Provenance provenance provenance

Ariel Sabar has a new article out in the Atlantic digging into the provenance of the papyrus known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife or the Jesus Wife fragment.  Sabar makes a strong case that the fragment’s owner is Walter Fritz, a Florida man with knowledge of Coptic and multiple potential motivations for this endeavor.

Read the article.

I have a few thoughts:

  1. Sabar writes: “I wondered why no one had conducted a different sort of test: a thorough vetting of the papyrus’s chain of ownership.”  Many of us (Roberta Mazza, myself, others) have been arguing that a thorough accounting of provenance is the only means of proving the authenticity of the fragment, and more importantly, that provenance needs to be a more widespread concern in the academy.  None of us academics, however, are investigative reporters; the labor and time that Sabar invested in investigating provenance is quite astounding.  I thank him for it and hope that this incident leads to more scrutiny and awareness.
  2. The DaVinci Code may have had something to do with it after all but…
  3.  …perhaps not as the dominant motivation, which may have been financial (which is probably the motivation of most art/antiquity forgeries)
  4. Sabar writes of Fritz, “He had even more scorn for critics of the Jesus’s-wife papyrus, deriding them as “county level” scholars from the “University of Eastern Pee-Pee Land” who think their nitpicking of Coptic phrases can compete with scientific tests at places like Columbia University and MIT that have yielded no physical proof of forgery.”  I have noted for some time the importance of social networks in the scholarship on this fragment, and on the way the academic prestige economy has functioned.  Many of the scholars who exposed the document as a forgery or produced important knowledge about the document and the controversy, are NOT at elite universities.  I have a forthcoming article that talks about precisely this issue.  Fritz derides the people who exposed his work, thus proving my point:  that the status of the scholars who authenticated the fragment (status according to markers such as their institution) lent authenticity to the document as much as their methods or work did.
  5. Ariel Sabar was in my graduating class at Brown #evertrue

Edited to add…

6. The sexual politics in this saga are strange indeed, and one can’t help but wonder, after reading Sabar’s piece, about the relationship between the owner’s personal sexual politics/ views on gender and this episode.

Edited to add on 6/16:  It has been pointed out to me that I may have overstated my point on provenance by using the language of “only.”  I agree — provenance is not the only means of proving authenticity, and paleography and philology in this case demonstrated the case for forgery. Rather, what I am trying to argue is that provenance should be considered by scholars from the beginning in their work, that it should be more transparent, and that this transparency about provenance gives authenticity to the work.

5 thoughts on “Provenance provenance provenance

  1. >>the labor and time that Sabar invested in investigating provenance is quite astounding. <<

    But note that the main source of the problems were the anonymity of the owner, once by a bit of digging and a hunch he had the owner's name and email address, and "dropped Fritz’s name and email address into Google"… "What happened next felt almost too easy".

    Professor King had both right from the outset (and then hid them) and if she'd used them she'd have been aware that matters were by no means so simple as the story she swallowed. If the owner's identity had not been hidden, the whole story would have been out in the open much sooner.

    As for the scientific tests comment, I found that interesting in the context of an individual who left the humanities for a technical career.

    Now how is the Harvard School of Divinity going to treat a papyrus which it turns out is the property of two porn stars?

    • Yes, the point of my title was that provenance matters and should be disclosed.

      I do find it disturbing that you point to the sexual practices of the fragment owners as a reason for Harvard to disown the fragment: “Now how is the Harvard School of Divinity going to treat a papyrus which it turns out is the property of two porn stars?”

      Really the issue is that it’s a forgery.

      One of the problems in this whole saga, from multiple communities, has been the association of aspects of different people’s identities (academic status, gender, religion, etc.) as proxy markers of authenticity of the fragment.

      • I am sure we can agree that the issue is that objects just “surfacing” from the opacity of the market should have their collecting history and actual origins thoroughly examined by academics before they decide to handle them. If they do, a condition of handling licitly-obtained and licitly-owned source material must be complete disclosure, not hiding of important facts. The fact that the academic here agreed to hide important details to gain access has landed her, her institution and a whole field of study in a highly embarrassing situation. [My understanding was that the fragment is currently housed actually in the Harvard School of Divinity, hence my remark.]

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