three to five minute synopsis so we can get a grasp on the characters of this interesting story?
Pete: Yeah, how journalists made a biblical scholar look bad.
Ariel: All right, well –
Pete: I have a sense that’s very, very… I don’t even know why we have you on. This is very threatening to me, personally, because you might find out something that I did wrong.
Ariel: And I would just, you know, I think the purpose of the book isn’t to make a biblical scholar look bad.
Pete: I know. Of course, yeah.
Ariel: It’s to tell, I think, a really interesting story and then the story begins back, the public version of the story begins back in September 2012 when a distinguished professor at the Harvard Divinity School, a woman named Dr. Karen King, goes to Rome for the 10th International Annual Congress for Coptic Studies. So, Coptic is through the language of Egypt’s earliest Christians. It is the language which some of the earliest surviving copies of the Gospels survive, and every four years, the top scholars of Coptic gather in some interesting place; sometimes it’s Egypt, sometimes it’s Rome. But this time it was Rome, actually at a fraternal order right across from the Vatican, and she makes a presentation that has a sort of kind of a bland title. It’s something like a New Coptic Gospel Fragment. And so, you know, everyone in the room was like, oh, this could be interesting, or it could be like a lot of the presentations we hear every four years where there are some small fragment of, you know, the Gospel of John. You know, one of the Gospels that, where there are a lot of, relatively large number of surviving copies. It’s always interesting, but, you know, they don’t expect the bombshell that’s about to drop because there’s no sort of forewarning. And the bombshell that drops, in Karen King’s paper that she gives at the conference, is about this very small scrap of papyrus. It’s about the size of a business card, and papyrus, for those who don’t know, it’s an ancient writing surface made of the dried and pressed leaves of a plant that used to grow alongside the Nile in Egypt. On which, again, many of the earliest surviving copies of the Gospel are written. So, she has a little piece, a little fragment that she’s discovered with eight lines of Coptic on the front. And sort of the bombshell line, the showstopper, is the very, very middle line in which Jesus is said to utter the words “my wife.” The line itself says, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’.” And this is, you know, this is important. Karen King does not make the claim that the fragment has any value as sort of biography. She’s not making the claim that this fragment tells us that the historical Jesus was married. But what she does claim is that sometime in the second century, you know, within 200 years of Jesus’s life, there was a group of Christians somewhere who believed that Jesus had a wife. And that would still be historic, because there are no surviving manuscripts from antiquity that present this version of a married Jesus. And in her interpretation, and the woman that Jesus is described as being married to in this fragment is Mary Magdalene. And so, we have this, we have the fourth line that Jesus said my wife; in the fifth line, she appears as though Jesus continues to speak about Mary Magdalene, he says she is able to be my disciple. Then Jesus appears to curse people who are effectively dissing his wife, sort of questioning her worthiness to be a disciple, and then he says in sort of the last surviving line that essentially that I live with her, that I dwell with her. So, if there’s sort of any doubt about whether this is, you know, a human wife or something more spiritual, the claim to sort of be dwelling with her suggests that this is a human Mary rather than say, you know, the church or something. And this is Karen King’s interpretation.
Pete: So, Ariel, this is across the street from the Vatican.
Pete: And she’s claiming to have this manuscript the size, a broken-up manuscript, sentences aren’t complete, that claims that Jesus had a wife and it was Mary and also a disciple.
Ariel: Right. That his wife was able to be, not only was Mary Magdalene, and this again, Karen King’s interpretation. She’s a very learned scholar, she’s at the top of her field, has I think, I believe she holds the oldest endowed professorship in all the United States, like, in any subject. So, a very distinguished scholar, very dazzling interpreter of sort of, non-canonical scripture, scripture that did not make the New Testament. And so, this would certainly fall into that category if it were authentic. And so, in her reading, what we have here is a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. The disciples begin by sort of suggesting that there’s a controversy over Mary. There’s a controversy over Mary as worthy of discipleship and Jesus responds by telling them two things, he says, my wife, and then he says she is able to be my disciple. So, sort of in very quick succession this papyrus, sort of, I mean, read in a certain way demolishes two of the central pillars of sort of Catholic tradition. One is that Jesus was a lifelong celibate bachelor, number two is that he did not select women among his sort of closest followers, not among the twelve, certainly.
Jared: So then, we have this fragment, and I, one of the things that was intriguing to me when I was reading through your book was I remember this becoming kind of a shockwave through, at the time, as someone who was studied in religious schools and all these other things, this was definitely something that came across my news feed, so to speak. I don’t know if there were new feeds back eight years ago. I don’t know what was happening eight years ago, but, you know, this came across my desk, so to speak, and thought it was really interesting but what I think it kind of the twist of the story is it didn’t turn out to be what we all maybe thought it was. So, can you maybe finish the rest of that story, because I have some questions about the process of truth telling and how we figure out the authenticity of these kinds of things.
