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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.

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