Monday, October 1, 2012

Mainstream Media Coverage of Discoveries of Ancient Manuscripts Tends to Be Pretty Awful Generally --

-- but in the case of the papyrus containing the fragment of the text which has become famous as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, I wonder whether the coverage isn't really even much worse than average.

Let's compare it to news coverage of the Syriac gospel of Barnabas which was recently found on a shelf in a courthouse in Turkey, having landed there as evidence in a criminal case brought against some pirates. For a little while the media buzzed with reports, almost entirely untainted by expert evaluation, that this manuscript was thought to be 1500 years old. Then, when the fact began to circulate that it seemed obvious to experts that it was more like 500 years old, the stories dried up very quickly. Hardly anywhere was an update, with a revised estimated age of the artifact, to be seen in the more popular networks and newspapers. They pretty much surrendered the field to religious news outlets, who kept the story going for a while longer as they rejoiced at this contemporary crushing of heresy. And the readership for scholarly journals remained tiny.

Par for the course.

Now, in the case of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, the artifact is being presented to the public not by layman government officials who just happened to stumble across it, but by an an expert, Prof Karen L King, who has thoughtfully made a pdf of her upcoming paper about it available to the public. The journalists of the world started off with an expert opinion at their disposal, although you wouldn't know it from most of the stories, not even the ones which linked Prof King's pdf. The stories jumble up things like the estimated dates of the papyrus and of the original Greek text of which the papyrus' Coptic text may be a translation, King's reservations about the papyrus' authenticity pending chemical tests, her interpretation of the historical and theological ramifications if the text is proved to be authentic, etc. Still all par for the course.

What's worse than par for the course is how the media are reacting to news that some experts believe that the text on the papyrus has been forged. Normally such doubts would be ignored, and the media would either stick with their original positions, or just drop the whole subject like a hot rock and hope not too many readers would remember it. Bad enough. Worse, though, in this case, headlines trumpteting that it's a forgery are now far outnumbering all of the previous stories about the document. And it's very far from having been proven a forgery. An expert in Coptic -- but not notably more of an expert than King or her collaborator on the pdf, AnneMarie Luijendijk -- has published his opinion in the Vatican's newspaper that the artifact is a "crude fake," and all the media seem to be running with that. "Crude fake" would have been a much more appropriate headline concerning the James Ossuary or the Shroud of Turin, to which these media outlets tend still stupidly to refer to as controversial. Everyone's quoting the Vatican's guy and the handful of experts who agree with him, and mostly ignoring the experts who think the artifact is genuine, and even the majority of experts who just want to wait for more evidence before they decide.

Was that Syriac Gospel of Barnabas a boy crying wolf, and this papyrus fragment a wolf being ignored because people don't believe the boy? Or is there some other explanation for this latest round of ineptitude?

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