Ariel: Sure. I mean, the interesting thing is you know, I was on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine back in 2012. With Smithsonian, which is the magazine affiliated with Smithsonian Institution’s here in D.C., they have a famous magazine, they cover a lot of scholarship, sort of everything from science to history. And they have gotten sort of a heads up that this was coming, so they assigned me a feature story and they send me to see Dr. King in Harvard, sort of a few weeks before her big announcement, and they also sent me to Rome. And so, I was actually the only reporter in the room when she makes this announcement to colleagues, and I describe this sort of, just, really remarkable scene in the room when she presents her paper where, you know, really instantly in the Q & A after her twenty minute talk, twenty minute paper, the top scholars in Coptic and in the sort of non-canonical gospels who were in the room immediately have a lot of questions. Like, there’s almost instantaneous serious doubt about the fragment. And, you know, I think the first problems became evident the moment these scholars saw photos of the papyrus. Now, interestingly, Karen King said that her computer had broken down on the way to Rome, and so she wasn’t able to show photographs, which upset a lot of the scholars in the room, because when you’re looking at, when you’re judging the authenticity of a manuscript, you really have to physically see it, because it’s in –
Pete: You have to look at it, yeah.
Ariel: You have to look at the handwriting, you have to look at the application of the ink, you have to look at the condition of the papyrus itself. You know, King is a textual scholar, she’s interested in what things, what sort of the message is, what does the text say. But when you’re evaluating authenticity, you really have to look at the material aspects of a manuscript. And because we’re now sort of in the connected age, some of those scholars who had iPads and laptops were able to get online and notice that even before they were presented with images of the papyrus, the rest of the world were being shown those images via the media. Harvard had given images to, you know, not only Smithsonian Magazine, my story was up almost instantaneously, but also the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And so, they start going on their phones, their iPads, and even during her presentation are seeing images of the papyrus for the first time, and what they’re seeing is disconcerting. They’re seeing handwriting, Coptic handwriting that looks like no other ancient Coptic handwriting they’ve seen. The look of the ink is a little funny, they’re seeing, they’re noticing grammatical and spelling errors in the Coptic that don’t look like grammatical and spelling errors that a native speaker in antiquity would’ve made. And there’s also the shape of the fragment, it’s like, it’s almost perfectly rectangular, and if you know anything about the surviving pieces of papyrus that sort of, that are sort of, you know, that have managed to survive hundreds of years of history, they’re usually pretty ragged. I mean, I describe them in the book as looking like, you know, sort of a jagged coastline of a country. They don’t really, there’s not really any symmetry to them. And so, it’s sort of suspiciously rectangular and you’ve got that sort of showstopper phrase billboarded dead center in the papyrus. So, those are even within the first few hours, you have the top people in her field, her own colleagues who are asking some pretty sharp questions about the papyrus.
Pete: So, “my wife” was like, almost literally the centerpiece of this fragmentary text and again, if I’m hearing you right, Ariel, there was enough written there in this text to suggest things, but in and of itself, it’s really not clear what it’s saying.
Ariel: Right, and that’s part of the genius of it, in a way.
Ariel: And we’re gonna get into the issue of the forgery in a second, but it’s really like, I mean, I think I describe it in the book as kind of like a mad lib or a kind of Rorschach test where because the fragment is missing all of its margins, we don’t know if it were an authentic text. So, the presumption is, because it’s missing all of its margins, there’s, it’s essentially resected from the, or broken off, from the center of some much larger page which itself was part of some larger codex or ancient book. So, we don’t know what comes before it, we don’t know what comes after it, we don’t even know necessarily how each of the lines begins and ends. So, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and it really, what was the genius of this is that, if we presume it’s a forgery, and again, I know we’re going to get to this more later on, but if we presume it’s a forgery, which is now, you know, sort of almost really unanimous among scholars. What the genius is, is that depending on which scholar you give it to, you’re going to get a very different interpretation of what precisely is being said.
Jared: Right, right. Well, let’s get to that, the forgery part of the story, because I think that’s where questions about truth and process and I think connections to what we’re seeing in our day and age around media and what gets shared and what gets authenticated, I think there’s some clear parallels here.
