Assessing a papyrus: is scholarship less valuable than science?

Mark Goodacre (with whom I disagree profoundly on almost everything, I suspect) has an article at his blog today about the papyrus fragment which has been called the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and is under suspicion of being a forgery.  He raises an interesting point:

Another theme that has emerged in some discussions has been a kind of dualism between “science” and textual study, with the suggestion that “science” alone will be able to settle the question of authenticity, and that textual scholarship is a kind of parlour game that can be played by anyone.  The way that scholarship actually works is as a collaborative enterprise, in which different scholars study the evidence, talk to one another, try out ideas, put forward hypotheses and test them.  Physical examination of manuscripts has a very important role to play in discussions like this, but it is one part of the discussion, not inately superior to the work done by experts on Coptology, papyrology, textual criticism, source criticism and so on.

I agree with this, to a considerable degree.  I think there is mixed thinking in the public mind. 

Perhaps my own thoughts will be of wider interest, as someone with a hard science degree of the hardest kind, who has pursued an interest in manuscript and textual studies.

If you can put something to do with a manuscript into a test-tube and boil it until it turns blue (or red, or whatever), you will be able to ascertain something definite.  Unfortunately that something will probably be very limited.  In the case of the papyrus, it should be possible to carbon date the papyrus material, and do some form of chemical analysis of the ink.  The date that will emerge for the papyrus will tell us whether the material is ancient or modern.  The ink analysis, if there is enough to work with, will tell us whether the writer used chemicals unknown in manuscripts universally agreed to be ancient.

These are good things to do.  They are destructive, however, so we must be wary.  But they will give us results, within the range of accuracy of the technology.  They will give us data.

But other data is also available from scholarship, which is not inferior in kind.  Someone who has seen many, many fragments of Coptic papyri will be able to tell us, in a systematic, detailed, referenced way, whether the writing has features not seen in other fragments.  The statement that he makes is just as much a fact as the output of C-14.  Either there are other examples of papyri which have some quirk of writing in them; or there are not.

Likewise a scholar can compile a list of all the manuscripts which have a date on them, with examples of the kind of handwriting then in vogue.  With this list it is easy to pick out something which does not fit; that is supposedly of one date, yet written in a hand unknown at the time.  This again is data.  This is the discipline of paleography. 

Paleography can be taken too far.  Dates may be given which, in reality, are based on inference upon inference.  Alin Suciu tells us that there are no worthwhile dates for any Coptic papyri.  Brent Nongbri has asserted that all the dates for 2nd century Greek papyrus fragments are basically rubbish (albeit in a paper with an openly stated motive for getting rid of certain dates).  And here we enter the thorny field of what is good scholarship, and what is bad. 

Here scholarship does differ from science.  It is much easier for scholarship to drift away from the data, and into something which is in fact opinion-driven.   It is easy, because scholarship has only one mechanism to prevent this drift, which is the process of peer-review; and it doesn’t work, when there is any question of politics or religion, because in any country the opinions of academics on controversial subjects commonly reflect the views of those who control academic appointments.  For instance, if we look at papers in patristics published in the 19th century, we can easily see the Catholic and Protestant papers. 

This is the problem with scholarship.  There is marvellous work done within the field.  But there is a real need for some kind of structural change.  There needs to be a better mechanism to exclude material which is (whether intentionally or not) unscholarly.  In some disciplines, particularly those with a static data base, the statements of the academy as to the “consensus of scholars” are of no value as a guide to fact.  And this is, in truth, well known in the world in general.

My own academic training is in Chemistry, which is definitely one of the “hard sciences”.   I remember, at college, that I didn’t consider scholarship to be worth much.  It was, I thought, merely a bunch of people decorating their prejudices with the results of a library search.  I believed that I could probably write anything they had to say myself, given a bit of time.

I suspect that such an opinion is widespread among science undergraduates even today.  I suspect that it lurks in the public mind generally. 

Nor is it entirely an unfair attitude.   There are academic disciplines which justify this kind of thinking.  We all remember sociology, and how it enjoyed wide esteem in the eyes of the media in the 70’s.  “Sociologist” and “left wing lunatic” seemed almost synonymous then.  It crashed and burned in the 80’s, when times changed.  Does anyone now study that, I wonder?  It was a pseudo-discipline, in practice if not in theory.  Economics had a narrow brush with the same disaster in the same period, but redeemed itself.

One reason why I myself held this view, even though I was interested in ancient history even then, was the sort of books about biblical scholarship found on shelves at Blackwells’ bookshop.  I was somewhat interested in what they had to say.  But I found that it was only necessary to read a page or two of this to feel both a deep contempt for them and what they were doing.  It was entirely opinion-driven, rather than data-driven.  A couple of simple questions — “how do I know that this is true?” and “where is the evidence that you didn’t just make this up?” — were usually enough to terminate my interest in them.  I came to a different mind only when I happened to read T. D. Barnes, Tertullian: a literary and historical study (1971).  That book I knew that I could not have written, however long I spent in a library.  That was my first encounter with real scholarship.

