A Scholarly Screw-Up of Biblical Proportions

Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, Christianity, antiquities, religious history, Biblical history, Forgery

Ariel Sabar, a journalist, is the author of Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which was a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award and for the Edgar Award for best true-crime book of the year. It was released in paperback on June 29.

What should a journal do after publishing a blockbuster paper marred by fraudulent evidence, failed peer review, and undisclosed conflicts of interest?

If you’re Harvard Theological Review, the answer appears to be nothing.

An ongoing misadventure at one of the most prestigious journals in biblical studies traces to April 2014, when it devoted the better part of its spring issue to a single subject: a scrap of papyrus bearing the sensational phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

It was a triumphant moment for the main article’s author, a world-renowned Harvard Divinity School professor named Karen L. King. A year and a half earlier, when she announced her discovery at an academic conference in Rome, her colleagues had revolted. Top scholars of early Christian manuscripts had found signs that the papyrus was a modern forgery — and that King had failed to take basic steps to vet the manuscript, which she’d provocatively named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The Review, a century-old publication, was so alarmed that it pulled King’s paper from the lineup for its next issue.

But now it was in print: 29 pages at the front of the journal, along with impressive-looking reports from professors at MIT and Columbia claiming to detect no signs of forgery. To publicize their results — and King’s apparent vindication — the scientists granted interviews to The New York Times and The Boston Globe, which had earlier given front-page coverage to King’s find.

As I discovered while researching my new book, however, the Review’s April 2014 issue was something other than it had seemed. Two of the journal’s three peer reviewers had believed the papyrus was a fake. The sole favorable reviewer was an acclaimed papyrologist named Roger Bagnall. But Bagnall was not an impartial referee, much less a blind one: He had helped King draft the paper the journal was asking him to review. Not only had King named him in it as her star adviser, but he had already been filmed touting the papyrus’s authenticity for a forthcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary.

Bagnall warned the journal that he was far too involved in King’s article to peer-review it — and that he was no expert in extracanonical Christian texts. “I wouldn’t want there to be any illusion that I’m in any way an outsider in the way that referees typically are,” he had emailed the editors. But the journal sent his anonymized praise to King as if it had come from a traditional referee. Without Bagnall, the article would have lacked a single positive review. His opinion allowed King to claim that “in the course of the normal external review process” at least one referee had “accepted the [papyrus] fragment.”

“They obviously ignored the caveats,” Bagnall, a former Columbia dean and retired director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, told me. “Hey, you know, count this as a review! Run it through! … It’s not the way I would wish to run a journal.” (He confirmed he was the unnamed favorable reviewer only after I discovered it from other sources.)

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education