Ariel: Sure, so, there’s, you know, there’s this initial wave of questions and I think, you know, what was interesting is having broken in kind of 2012, it was a period in which a lot of scholarship and scholarly discussion was moving online. So, in the past, you have this glacial process where, you know, a scholar would take many months to publish their article in a peer reviewed journal, then it would take another year for scholars to respond and, you know, in sort of a civilized way to the arguments the first scholar was making. And now because of the blogosphere and the fact that a lot of young scholars are taking to the blogosphere, you have like, this very robust online debate where everyone was kind of, all these, you know, scholars from Young, Upstart, you know, grad students to more experienced scholars were weighing in in kind of real time, kind of crowdsourcing scholarship, trying to figure out what was really going on with this fragment. In the beginning, there was some debate and one of the first real breakthroughs in trying to figure out what might have happened here was there was this scholar in the UK named Francis Watson was looking at this and he was like, you know, a lot of these phrases look a lot like the Gospel of Thomas. And the Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical text, 114, there are a list of 114 what are called sequence sayings of Jesus. Some scholars think it’s like, as early as the 1st century, others think it’s later than that, but it’s a very well known non-canonical text and it struck Dr. Watson that a lot of the phrases look a lot like the Gospel of Thomas, except they were out of order. And so, what he was able to do within about three or four days is by parsing the phrases on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, he was more or less able to determine that every single, that you could basically compose the entirety of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by cutting, sort of cherry picking phrases from the Gospel of Thomas and then putting them in a new order on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife sort of to say something new that sounded like something old. And the only words that one could not extract from the Gospel of Thomas were the Coptic words “my wife.” And so, that was like a real breakthrough. It looked like this was sort of a cut and paste job. Someone who knew enough Coptic to be able to sort of reverse engineer a Coptic text possibly from an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas. So, that was sort of the first big breakthrough in the scholarly detective story.
Jared: That’s fascinating. So, okay, so then this, how does this breakthrough cut through the noise of, you said it’s kind of crowdsourcing. Is it that there’s this small group of people, you know, did Professor Watson send this to a small group of colleagues or how did that kind of start to spread?
Ariel: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. So, I think he initially, Dr. Watson initially posted it on his own website and then it got circulated by other scholars including Dr. Mark Goodacre, the New Testament scholar whose blog, N.T. blog served as kind of a forum for a lot of the debate over the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, it sort of made it out that way and then I think the next real breakthrough was so you have this initial thesis, that, you know, this is a cut and paste from the Gospel of Thomas. Well, people said, you know, that’s a little too easy because, you know, that presumes forgery and then works backward to prove it and that’s not good enough. And so, the next real breakthrough comes with an independent scholar, a guy working out of his basement in Portland, Oregon, has only a master’s degree from Oxford, really smart guy, never held a job as an academic, but has this really good nose for detail and has always been interested in sort of what’s going on in online biblical scholarship. And because he’s paying attention to the kinds of things that everybody is posting online about biblical scholarship and various idiosyncratic translations of, you know, non-canonical texts that are popping up all over the internet, he starts looking at this papyrus scrap. His name was Andrew Bernhardt, I didn’t mention that. He starts looking at the papyrus scrap, and he’s like, he’s noticing that there’s some of the Coptic, clearly the Coptic is coming from the Gospel of Thomas, but there’s a kind of like a typo, there’s a place where something isn’t perfectly transcribed from the Gospel of Thomas, like, a certain letter is missing. And it strikes him that there is this, there’s really only one sort of internet translation, or interlinear translation of the Gospel, of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas that exists online. And so, an interliner translation, some of your readers may be familiar with this, some people like to use it in Bible study. It’s a translation in which you have one line of scripture in its original text, whether it’s Greek or Coptic, and then immediately below it or above it, you’ll have the same line in translation. And sometimes, it’s like you’ll see word for word what Greek word or what Coptic word connects to what English word. So, Andrew Bernhardt is aware there’s exactly one Coptic version of, interlinear version of the Gospel of Thomas that exists online and he goes to that version of the Gospel of Thomas. It’s a PDF that a computer programmer, obvious biblical scholar, living in Michigan, posted online back in 2002. And he goes to it and he notices that this PDF that this guy puts out has the same typo as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ariel: So, this typo does not exist in the actual Gospel of Thomas. This computer programmer living in Michigan didn’t have a transcription error in his typescript, of Coptic typescript. And somehow, this transcription error recurs in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, that’s really the first sort of smoking gun that –
Pete: And that’s not a common kind of error.
Ariel: It’s not a common kind of error.
Pete: It’s so unusual that it really is hard not to connect those two.
Ariel: It’s hard not to, precisely. It’s, I mean, it’s not –
Ariel: I wouldn’t say it was the final nail in the coffin, but it was a very clean shot.
Pete: Oh, the hammer is up in the air and the nail is about to go in. We’re getting closer.
Ariel: We’re getting closer.
Pete: All right, yeah.
Ariel: It’s not, but that was the first real, it’s not only to say well, where did this come from but what source, what 21st century source material might a forger have consulted to produce the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?
Jared: Mmm. So then, what was that nail in the coffin? Is there a third big piece that came out?
