Book Report-Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

This is a well-written journalistic account of a scandal that happened in the biblical studies community in 2012 when a purportedly ancient parchment surfaced that contained the words “Jesus said to them ‘my wife.’” Despite some red flags such as bad Coptic grammar, Professor Karen King, one of the preeminent scholars in the field, became excited about its potential to undermine traditional Christian narratives (not ours of course, since, as Chad Nielsen’s excellent post points out, Latter-day Saint theology tends to be open to Christ being married) and widely promoted it until (and a little bit after) some smart amateurs working out of their basement exposed it as a fraud. 

As Latter-day Saints (and religious people in general) we’re often told that we need to watch out for our biases in analyzing historical or scientific evidence. Fair enough, but it’s also naive to think that there aren’t biases among more secular scholars speaking to their desires (although most such scholars recognize this). Throughout Veritas the author makes it clear where Professor King’s biases were, and painstakingly documents how they led to her overlooking blatant red flags in the papyrus. At an acceptance speech for one of her teaching prizes she said “to those who walk in with their faith firm (whatever that faith is), with their convictions sure, their moral standards in good condition, I try to take away some of that surety, some of that conviction, some of that confidence” (53). 

The fact is that you sometimes get a buzz when you tell fresh-faced, innocent person with a simple testimony something about Church history or doctrine that they didn’t know. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t felt that buzz before, but without naming names I feel like some people build their lives around getting that buzz. (It’s for this and other reasons that I’m okay with BYU Religion’s rather strict gatekeeping. Parents who sacrificed and woke up early mornings for years to drive their kid to seminary don’t want to send them to BYU only for them to have a teacher looking for the buzz.) It’s easy to undermine or problematize like King, far harder to build up and construct.

Still, the document or historical finding that alters a living religion’s practices or conception of itself is kind of a holy grail for some, however rare such finds might be. Perhaps most relevant in our case is the finding that the priesthood ban probably did not begin with Joseph Smith, which may may have opened up a space to consider the possibility that the ban was changeable (or so I hear, others have a more informed opinion on this than I), However, in the year 2022 I’m highly skeptical that any archaeological or documentary find will really be able to rock the traditional Christian world’s theology or foundational story, Da Vinci Code fantasies notwithstanding. Our situation is a little different, since our founding was much more recent, but still I’m dubious that we’ll find a same-sex sealing certificate from the Nauvoo temple, or some affidavit signed by Joseph Smith saying it was all a fraud. 

Perhaps the extreme rarity of such germane, big splash historical findings, combined with the possibility of influencing a living religion, is what motivates the forgers. Mark Hoffman makes a number of appearances in the book, with explicit parallels drawn between his desire to reshape Latter-day Saint history and the motivations of the forger of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, along with the possible (still disputed) forger of sections of The Secret Gospel of Mark, an early, arguably homoerotic document that may have been forged by a closeted gay New Testament scholar.  

King’s biases extended beyond her teaching and the Gospel of Jesus’ wife. The author documents how King convinced the Jesus Seminar participants to modify their methodology to allow a more feminist reading of the role of Mary Magdalene than would have been justified otherwise; indeed, one gets the sense that she started taking a postmodern bent to the project, not caring so much about the historical reality of Jesus as much as the story it told. Of course, as a Latter-day Saint I’m not big on the Jesus Seminar’s secular conclusions, although I do find their methodology interesting and informative, but I explicitly recognize the spiritual as a part of my epistemology. Institutions and disciplines that derive their authority from the objectivity of an academic method should not sell their birthright for a mess of critical studies pottage. 

Finally, this book highlights the role of amateurs in the academic venture. In today’s world of instantaneous communication and widespread information, the role of legacy institutions as gatekeepers for knowledge is more tenuous than ever. While this does lead to a lot of aliens-built-the-pyramid types getting more attention than they should, it also leads to the bright scholar working out of their basement and posting on their blog getting a hearing even if they weren’t anointed with a tenure-track position by knowing the right people at the right place at the right time. Perhaps because Latter-day Saint history probably isn’t the best career move if you want tenure at a top ten, we’ve been blessed to have many of our best historical contributions made by people without formal academic positions, so there is a rich legacy of strong amateur contributions in Latter-day history, and given the increasing availability of primary sources and publishing venues I expect this trend of letting a thousand ideological, thematic, and methodological flowers bloom to continue and accelerate, which is a good thing.

13 comments for “Book Report-Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

  1. Stephen C:

    A good post. Thank you for explaining about the book “Veritas” and Karen King’s gullibility. A cautionary tale about the dangers of gullibility and confirmation bias. I also appreciated your end-of-post endorsement of different academic flowers blooming.

    Unfortunately, in 1958, Mao Zedong launched his “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend” campaign. Gullible Chinese intellectuals took him at his word, and started questioning Chinese Communist Party dogma—only to shortly realize that Mao had really launched the campaign to lure “right-wing revisionists” out into the open, so that he could purge them.

    I applaud Mormon intellectuals who base their conclusions on data, not dogma. But the fact is, they have to tread carefully, lest they offend people in power. Juanita Brooks’ case is an example.

