Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeAs the Sturm und Drang about the (apparently forged) Jesus’ Wife Fragment waxes and wanes (the Sturm waxes, the Drang wanes?), my predictably eccentric interest concerns the role of evidence and of non-evidential factors in shaping positive or negative assessments of the fragment.

Let’s start again by noticing that, even at its very earliest plausible date, its most genuine condition, the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married. If we didn’t think Jesus was married before, we don’t have more reason to think he was; we just have further evidence affirming this particular view (often associated with, or dismissed as, Gnostic). Apart from the ordinary interest that the discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript from early Christianity, this fragment should not generate much excitement in any but the more arcane academic circles — and that’s on the assumption that it’s genuine.

So the furor over the fragment, and the side-taking over its authenticity, require an explanation. If the JWF is not particularly novel, if it may not even be genuine, why did it become controversial? Certain aspects of the fuss can easily be explained: there is money in media coverage, and a television special would certainly line somebody’s pockets. Likewise media attention to the fragment, for which each click and link meant more advertising revenue. And even high-minded scholars like attention; most of the time, most people ignore us, and the glamour of broadcast authority would be difficult to resist for all but the most ascetical among us. (I mean no slight at my colleagues who appear in documentaries or news coverage — those whom I know are all lovely people whom I respect, and for whom I wish only the best, for whose good fortune I congratulate them.) One can dispose of much of the sizzle by ascribing it to cash considerations and publicity — “most”, but not by any means “all.” The role that money and publicity play in the construction of academic controversy and knowledge warrants closer attention, but I’m particularly interested in the residuum.

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

By the same token, plenty of vociferous scholars have the opposite disposition, and we saw some immediate negative responses to the JWF which may well have owed as much to the scholars’ inclination to downplay the genuineness of apparent evidence that early Christians held divergent views about Jesus as they owed to identifiable faults with the evaluation of the fragment.

And some scholars, I should add, contributed substantive evidence to the discussion. The direction of their inquiries may have been affected by their desires to support or debunk the genuineness of the fragment, but evidence resists desire somewhat more effectively than do sentiment and temperament, and the comparisons to other fragments and to other texts (and their provenance, and their conditions of publication) help immensely in reaching a thoughtful conclusion about the JWF.

Over and above the reasonable, inevitable, productive inclinations (“positive prejudices,” as Gadamer called them), though, is there not visible a certain longing-to-[dis]believe, wishing-it-were[n't]-so, that we see more clearly when non-specialists latch on to particular notions regardless of the historical or evidential basis? The attraction of metanarratives such as “the church conceals the truth from you”, or “in the twenty-first century no rational person can believe…”, or “this is the truth unambiguously and definitively handed down changelessly from the first century to now…” resides not in the evidential basis for any of them so much as in the desire that they be so.

We cannot extirpate desire from our interpretive reasoning, not even by dint of determined will. Must we then be silent about our entanglement with desire? When a professed radical interpreter finds Paul to be an anti-imperial subversive, is it disrespectful to note that the exegetical conclusion conveniently fits the interpreter’s wishes? And most difficult of all, what of the interpretive desires of people whose allegiances and principles cannot conveniently be labelled and mapped? And — when any charge of interpretation-by-desire can be answered with a tu quoque (“the same to you”) so that one can’t simply dismiss an interpretation because of its background, how can we construct a discourse in which desire is neither a taboo nor a blank cheque?

One might think that the hermeneutics of desire follow relatively straightforwardly from autobiographical interpretation, but I don’t remember hearing the topic addressed as a matter of methodological or metacritical reflection. If I missed something, please let me know.

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2 Responses to Desire and Interpretation

  1. Thanks for a great post, AKMA. I love your “predictably eccentric interest”!

    On your comment that “the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married,” I’m not so sure. Clement appears to presuppose that it was accepted that Jesus was unmarried — cf. Christopher Jones, “Clement of Alexandria and the Celibacy of Jesus” at https://www.academia.edu/2021164/Clement_of_Alexandria_and_the_Celibacy_of_Jesus .

    Another perhaps rather obvious thing to add to your discussion is that one’s desire for this piece to be authentic may be the very thing that encourages an appropriate scepticism about its authenticity. In cases like this, there should perhaps be a criterion of “too good to be true” that encourages an appropriate scholarly caution. In other words, it may be that the thing that sets off the sceptical impulse is one’s desire for exciting new discoveries.

  2. AKMA says:

    Thanks, Mark! I suppose that what I was getting at was that even if Clement took it as read that Jesus was unmarried, our overall picture of the spread and development of this movement is not disrupted should we have specific evidence that one scribe with a reed and papyrus thought to write down that Jesus had a wife.

    If this were to turn out to be the earliest evidence that people considered a nuptial Jesus, even then it wouldn’t alter the physiognomy of the movement more than a hair, and that would entail putting the very best, earliest, most reliable face on the evidence that’s increasingly late, wobbly, and unconvincing.

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