Ariel: Yeah, so the next big piece concerns another fragment of papyrus that was provided to Dr. Karen King by the same anonymous collector. And that was a fragment of the Gospel of John. Karen King had referred to it sort of obliquely in some of her talks, but she also never released a photograph of it. People just assumed, well, okay, the Gospel of John, but that’s got to be authentic. Clearly this guy, this collector, what he was probably trying to do was by sort of associating this one sensational papyrus, sort of a papyrus, with other sort of legitimate, authentic papyri. He was kind of creating kind of an aura of legitimacy –
Pete: Sure, yeah.
Ariel: Sure, yeah. I mean, the Gospel of John, yeah, it’s gotta be real. No problem. The thing is when the first images came out of the Gospel of John, and they weren’t from Dr. King, they were from some scientists who were conducting ink tests who just put out the images in a sort of an informal report, scholars took a look at the Gospel of John and within about an hour –
Ariel: They notice that every single one of the seventeen line breaks in this papyrus fragment mirrored a line break in another online transcript of the Coptic Gospel of John. So, it was essentially the same M.O. with someone who had access to the internet, someone who knew where to look for online editions of Coptic, of authentic Coptic papyri, and then essentially mimicked them hoping that nobody would notice. And a scholar named Christian Askeland who has his Ph.D. from Cambridge, who at the time was associated with the Museum of the Bible run by the evangelical Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, he was part of their scholar’s initiative. He noticed this right away that this thing is a 100% rip off of this very easily accessible PDF, another PDF online of the Coptic of John. And like, instantaneously, like, every single scholar in the world was like, yeah, this Gospel of John, there’s zero question that it’s a forgery. And so, what scholars, you know, now have is that they have like, 100% forgery in the presence of a very dubious, likely forgery, and when you have like, more than one, when you have the same collector who is presenting you one like, outright forgery and one very dubious manuscript and that second manuscript basically has the same handwriting as the definite forgery, that presents a real problem.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ariel: That was sort of the lay of the land at the point of which I come back into this story three years after Karen King’s announcement in Rome.
Jared: Mmm. So, can we, let’s stop there for a second.
Jared: ‘Cause I want to go back to say, where was the breakdown in Karen, so, there was this interesting story about a potential forgery, but you have this pretty eminent scholar –
Pete: Yeah, how did it happen? Right?
Jared: Who is presenting this at a conference well before this stuff happens. How did it, like, what would be the normal process to make sure that this thing doesn’t happen, and why wasn’t that followed in this case?
Ariel: I mean, that’s a really good question and something I break down in a lot of detail through my investigative reporting in the book. A lot of that process people are going to read about for the first time in the book and having to go over some of it here. You know, the way in academia, the way that this works is the process of peer review and peer review typically is double blind. That means that the author of the article, paper for a journal, doesn’t know who is going to be peer reviewing their article, and the peer reviewers don’t know who the author is, and that allows sort of the free exchange of information and free of fear of favor. And, you know, Dr. King had submitted her article to the Harvard Theological Review, it’s a preeminent journal in the field, peer reviewed journal, and the editors of the peer review are also Harvard Divinity School professors. Some might argue that that sort of in itself is a conflict of interest because you have colleagues at the same institution editing other colleagues work, but it’s not unprecedented. And the Harvard Theological Review editors send out Dr. King’s article to three peer reviewers and two out of the three peer reviewers come back with unfavorable reviews. Essentially saying, you would be very embarrassed to publish this and number one, number two, there are numerous tells of forgery. Everything ranging from the handwriting, to the grammar, to the copying from Gospel of Thomas, to very suspicious fact that the anonymous owner is not named anywhere. So, the peer reviewers, and at the time they were anonymous. I’m able to identify them, through my investigative reporting they spoke to me for the book. But you know, they, the Harvard Theological Review did the right thing in sending Dr. King’s article pre-publication and pre her announcement to the very top scholars in the world. These are secular scholars, you know, these aren’t like, people associated with the Vatican or people who sort of had an agenda one way or the other about canonical versus non-canonical gospels. These are the top scholars in secular universities who are sort of the all in one experts in Coptic in the so called gnostic gospels, or non-canonical gospels and in the manuscripts in which they are written. These aren’t sort of, you know, pacts. And so, two out of the three come back and say don’t, basically don’t do this. So, the immediate effect of that is that the Harvard Theological Review says, sorry Dr. King, we are not going to be able to publish this right away and we’re going to need a little more homework on this essentially. You’re going to need to do some scientific testing, and one of the things that Dr. King did not do before the public announcement was any scientific testing. That also raised a lot of questions, is why not do a little bit of scientific testing to see whether the papyrus was old enough to see whether the ink is authentic, those kinds of things. So, the Harvard theological review was spooked enough by these early reviews to say, you know, let’s hit the pause button here, let’s take a little bit more time. Although, having said that, Dr. King did not feel that she should sort of wait on the announcement. She thought that, I think she felt, in her words, that if she didn’t sort of make it public that it would leak out, and she’d rather just sort of put it out there.
