Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: Some First Reactions

Thanks to Doubleday for sending along an advanced copy of Ariel Sabar’s new book, Veritas. I really didn’t know what to expect with this book. Sabar’s detailed article on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” in The Atlantic in 2016 was so full of blockbuster revelations regarding the owner of the papyrus and his concocted backstory, I genuinely wondered what a book-length treatment of this episode could add to the discussion.

A lot, as it turns out.

The book is written in Sabar’s usual engaging style, so from that perspective, it’s a very easy read. But the content of the book is pretty devastating. I had to put it down on a few occasions just to collect my thoughts and absorb the impact. Veritas reveals things about our field that we, as scholars, don’t like to think about or talk about. But Sabar, a journalist with an outsider’s viewpoint, clinically dissects the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife episode in a way that reflects pretty poorly on parts of our guild.

The first half of the book proceeded much as I expected, expanding on many of the details of Sabar’s Atlantic article. If you needed any further convincing of the importance of investigating the provenance of (allegedly) ancient manuscripts that appear for sale on the antiquities market, this first portion of the book should be required reading.

The second half of the book, however, took what was for me an unexpected turn. It is a deep dive into the career of Karen King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who published the papyrus in 2014, and into the politics of Harvard Divinity School itself.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that Karen King has been very kind to me on the occasions that we’ve met. I don’t know her well, but I know a lot of her students who are themselves excellent scholars. Her book, What is Gnosticism? (2003) was a very thought-provoking read for me when I was a graduate student and has influenced the way that I approach the use of Christian heresiologists as historical sources. All of this to say: I admire Karen King, and reading this part of Veritas was at times difficult.

Sabar’s research is extensive (340 pages of text and an additional 40 pages of notes). I want to focus on one of the (many) points that Sabar identifies at which this whole thing could have been avoided before the papyrus was ever published in Harvard Theological Review. I think we all suspected there was something a little odd about the peer review of this article, but Sabar’s investigation lays out this process in all its grim detail, pointing out multiple layers of conflicting interests that began with the initial submission of the article in 2012.

Some of these conflicts are to be expected: A Harvard Divinity School professor submitting work to HTR, also edited by Harvard Divinity School professors, seems a little awkward, but a quick glance at the CVs of Divinity School faculty shows a good number of publications in HTR (although I would be curious to know how often the editors of HTR reject an article submitted by a faculty colleague).

The problems really begin to arise in the peer review process. Sabar was able to identify the three “blind” peer reviewers of the original article. Two very negative reviews came from a pair of the world’s premier Coptologists, Bentley Layton and Stephen Emmel. Layton told the editors of HTR that publishing the fragment “would be very embarrassing for the Harvard Theological Review.” And Sabar reports that Emmel’s review clearly identified the papyrus as a fake and pointed out “nearly every sign of forgery that would surface over the next four years.”

The third reviewer, somewhat surprisingly, was the papyrologist Roger Bagnall, whose advice King had sought before submitting the article to HTR. Bagnall identified his earlier involvement with King and the papyrus, writing to the managing editor of HTR “I wouldn’t want there to be any illusion that I’m in any way an outsider in the way that referees typically are,” but the editors of HTR solicited his review anyway. In my experience this phenomenon is not that uncommon. I’ve been sent materials for review that I recognized as the work of colleagues. I flag this to the editors of the journals and as often as not, the editors will ask me to go ahead with the review as long as I believe I can be objective in my evaluation. So, having Bagnall as a reviewer is not that surprising.

What is surprising is the subsequent actions of the editors of HTR. Rather than accepting the advice of the two expert Coptologists and rejecting the article, the editors allowed King to assemble a team to conduct technical tests on the papyrus (analysis of materials, ink, and AMS radiocarbon testing) to try to “scientifically” prove its authenticity. Sabar’s investigations, however, reveal that the materials and ink teams were in fact headed by personal friends of King and Bagnall, conflicts of interest that were not revealed to the journal. But before letting HTR off the hook, Sabar points out that “the journal didn’t peer review the lab studies” (p. 297), and as far as I can tell, King’s revised article also seems not to have been given a second review. This seems to be a complete abdication of duty on the part of the editors of a major scholarly journal. Incidentally, these editors (Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson, both professors at Harvard Divinity School) seem to have ceased to be the editors of HTR at roughly the time the review copies of Veritas were mailed out. Here’s the header for the front matter for the July 2020 issue:

And here’s the editorial info at the Cambridge Core site today:

It’s interesting timing for a change in leadership.

