Remember that scrap of papyrus the media were screaming about that claimed that Jesus had a wife? Scholars are lining up to dismiss it as a forgery. The Smithsonian Institute canceled its planned documentary on the subject after scholars expressed doubts about its authenticity.
But the media, so quick to report on a scrap that CBS reporter Allen Pizzey argued “challenges the very foundation of Christian thinking,” weren’t so eager to report on the mounting evidence that the scrap of papyrus was a forgery.
The broadcast networks trumpeted the existence and import of the papyrus with breathless excitement. ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas even went so far as to proclaim: “Real-life Da Vinci Code. Christianity's biggest mysteries about to be solved. The tiny scrap of paper that could prove Jesus had a wife. Why this faded fragment might solve an age-old question.” Needless to say, the networks offered no correction to their story after doubts were raised about the authenticity of the artifact.
Print and online outlets, after their initial excitement, did get around to noting the mounting evidence against the papyrus. The New York Times, which broke the coverage of the artifact on its front page on September 19, buried updates about the papyrus on page 4 and page 14.
The Huffington Post’s Jaweed Kaleem reported that “‘Jesus Wife’ Research Leads to Suspicions that Artifact is a Fake” – on September 26, eight days after his initial piece came out on the scrap. (Of course, this didn’t stop the Huffington Post from publishing a slew of posts about the implications of a married Jesus.)
It wasn’t as if questions about the authenticity of the scrap came out of the blue – there were indications that the artifact was a fake from the beginning. The fragment is tiny, “the size of a small cell phone.” The owner of the fragment did not know its provenance, and his identity was kept anonymous by Harvard.
Harvard professor Karen King, who initially translated the text on the papyrus and dubbed it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” has an agenda of discrediting orthodox Christianity. The Smithsonian Magazine noted: “Her scholarship has been a kind of sustained critique of what she calls the “master story” of Christianity: a narrative that casts the canonical texts of the New Testament as divine revelation that passed through Jesus in “an unbroken chain” to the apostles and their successors—church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried these truths into the present day.”
Not every media outlet lined up to trumpet the papyrus as, well, gospel. The Associated Press’s Nicole Winfield, for one, published an excellent piece noting problems with the authenticity of the papyrus scrap on September 19. But for most outlets, the opportunity to take a gratuitous shot at Christian beliefs apparently overrode caution or inconvenient truths.
Perhaps journalists should be more careful about hyping a dubious discovery that “challenges the very foundation of Christianity.” But that requires a willingness to critically examine anything which discredits Christianity.