Ariel: So, that’s sort of how it got into public domain even though you had two really big peer reviewers saying, don’t do it.
Pete: But she put it out there not as here’s a possible, you know, text that we might have to consider. Did she put it out there as more, at least a demonstrable proof that there was a community of Christians that assumed Jesus had a wife?
Ariel: Yeah. Well this was a question, you know, again, before any of this really hit, again, I went up to Harvard two or three weeks before her public presentation and I asked her just this question because I think that they actually have very interesting timing, bizarre coincidence. As a reporter, I was glad I was there to record how it sort of went down. But I met her for dinner, like, the night after she just got back one of these really tough peer reviews and she was clearly shaken. And you know, I said, look, what is it going to, are you going to sort of wait and do some more testing, like, what are the chances you’re going to go forward in Rome? Like, are you willing to go forward on like, 50/50 percent confidence that it’s accurate, like 70/30, like, what’s the threshold of confidence you need for authenticity? She’s like, oh, no, no, no. 50/50 wouldn’t cut it, 70/30 doesn’t cut it, it has to be a very, very, very high threshold of confidence. And so, I guess, you know, the question that one wonders now is like, how does she sort of reach that level of very, very high level of confidence in spite of these negative reviews. And I think what Dr. King would tell you is that well, you know, she consulted a linguist who told her that, you know, essentially that some of the critiques that one of the peer reviewers raised, they were legitimate but if she put a little bit more language sort of accounting for them in her article, she’d be okay. And I think she went to people whose views would, she had a sense, would support her position. And there weren’t many, but there were some, and she went to them and sort of addressed the peer reviews in her revision of the article. I think in her mind, she had addressed the criticism of the peer reviewers.
Jared: Yeah, so, you know, I can’t help but draw parallels to today where we crowdsource all kinds of truths politically and otherwise, and it just, it kind of spooks me to say here’s someone who was steeped in the process, who knew the value of it, who said I would need to be 80%, 90% confident before I spoke before a panel about this finding, and had this feeling, apparently, she had a feeling that she was, had a high degree of confidence, kind of skipped over a few steps in the process, and then it just like, what hope do we have for kind of having these gut feelings and being right when there is this clear process for truth finding? I would just be curious, what did you learn through this process as a journalist looking in at another field’s process of truth finding? What did you learn about truth and accuracy and that sort of thing?
Ariel: Look, I don’t know, I would never claim to have all the answers, it’s a big, big question. But I think one of the things that fascinated me as a larger theme was what do we mean by, what does truth mean in the context of religion? That was sort of a big question that I was sort of wrestling with just as a journalist, someone who is interested in how different groups of professionals and believers understand the nature of truth. And as a journalist, I really, I’m guess an empiricist in the sense that I believe that there are facts out there, I believe that picking up the phone, talking to people, looking at historical records, talking to people who are experts in their field, you know, knocking on doors, that there’s a process one can follow to arrive at sort of a set of verifiable facts. We may not always get their facts wrong, we may have to make some corrections along the way, but ultimately we’re moving in the direction of obtaining a set of sort of discernable factual reality.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ariel: And you know, people of faith, certainly people of devout faith don’t always in their own lives, in their own spiritual lives certainly, don’t always need to have scientific proof for certain kinds of truth. That’s what faith is, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Ariel: You take things sort of sight unseen because you believe that there’s a higher power that’s kind of a guarantor of certain truths. And then there’s another category that I would put Dr. King in, and many other scholars in. In fact, I studied this myself in college, the kind of a postmodern approach to truth. And postmodernists don’t believe in the idea of an objective reality, that essentially that we all have our own truths and though I mean, it’s sort of simple, it’s a little bit simplified way of putting it, but that whatever group has sort of the power to tell and sell the best narrative, creates reality. That reality doesn’t exist independently of language so that when we speak, when we tell a story, that’s the reality. There’s nothing, sort of, independent of that. And it’s an important, sort of, I think as a means of interpreting literature, as a means of interpreting literary texts, there’s a value in it because it’s true that, you know, one person reading a Gospel text in, you know, the 6th century may read it in a completely different way than someone reading it today. And that’s okay. Like, you can go to that same text and draw completely different meanings from it, and on some level, each of those meanings, at least in my view, is valid. I think what’s dangerous is when a sort of theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for a historical investigation. So, yes. Are there many, many meanings one can draw from a Bible verse? Certainly. It means different things to different peoples and different contexts in different parts of the world. That’s great. Where I think folks get into trouble is when they use that same approach if we all have our own truths to whether a papyrus fragment is genuinely ancient or not. I think there’s only one answer.