    Lastly, I am all in favor of creating a testimony-strengthening environment for our young people. But after 48 years in the Church, I have had it with fantasy-based testimonies, along the lines of, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Earth is flat, because the Spirit bore witness of it to me.” Testimonies need to be based on both faith AND fact. 40 years ago, if I had said that Joseph Smith used seerstones to translate the Book of Mormon, I probably would have been excommunicated for saying something we now know as fact.

    Thanks again for your post.

  2. I enjoyed this book at first but eventually concluded it could’ve used some good editing and been a better read much shorter–really got bogged down delving into the forger’s past. Interesting connections with Mark Hoffman

  3. TW, that’s nonsense. Use of a seer stone and hat was mentioned in the Ensign in 1977. The idea that church leaders are trying to trick intellectuals into stepping out of line so that they can – do what now, exactly? – in some form comparable to Mao is closer to a paranoid fantasy than to an overwrought hot take.

    I don’t know the people in your ward or what they say, but I promise you that most of the people who bear testimony base their words on the Spirit bearing witness to them in combination with the facts that they have observed, just like you do.

  4. @Taiwan: Oops, the “let a thousand flowers bloom” phrase was sitting at the back of my head (and it is poetic!), but I completely forgot about its dark background.

    I do think that’s an advantage to having amateurs that aren’t financially connected to the Church; they can pretty much say what they want and their points have to stand on their own merits (although I think historians or scientist with empirically valid points feeling pressure from the hierarchs was more of a thing back in the day than now). Even if what they have to say is more faith promoting, there may be advantages to not having the speaker financially connected to the Church.

    @anitawalls: I often feel that, but now I have to constantly double guess myself whether it needs a good edit, or whether it’s my shorter attention span that can’t just sit and process detail like it used to, but you’re probably right.

  5. “The fact is that you sometimes get a buzz when you tell fresh-faced, innocent person with a simple testimony something about Church history or doctrine that they didn’t know. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t felt that buzz before, but without naming names I feel like some people build their lives around getting that buzz. (It’s for this and other reasons that I’m okay with BYU Religion’s rather strict gatekeeping. Parents who sacrificed and woke up early mornings for years to drive their kid to seminary don’t want to send them to BYU only for them to have a teacher looking for the buzz.)”

    So it’s the professors fault for telling the truth to a student that the institution chose not to tell? Got it.

    Jonathan: I wasn’t even alive in 1977. I’m guessing very few students currently at BYU were either. Nice try.

  6. Chadwick, I don’t follow what you’re saying. Can you spell it out? In case I wasn’t clear, I’m saying it’s nonsense to think that someone would have been excommunicated 40 years ago for talking about hats and seer stones, and my evidence is that hats and seer stones had been published in the Ensign just 5 years earlier. I don’t understand what current BYU students or your own birth have to do with that, so please explain.

    Also, treating incoming students’ religious faith as an obstacle to be overcome has been part of the DNA of American higher education for centuries. Sometimes it’s well-intentioned and carefully handled so that students come away with a more informed, reasoned and open-minded faith. Sometimes it’s a clumsy attempt to shock the yokels into agnosticism. I saw it from a religion professor at freshman orientation at BYU, only I don’t remember enough about the incident to be able to say if it was the former or the latter. Given the professor’s good standing in the religion department and excellent reputation outside BYU, I suspect the former.

  7. There’s a difference between raising the hard issues in the natural course of teaching a class and seeing it as your academic mission in life to patronizingly problematize the faith of the simpletons.

  8. “The fact is that you sometimes get a buzz when you tell fresh-faced, innocent person with a simple testimony something about Church history or doctrine that they didn’t know. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t felt that buzz before, but without naming names I feel like some people build their lives around getting that buzz…. It’s easy to undermine or problematize like King, far harder to build up and construct.”

    I was recently called into a youth Sunday School teaching position, and this was an important idea to be reminded of as I’m engaging in that calling. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. When the Lord spoke of the crime of offending his little ones I think he also had in mind those who were “little ones” in the faith.

  10. @Jack the scriptures also tell us that liars shall be thrust to Hell. If the Church simply told the truth, these professors would have to find a new hobby. Anyone can weaponize the scriptures. It’s super easy.

  11. Chadwick,

    Of course the truth is important. Even so we have to qualify what we mean by teaching the truth–based upon what the subject is and, more importantly, who the audience is. This is where the adversary likes to use the truth as a weapon. Was it right for him to tell Eve the truth? Is it right for a parent to lay out all of the gory details involved in conception, pregnancy, and childbirth to his six year old daughter?

    As regards the church we must remember that its first priority vis-a-vis teaching the truth is to preach the gospel of repentance. And so using the urim and thummim as an example–what is the most important truth about Joseph’s usage of those devices with respect to preaching the gospel of repentance? Is it the fact that there were really three seer stones instead of two? Or might it be, perhaps, that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God–which incidentally included the use of seer stones.

    As Alma says:

    “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.”

    And so there are things that simply need not be spoke of at certain times to certain people. In fact there are some things the must never be spoken of without the constraint of the spirit.

  12. Just finished the book and enjoyed it, though the last half dragged.

    Best quote was in Act 5: “Modern readers could thus remake the past for their own times, without fear of contradicting any underlying reality.”

    It applies to us when we try to interpret our history in the Church, strictly through 21st century eyes, norms, and standards without the norms and standards of period which we are interpreting.

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