Thursday, October 18, 2012

Herschel Shanks and Harvard's "Cowardice"

I'm not the biggest fan of Herschel Shanks, and his take on the "Jesus' Wife" controversy doesn't surprise me. He writes:
"What is for the Harvard Theological Review to suspend publication because of the dispute about authenticity. Dispute is the life of scholarship. It is to be welcomed, not fled from. When a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, backed up by two experts from Princeton and NYU who declare the text to be authentic, presents the case—and tentatively at that—that should be enough for HTR to publish King's article, not to cowardly suspend its decision to publish. Instead, HTR has cringed because there will now be a dispute as to authenticity. This is shameful."
No, Herschel. When a text has enough tell-tale signs of being fake, it is academically responsible to hold off; it is proper and prudent to err on the side of skepticism. If you're wrong that way, then fine, it costs nothing. But if it turns out you've entertained seriously what's indeed a fraud -- no matter what qualifiers and disclaimers you've piled on -- then you've not only wasted time and labor, you've been played a fool. People like Shanks need to read Harold Love; the punishment he calls for may be tongue-in-cheek, but the implications about academic credulity serious:
"Faking is the cancer of scholarship. The appropriate punishment for fakers should be public execution, with a last-minute interruption when a reprieve is brought to the gallows, only to be disregarded when it is discovered to be a fake. Likewise there is nothing amusing in the fact that a fellow scholar may have been misled by a fake: it is a sign of incompetence and dereliction in the individual concerned." (Attributing Authorship, pp 192-193)
Lest I be misconstrued, I'm not implying that Karen King is a bad scholar (see also Mark Goodacre), and it goes (I hope) without saying that she deserves no associations with a crank like Simcha Jacobovici. But in light of everything, Harvard's holding off her publication is simply the prudent move.


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