Ariel: It’s either ancient, or it isn’t.
Jared: Right, yeah.
Ariel: It’s either this fragment is part of a larger page of an ancient codex or it wasn’t. And I think there’s a little bit of slippage, and I think that comes across towards the end of the book when I try to figure how out these different ways of knowing, the way journalists and many scholars approach history, the way people of faith think about the nature of truth, and then the way, you know, postmodern theorists conceptualize truth. And then what happens when these different ways of truth-seeking sort of collide in the same institution and then sometimes even in the same individual. And I think that one of the things that struck me was Harvard Divinity School as an institution. Harvard is the only, I believe it’s the only one of the elite sort of schools that, where, there is not a freestanding department of religious studies on campus.
Ariel: So, all you’ve got is the divinity school, and the divinity school, essentially, is where all the expertise in religious studies lies, but the divinity school also has a mission of training ministers. And there have many scholars, sort of new recruits to the divinity school who have been very uncomfortable with that mix, that the pursuit of theological truths needs to be separated from sort of the secular investigation of what people do when they talk about religion.
Jared: So, you know, one of the, we’ve kind of, we talk about different kinds of truth on this podcast, and we talk about, like, fact truths versus meaning truths –
Ariel: Mm hmm.
Jared: And that meaning truth is more relational, it usually has, you know, human beings and how we interpret things.
Jared: And then we have these fact truths that you were talking about as the object of historical or journalistic endeavors. Whenever you’re dealing with history though, this would be a question, not to maybe dive too far into this question of how we know, but it seems like historical and journalistic endeavors aren’t the same thing though as like, science, which is these repeatable, experiments that you can get the same phenomenon over and over again. It’s almost like there is a process, what we mean by truth, I’m just testing this, you can tell me what I think, what you think. But as a journalist, it’s almost like, and as these peer reviews with Karen King, it’s like, what counts as historical truth is the outcome of this pretty sophisticated process that we’ve developed over many, many years, in some cases, centuries. And what we mean by truth is the outcome that can keep changing as we put new things through this process, but the process is extremely crucial and almost inextricable from what we mean by truth.
Jared: And so, it seems like Karen didn’t follow the process and so it makes dubious the outcome. You can be accidentally right, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true in this sort of process oriented way. Does that make sense?
Ariel: Yeah, it does. And I think that’s really, that’s where you want to place the focus is are the established, the process is established by your field. You know?
Ariel: Whether it’s as a journalist or a historian, which Dr. Karen King is. Do you follow, have the sort of, you know, time tested process of like, investigating sources, judging the credibility of evidence, using all the various tools at your disposal to investigate. Did you follow the process? And then if you follow the process and you get it wrong, it happens to all of us. Then you go back, and you try again. But where the process has been, I think what happened in this case, is that there were places where the process wasn’t adhered to and there was corner cutting and there was a little bit too much speed. And I mean, there was no reason, for instance, Dr. King couldn’t have waited, you know, another few months to announce this. She attends, and her colleagues attend many biblical studies conferences, but she really wanted to announce this at the Coptic conference, which in this year happened to be in Rome.
Pete: And you know, the question is why, though. I mean, I’m asking somewhat rhetorically because I’m not, I mean, from where I sit, and by the way, this goes beyond Dr. Karen King, this is like, an issue I think in the humanities and scholarship. I’m not sure, I mean, I could interpret what she did not on the basis of an ideology, a postmodern ideology, just territorialism. Like, if I don’t do this, somebody else is going to get wind of it and they’re going to publish it first.
Ariel: Yeah. I mean, I –
Pete: Does nothing new happens in this field.
Ariel: Mm hmm.
Pete: Nothing new happens! I’m a biblical scholar. Nothing happens. We just keep taking the same pieces and maneuvering them around a little bit, but if you have this, the only thing new is what you find in the ground, you know?
Pete: Whether it’s a manuscript or a building or a statue or a piece of pottery or something. And, you know, you get carried away, you know, hopeful that you’ve got something actually new that could make a mark in the field, and maybe you’re sort of blinded to that. I mean, the process that Jared’s talking about. You’re blinded to that.
Ariel: Yeah. Certainly. I mean, journalists worry about this all the time, it’s called getting scooped and no one likes getting scooped.
Ariel: I don’t think in this case that Dr. King worried about getting scooped. I mean, she was the only one who had possession of it. It wasn’t so much that she worried that someone else would have it, I think that the collector who I imagine we’ll talk about in a little bit, the collector was very, very happy that Harvard was going to be sort of the launching pad, or you know, the rocket ship launching pad for this little fragment because there’s no university that’s going to get more media attention than Harvard. And so, there wasn’t an issue of him sort of like, snatching it back from her and saying, no, if you wait a few months I’m going to give it to Princeton or something or I’m going to give it to, you know, some little college that you’ve never heard of. I think he was very pleased and would have waited as long as necessary.
