Fragmentary Gospels and their Media-savvy Handlers

Smithsonian screenshotThe synchronized media release last week of the newly discovered Coptic fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was impressive. Professor Karen King’s scholarly announcement at the International Congress of Coptic Studies held in Rome was timed to coincide with a Smithsonian press release only days before the US premiere of for Andy Webb’s The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, scheduled for 30 September on the Smithsonian Channel in the US. Professor Karen King, the Harvard Divinity School, and the Smithsonian are to be congratulated for the care with which they have handled the Gospel’s debut on the world stage. It is not every day that non-canonical gospels feature in the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

A few voices have suggested that the careful orchestration was cynical. Certainly, it was motivated byconcerns like audience share (on the part of the Smithsonian Channel) and the wish to showcase the work of a star faculty member (on the part of Harvard).  But these are both worthy motives. At a time when budgets for documentary television are vulnerable it would not be a bad thing at all if public debate about the new Gospel fragment helps Webb’s documentary to reach new audiences. If it also calls attention to the value of institutions like Harvard Divinity School, to the on-going need for skilled ancient scholarship, and the critical study of sacred texts, so much the better.

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