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.