Pete: Mm hmm
Ariel: I think in this case, you know, I’m not really sure, I really like to leave it to readers to sort of parse the evidence in the book, and I’m careful not to, I think we can never really look, you know, into someone else’s heart or into their soul. We have to, we gather certain amount of evidence in what’s happening in their environment and about, you know, who they are as people, what their values are, and I think it’s really, I want readers to have that sense of discovery, just sort of make those judgments for themselves. Like, what might’ve motivated Dr. King to sort of move maybe a little too quickly on this, to override maybe even her better judgment when so much of her scholarship in the past it had not been the subject of this kind of scrutiny.
Jared: Yeah, so, and not to get too far afield, but have you, you know, I can just see it so many lessons here for, I think I’ve mentioned this already as we’ve been talking, but, you know, in our modern day and when we think about truth we think we can just kind of Google something or watch a YouTube video and come to the truth of it because it “makes sense to us.” And I just, reading through your book and flipping through it and kind of getting the pieces, I just kept thinking, like, there are these established processes for truth-finding and, you know, what would you say to everyday people? Like, do you know of like, tools or resources from a journalist’s perspective, like, if you want to think like a journalist and understand what it is to get truth in our field, what is something that everyday people could maybe learn? Because I think we could all get some of these tools.
Ariel: Well, I mean, I’ll be honest, I think it’s the sort of tools that a lot of us learn even in grade school which is you have to have evidence and you have to have corroboration. So, it’s not enough to simply have one person tell you something or to have, you know, to take the word of, in this case, the collector, who presented Karen King with the papyrus. He told her a story about where it came from which he never investigated. And I think that, you know, and you have to have, and this is true of good journalism and the best newspapers do this every day, which is why it sickens me when people use the term fake news because the best journalists, and I think most journalists, follow these sorts of protocols. Which is if someone comes to you with a sensational claim, you have to vet it, which means you have to find out whether you can corroborate it with other people, you can corroborate with other sources, you have to leave the office, you can’t just sort of Google it, you have to go to archives, you have to knock on doors, if you’re able to knock on doors, call people up, and make sure that there’s, like, multiple overlapping, confirming evidence from, if possible, from living people. So, it’s easy to tell, sort of to tell a lie and get people really excited about something that they’ve always wanted to be true. So, you have to almost resist that. Like, when someone comes to you with something, like, “oh, my gosh! This is perfect! This is exactly what I’ve been saying my whole life.” That’s precisely the moment where in the back of your head you should be going, “wait a second. I’m really excited about this. I need to just, take a breather here, sleep on it, and now I need to sort of go to back to the process.” And that process has to be confirmation, validation, documents, evidence, multiple overlapping pieces of evidence for the claim that one is going to, sort of, put into the world.
Jared: So, going back, you talked about the forger. In this case, we didn’t talk a lot about that character, but maybe say a little bit about that. But maybe, I’d be curious if you could end that with what were some of the things that maybe Karen could have done or even learned from a journalist to help her figure out earlier on that this was a forgery.
Pete: Yeah, to not do that.
Jared: To not even go down that road.
Ariel: And I won’t even, I think this goes really much, much beyond Dr. King.
Jared: Exactly, yeah.
Ariel: There is now sort of an awake, there’s an awakening in the field of biblical studies and in archeology. Archeology was probably way ahead of everybody else and papyrology, which is the study of papyri, that provenance matters. That if you don’t know where this manuscript or an object comes from, then you could be in trouble on multiple fronts. Number one, it could be looted, you know. It could be stolen from a place like Iraq or Egypt, and this is the trouble that the Green family got in trouble. The Green family, the Hobby Lobby family has gotten into plenty of trouble with the Museum of the Bible where they simply did not ask the kinds of hard questions about where these artifacts are coming from that we’re going to be putting in our museum. This is an evangelical family, you know, this is not sort of, these scammers don’t play favorites, they don’t care if you’re patriarchal, evangelical billionaire or a progressive Harvard scholar, they will seek out the thing that you always want to be true and they will seek to have you acquire it or make it famous. So, I just want to make that clear, like, this is not about liberal/conservative –
Pete: Right, right.