In any event, the peer review process at HTR failed badly in this instance. And if there are heroes in Sabar’s story, they are those people who subjected the papyrus to the scrutiny that King herself failed to apply before the papyrus was published. In this connection, Sabar gives an excellent summary of the clever work of Andrew Bernhard and Christian Askeland in finding the smoking guns that exposed the papyrus as a forgery for all to see. It should be noted, though, that the community of Coptologists doubted the fragment’s authenticity from the start, as outlined in this post from Hugo Lundhaug and Alin Suciu (and the thread of comments) made just days after the Rome conference at which King announced the existence of the papyrus in 2012.

Sabar’s book is a gripping read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the study of early Christianity or ancient manuscripts. What are the takeaways? For me, it’s definitely a cautionary tale. At one level, of course, the lesson is to thoroughly investigate provenance when working with artifacts, and here Sabar’s investigative reporting really shines. But at a more general level, the lesson is this: Be able to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Accept justified correction with humility and grace, and just move on.

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6 Responses to Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: Some First Reactions

  1. Thanks for your review. Here’s mine:
    At a glance, the fake so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife might seem to be old news, but this investigative report reveals new aspects that should concern us. And it documents and engagingly narrates the appalling train of academic mistakes.
    “Confirmation bias” is a term that may go back merely to the 1970s, but as an occasional reality it is as old as humanity. Sometimes one of us becomes dead set in believing just what one wishes to be true. (Could such a custom-fit “ancient” text be manufactured to mislead me? Neveryoumind.)
    At first, Prof. Karen L. King reportedly thought an email offering a papyrus with Jesus mentioning “my wife” was quite likely a fake. She had published on the manuscript in Berlin of the Gospel of Mary. And here was a man claiming to have on him a related manuscript! It turned out that he was also experienced in Berlin, West and East. But she later changed course, and ran with it, despite red flags. (Disclosure: my late dear Mom graduated, cum laude, from Harvard Divinity School; I think her favorite prof was Krister Stendahl.)
    Harvard Theological Review got, for King’s proposed article on this margin-less non-continuous pastiche odd text written with something other than a traditional pen, two negative peer reviews. For the third reviewer, see page 285. They did delay publication until tests showed that the ink was carbon-based—ink that anyone can make today—and that the papyrus was genuine—but dated not to ancient but to medieval times! As Myriam Krutzsch and Ira Rabin (New Testament Studies 61.3 2015) and others caution, scientific tests can check for anomalies, anachronisms, but these are not authenticators.
    Here are some quibbles with the book, maybe minor. Sabar helpfully mentioned other suspected fakes. But he wrote (p. 34) about Morton Smith’s “Secret Mark” that “Eminent scholars added the Secret Mark letter to the standard edition of Clement’s works.” And (p. 35) “That Clement wasn’t known to have written letters made the find all the more curious.” Adding, provisionally, a text uncertainly attributed to an ancient author is hardly an endorsement. (Compare editions of Posidonius.) And Smith in his snarky article, in Harvard Theological Review 1982, “Clement of Alexandria and Secret Mark: The Score at the End of the First Decade,” may have overstated the extent to which the letter was accepted as genuine Clement; at least one scholar listed as agreeing has denied that. (See also Eric Osborn, “Clement of Alexandria: A Review of Research, 1958-1982,” Second Century 1985 291-44.) And Clement was indeed said to have written letters. Sabar cited (pp. 15-16 and endnote) a 1989 article by Tal Ilan on how extremely widespread was the most-popular female name, Mariamme or Maria, which is fair enough, but better, with considerably more data is her 2002 book, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I, Palestine 330-BCE-200 CE.
    One of the values of this fine and readable book is its emphasis on the importance of investigating provenance. Especially of claims of “writing into” or “writing out of” important ancient texts.

  2. Morag Kersel says:

    Thanks very much for your insights, Brent. I haven’t read Veritas yet but I am glad to see your review and the discussion of the peer review process. In 2012 I participated in an SBL panel on publishing unprovenienced artifacts. I examined whether Dr. King would be able to present her findings on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” at the annual meetings or publish her findings in the scholarly journals of the American Anthropological Association or the Society for American Archaeology. The answers were resounding no.

  3. Many thanks, Brent, for these fascinating comments.

  4. Pingback: The dark side of truth. Some thoughts on Ariel Sabar new book. | Roberta Mazza

  5. John Glynn says:

    Hi all,
    Ariel talks about his book at length in this recent YouTube upload

  6. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 174 for August 2020 | Reading Acts

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