Thursday, 16 June 2016

Harvard Pap. Dodge Fiasco: Scholar Pleads Naivity

'He lied to me' was the response of Karen L. King Harvard historian of Christianity on reading Ariel Sabar's report on the identity and history of Walter Fritz, the owner of the papyrus fragment she published as "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" (Ariel Sabar, 'Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife' ’ The Atlantic 16th June 2016).
Although she had exchanged numerous emails with the owner and had met him in December 2011, she realized after reading the article that she knew next to nothing about him, she said. Walter Fritz had never mentioned his years at the Free University’s Egyptology institute, his formal study of Coptic, or his work as a pornographer whose star actress was his own wife—a woman who’d written a book of “universal truths” and claimed to channel the voices of angels. He had presented himself to her as a “family man” who enjoyed trips to Disney World and was independently wealthy. “I had no idea about this guy, obviously,” she said. “He lied to me.”
This is extraordinary, she introduced material into the academic literature on the mere say-so of a complete stranger, one which a few mouse clicks Googling the information which she did have would reveal his "Nefer Art" business. Personally, if I learnt somebody was an art dealer with dodgy papyri on their website, I'd suspect them of being a yarn-spinner right away.  She met Fritz in December 2011, but presented the papyrus 18th September 2012, and in that time had not made any progress in verifying where actually the too-good-to-be-true fragment had come from.
But King had placed her faith in the opinions of expert papyrologists, along with a series of carbon-dating and other scientific tests, at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, that had turned up no signs of modern tampering or forgery.
But this refutes nothing, because they only looked at a selected part of the evidence. The object "surfaced" in association with three other documents. Dr King did not submit the associated material to any tests at all for authenticity. That was left to a journalist to do four years later, and scholarship is all the poorer for that.

Astoundingly, when Ariel Sabar asked Dr King why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background, he received the reply:
“Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated”.
Wow. Yes, most other scholars take great care to examine the material they wish to use as a source of information about anything to ensure it is what it is supposed to be. The carpal of an ass can be radiocarbon dated to 28 AD +/- 22 yrs, can be shown by isotopes to have been fed grass which grew in the region of Jerusalem, and osteological analysis can show it walked with a slight limp from carrying heavy weights, but no amount of tests showing that "there is no evidence that this was not the donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday" will show that it was. But belief is not trammelled by constraints of logic:
King said she would need scientific proof—or a confession—to make a definitive finding of forgery. It’s theoretically possible that the papyrus itself is authentic, she said, even if its provenance story is bogus. 
It seems though that she is still clinging on to hope:
King hoped that Fritz would allow the scrap to remain at Harvard, so that scholars could continue to probe questions of authenticity.
But she does now admit that the preponderance of the evidence now that Sabar has done what she should have done four years ago “presses in the direction of forgery.”

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