Ariel: Evangelical/atheist. Any one of us could fall victim to these scams. So, the question is provenance, chain of ownership. You have to, what scholars are learning is that they have to be able to go back and spend time understanding how the document, how the new sculpture, how the inscription, how the ossuary that you’ve been given, where, who, trace that back to the moment it came out of the ground if you can. Who were the previous owners, when and how did it exchange hands? And it’s not enough to just say, oh, a collector gave me a letter from a previous owner and it says that he owned it. That’s not enough. You need to make phone calls, you need to go out into the world, you need to look for other forms of documentation. When all of your information about provenance comes from a single source, and that source is vested in having you believe that something is true, that’s not a good source. It’s not a sufficient source. So, I think the biggest takeaway, and that scholars were already thinking about this. But it’s now, I think post Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, it’s something that they’re thinking about in really serious ways and they’re way smarter people than me on this who are discussing this. But, how do we make sure that we know the origin of the manuscripts and the sensational objects that are coming our way in a field which, as you just said, is pretty picked over. There are a finite number of texts, people can pick them over and they do and they’re often, heck, I attended the Society for Biblical Literature, it’s the largest annual conference of biblical scholars in the world. It attracts 10,000 scholars every year, and they’re all picking over a relatively small number of texts. So, when a new one comes along it is extremely exciting. And you know, for instance, the Gospel of Judas came along a few years, that is an authentic, non-canonical text that generated a lot of excitement. That one happened to be authentic and it was a big deal for that reason. But to get back your point, I think the real takeaway is provenance matters.
Jared: It seems so obvious too, just if you think about it. I’m like, it’s like a more intense version of hey, I have this outfit from an Elton John concert in the 70’s. Like, you would want to trace it back and sort of figure out how would we know that that’s actually where it came from.
Jared: So, it’s just more intense than that. It makes a lot of sense.
Pete: Well, yeah. Ariel, listen, thank you so much for joining us today. I mean, this is a fascinating book, and have we even talked about the title yet? What’s this book that you wrote?
Ariel: Oh, sure!
The book is called Veritas –
Pete: Yeah! The people want to know! Yeah, Veritas.
Ariel: Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
Pete: Right. And veritas is the, veritas is tied to Harvard.
Ariel: Correct. That’s the Harvard motto, it goes back to 1643, but it’s not just sort of a casual, sort of, gimmicky illusion to the Harvard name. It actually sort of undergirds the sort of the biggest, what I see as the biggest theme in the book which is how does one, how do different people go about truth seeking. And we haven’t talked about the mystery man who presented this fragment to Karen King, but a good deal of the book concerns my sort of shoe leather investigation into who this gentlemen is, his backstory, and I hope that readers really find that to be a kind of a gripping detective story because he’s an absolutely fascinating figure.
Jared: Yeah, we may, in the intro, we may add that little description you gave us just to tantalize people –
Jared: Because we were disappointed, we don’t have time to get into it. It’s super interesting.
Ariel: Yeah, no. Well, we don’t need to, we don’t need to give away all the spoilers, right?
Pete: That’s right. Yeah, make ‘em buy it. Make ‘em buy it, no problem.
Jared: Excellent. Is there people, is there a way people can find you online if they want to connect more or keep following your writings as you have other things that come out?
Ariel: Yeah, sure. So, my website is http://www.arielsabar.com/. I’m on Twitter as well, @arielsabar, on Facebook, but the website is a really great way to keep up with what’s going on and with the book and with other magazine stories that I write from time to time.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on. It was just a topic that it took a different slant than our normal topics, but it’s so relevant to what we talk about every week on the podcast so, thank you so much.
Ariel: Thanks, it was a pleasure.
Pete: Thank you, Ariel. Appreciate it.
Pete: All right normal people, thanks for listening to this episode of the podcast. If you have a change, again, pick up Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Good read.
Jared: And you know what? Before you go, we just wanted to remind you, and maybe we’re just coming to this on our own, we’re coming into our own here and recognizing at the end of the day, The Bible for Normal People is more than a podcast. We have at least 100, maybe 150 videos now up on Patreon that explores all kinds of questions related to the things that we talk about here on the podcast. So, Pete, myself, are putting up videos every week. So, that in itself is worth maybe a visit to Patreon, so to go https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
where you can check out those videos. We also have a Slack group with several hundred people who are talking about the impact of these kinds of questions on their everyday life and what it means for church and belonging and community.
Pete: And we learn a lot from that Slack group.
Pete: I mean, we’ve got some really, really nice, smart people. You know? So, yeah.
Jared: Yeah, absolutely.
Pete: We also sell baked goods. You didn’t mention that.
Jared: We do not sell baked goods, that’s false advertising.
Pete: Oh, I thought we did.
Jared: No, no.
Pete: Okay, I read that wrong. I read the memo wrong.
Jared: We could maybe sell –
Pete: But well sell merchandise.
Jared: We could sell, yeah, we do sell merchandise, yeah.
Pete: Awesome t-shirts and onesies.
Jared: But just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where you can find more about how to connect with the community here at The Bible for Normal People.
Pete: All right folks, see ya.
Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing and administration, Reed Lively; and transcriptionist, Stephanie Speight. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.
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