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.