The truth was that the books that I had seen — I have no memory of which they were — were examples of bad scholarship.  They were not representative of all scholarship.

In a similar way, most ordinary people would run a mile rather than hear a sermon.  The word itself, in the popular mind, is synonymous with woolly sanctimonious empty tedium.  That impression, no doubt, is based mainly on TV portrayals, and perhaps the memory of schooldays when the padre got up and said something meaningless.  But when I went to a real church, I heard real sermons.  My original impression of a sermon was really a memory of bad sermons, not of all sermons.

The solution to this problem is to stop doing bad scholarship.  Do good scholarship.  And devise a method to know the difference, and implement it.

Whether this is something that can be achieved by academics, or whether in fact it will require a change to our universities I cannot say.  But some scholarship deserves better than it gets.


4 thoughts on “Assessing a papyrus: is scholarship less valuable than science?

  1. Excellent stuff, Roger! I agreed with every word. The problem, as you point out, is how to distinguish good from bad scholarship. I was reminded of how C. S. Lewis, when challenged on a point of literary criticism by a casual reader of 16th-century English literature, said (in effect) that his many years of study had so immersed him in the thought and modes of expression of that period that he ‘knew it in his bones’ that his opponent’s view was anachronistic (and therefore wrong). But that was in the days when people who spoke with authority were generally listened to. Nowadays, alas, it is undemocratic to lay claim to expertise on a particular subject.

  2. There’s something similar in “Fernseed and elephants”, isn’t there? He was addressing an audience of theological students at a liberal Anglican seminary led by Alec Vidler, and referring to some of the novelties of the period. And that they involved a way of looking at things which he knew “in his bones” was not known in 1914 (which, of course, he remembered), never mind in antiquity.

    I have my own methods of discriminating between good and bad, as we all must if we are to read critically. The simplest is to ask those two questions, and see if the referencing to ancient sources supports what is being said. So often it doesn’t. I find continental scholarship far better for this. The more controversial the subject, the less the likelihood that the paper will pass muster, the more chance there is of appeals to other scholarship rather than sources.

  3. Thanks for a provocative but helpful post, Roger, and for taking my comments seriously (even if you suspect you disagree with me profoundly about other stuff! Not quite sure where that is coming from; I’d say we have had both agreements and disagreements, which is the stuff of scholarship).

  4. Thank you for your kind words.

    I don’t mean to be negative about scholarship, and I suspect we have both encountered the sort of attitude which treats C-14 dates (themselves not particularly scientific in the way they are assigned, since they make the assumption that the quantity of C-14 in the atmosphere has remained constant, and I believe that this may not be true) as godlike, and paleography as worthless. That seems close to obscurantism to me.

    But on the other hand I find more published academic work than I would like is a bit shoddy (and, drat it, particularly in *anglophone* scholarship) because it is insufficiently rigorous, and because people write stuff which the data to which they refer simply doesn’t justify. I’m thinking here of Halsberghe’s wretched monograph on the Cult of Sol Invictus, but examples could be multiplied endlessly, I fear. I had to listen to one example at the recent patristics conference.

    That just shouldn’t happen. And I don’t blame *them* (alright, I do blame *some* of them), so much as the lack of any real mechanism, any real structure to stop it happening, beyond the too broad “peer review” mechanism.

    In other words scholars are relying too much on native talent and judgement to prevent junk papers, much as they did a century ago. They’re hacking away in a manner that Cumont and Harnack would recognise, or only incrementally better, whereas, in every other field of endeavour, huge strides have been taken, which have improved things by orders of magnitude. And it’s down to structure, very often, in these disciplines, not to individuals. Surely, surely, some way of doing it better could be devised?

    That’s why I was so interested to read “The Aryan Jesus” the other day. We ought to be able to learn from this episode, not that “Nazis are bad people” — who cares? we’re in no danger of a Nazi takeover — but that the mechanisms of the academy will not prevent a discipline being corrupted by a trendy cause backed by patronage dedicated to promoting rubbish. Why did they go wrong, in structural terms? How *might* it have been prevented? How do we know that the same process is not in place right now, doing the same things? Where was the conference in theological studies (in this case) dedicated to saying, “OK, we got this wrong; how do we stop it happening again?”

    I can’t help feeling that it should be possible to have standards, mechanisms in place, that prevent such things. That act as tripwires.

    Not quite sure how it could be done. Perhaps the word “methodology” is appropriate here.

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