The famous French scholar Michel de Certeau contended that the past becomes comprehensible to us only through the historian’s discourse of “facts.” The sine qua non of making history is, according to de Certeau, “an endless labor of differentiation” between a former period and the present. That is, meaning is formed through the process of negotiating the past and present. Such differentiation, according to de Certeau, takes place “along the margins which join a society with its past and with the very act of separating itself from that past” (The Writing of History, 37). It is only when accounts of the past and their interpretation in the present meet that something new is created. It is a “back and forth” between two poles of the “real.” The goal of historiography for de Certeau is the relocation of the past (preserved) into the conceptual (and narrative) framework of present discourse that unfolds or resuscitates the lost through labors of differentiation.
This idea of the past rupturing into the present is nothing new of course; it is largely a critique of positivist history so dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries. But what interests me is the way in which narratives of or about the past shape our own identities. In other words, there is a social role of narratives concerning the past. Frank Ankersmit questions why it is that “our relationship to the past has become ‘privatized’ in the sense that it primarily is an attribute of the individual historian and no longer of a collective disciplinary historical subject” (Historical Representation, 153). We are now more than ever invested in retrieving the past because it is tied—whether consciously or unconsciously—to our search for personal identity. This is what Pierre Nora means by “modern memory” when he writes: “Modern memory, is, above all, archival. Fear of a rapid and final disappearance combines with anxiety about the meaning of the present and uncertainty about the future to give even the most humble testimony, the most modest vestige, the potential dignity of the memorable” (“Between Memory and History,” 13).
All of this has much relevance for the appraisal of cultural artifacts such as the GJW, and particularly those cultural artifacts which impinge on one’s religious identity. In the case of the GJW, the question about whether or not Jesus was married cannot simply be reduced to a concern about history; it is a religious question disguised as a historical one. So why is the question of Jesus’ marriage important anyway? Because it seeks to anchor one’s beliefs in a material reality. This is how history is often used. But it’s also not just about Jesus or religion in general. Even those scholars who admit that the GJW says nothing about the historical Jesus are participating in a discourse that is going nowhere. But why is it that scholars are so concerned about whether this text was written in the 2nd century, the 8th, or the 21st? Why have we privileged this text over against all the other texts on papyrus that get identified on a daily basis?
That brings me to my second point. Western intellectualism has often been described in terms of hegemonic discourse that privileges knowledge produced by the intellectual elite over against the kinds of knowledge produced outside of the academy. Feminist and post-colonial scholars have done a lot to advance this idea, and I believe it is very relevant to the current discussion. I hasten to agree with Hector Avalos, when he says:
"Relevant knowledge must be grounded in an awareness of how knowledge is used to create class distinctions and power differentials. Biblical scholars, for example, are almost solely devoted to maintaining the cultural significance of the Bible not because any knowledge it provides is relevant to our world but because of the self-serving drive to protect the power position of the biblical studies profession" (The End of Biblical Studies, 23).
It is time we stop and reflect on the extent to which the discussions about the GJW are a product of Western political, economic, and social interests (on this point, see Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?). Why has a first-rate academic journal devoted almost an entire issue to a piece of papyrus whose authenticity is questionable? Why are scholars so vehement about answering the question of its authenticity? Why are certain scholars given space to voice their view while others are silenced? What are the motives behind those producing blog posts and articles concerning this cultural artifact? Why did Harvard University create a website specifically for the GJW? Why was a historical documentary on the GJW produced so soon after its discovery (and before its publication!)?
I am currently editing, among other things, an unpublished Coptic papyrus fragment right now housed in an Ivy League institution that contains an unknown text that mentions Jesus, his cross, disciples, and cites a New Testament verse. Should the history channel run a documentary on this? Should Harvard Theological Review--or some other journal, for that matter—devote nearly a entire issue to this papyrus fragment? Should my institution create a website for it? We as historians should think long and hard about the production and dissemination of knowledge and the potential effects it might have on society as a whole. Is what we are doing relevant and meaningful for society and human progress? Are we encouraging and promoting intellectual hegemony through our own discourses about history (in this case, the GJW)?
It is also extremely interesting to me that the GJW has been submitted for such drawn-out testing, which is unprecedented. Yet no one expects these procedures for any other ancient document. It has always been the practice of papyrologists (those who study ancient texts and writing materials) to make judgments based on observation, but when it comes to highly religious texts (e.g., Gospel of Judas), we must test them “scientifically.” As one of my colleagues so astutely averred recently, “it also raises questions about our own scientific expertise: we’re not able, any more, apparently, to decide if those things are genuine, with our own Wissenschaft: we have to call on the ‘real’ scientists” (personal correspondence).
The terms “forgery” and “fake” are also worth reflecting on in light of the discussion. Why are some (most?) scholars inclined to discount an object’s significance simply because it might be a forgery or fake? It is because we privilege what is historically “real” and “pure” and disregard those things which do not fit the bill. But modern forgeries are also very significant because they reflect our own, present historical imaginations and representations, even if the goal of the forger is to deceive. If we think of it in this sense, almost every early Christian text (including the New Testament) is a forgery, insofar as these authors sought to legitimatize their theological claims by contextualizing them within a historical framework that is often highly imaginative. So why are ancient historical imaginations privileged over modern ones? Because we are most interested in the foreign realities and minds of the past. This is a clear case of academic “othering” and intellectual elitism.
In closing, I would simply like to suggest that we as historians stop over-privileging historical artifacts like the GJW. The question about the papyrus’ authenticity is less important, in my opinion, than the agendas and socio-political realities that drive the question itself. We want firm answers about the GJW, but we will not get the “facts” we want unless a living forger comes forward or the dead author (ancient or modern) comes back to life to tell the complete story. This is precisely how the writing of all history works and we should respect the “fragile and necessary boundary between a past object and a current praxis” (de Certeau, The Writing of History, 37). Let us move on as historians to other historical ideas, topics and artifacts instead of continuing to find ways to make the debate around the GJW more and more relevant.
UPDATE: A fuller version of this post is available for download as a PDF here.