Last week a curious headline began to make the rounds online: “Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law.”
It was the title of a blog post about the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a papyrus fragment that caused a media frenzy in 2012, and again last month. The fragment, written in Coptic and initially dated to the 4th century, contained a few explosive words: “Jesus said to them, my wife…” and “she will be able to be my disciple.” Harvard’s Karen King, who first published the text,cautioned that it tells us nothing about whether Jesus really had a wife, but a storm of questions ensued anyway. Did some ancient people think Jesus was married? Could women be disciples? What does this text tell us about Jesus’s celibacy or the role of women in early Christianity?
As it turns out, probably nothing. The blogger, Christian Askeland of Indiana Wesleyan University, argues the fragment is a modern forgery.
But while the GJW may not tell us anything regarding ancient beliefs about women, the story of its reception can teach us a great deal about issues of gender in modern scholarship.
Askeland’s title, “Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law,” was intended to be a joke about how the forgery was discovered. The GJW papyrus has a “sister” fragment—a small piece of the Gospel of John that was sold together with the GJW, and copied in the same handwriting. Askeland showed that this “sister” fragment was forged using a modern publication as its model, which means that the accompanying GJW must be fake, too. The sloppy, forged Gospel of John fragment, then, is (the Gospel of) Jesus’s wife’s “ugly sister.”
While explanation tends to ruin humor, this joke was not particularly funny to begin with. But the issue here is not the convoluted attempt at cleverness; rather, it’s the sexist language—the use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppy, forged, worthless text.
Metaphors matter, and such language perpetuates old ideas that have marginalized and shamed women. This comes into sharp relief when we consider the general tone that scholarly discourse about the Jesus’s Wife fragment has taken since 2012. When King first went public with the text, for example, Smithsonian magazine found it necessary to comment at length on her appearance, including her “gray streaked hair” and “loose clothing.” Female scholars often experience scrutiny and judgment based on their personal appearance, where a male scholar would not be subjected to such attention.
To join a discussion where an “ugly woman” is the dominant metaphor feels uncomfortably familiar. It’s like walking into a frat party where all the men are making jokes about the ugly girl. A woman who wants to be part of the conversation has a difficult choice: she can push down her discomfort, distance herself from the “ugly woman,” accept that scrutinizing a woman’s appearance is normal, and join in. Or she can say something, and wait for the predictable responses: she’s oversensitive, she’s humorless, she’s always “bringing gender in.”
But not everyone has the luxury of checking gender at the door. Disheartened that jokes about women’s appearance are still acceptable in public discourse, I commented on Askeland’s blog post, calling the language of the title marginalizing and inappropriate. Meredith Warren, a scholar of early Christianity, seconded the point. The story could have ended there as I’d assumed the blogger simply hadn’t thought about the title’s resonance. Many of us recycle language we’re not aware is alienating. But instead, Askeland came back with an astonishing response:
I take your accusation seriously, but you have missed the point here, and your feminist response is unfair. The issue here is that a forger is playing off of hyperfeminist sensibilities, forging a “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and forging accompanying paperwork describing the fragment as said gospel. To me, it seems highly likely that this was even given intentionally to King, who has specialized in women in apocryphal literature, and who is at Harvard, epicenter of [A]merican biblical gender studies. I did not bring in the gender issue here, the forger did and King swallowed it whole.
I am not aware of any trope of “ugly sister-in-laws.” If such a trope existed, I would not have used it here. To all those involved in the debate, it will be clear that the tropes here are (1) the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and (2) the idea of “sister” codices and fragments. I did not generate the first, and there is nothing negative about the second. The concept of “ugly” has to do with paleographic appearance. So, IMO, you have baselessly criticized me, here, accusing me of misogyny. In the future, you might better share such accusations in more personal formats. Just to be clear, I support historic feminism, and have two daughters.
The response is not simply the opinion of one individual, but is symptomatic of broader problems—problems that we have seen at multiple points in the unfolding story about the GJW fragment.
The forgery itself is blamed on “hyperfeminist sensibilities,” as if King’s interest in women made her particularly susceptible to being fooled. But other ancient texts that Karen King has studied—like the 2nd century Gospel of Mary, which presents Mary Magdalene as a visionary who knows more than the apostles—are undoubtedly authentic. King’s “hyperfeminist sensibilities” did not create them—she has simply made available some long-neglected pieces of early Christian history.
This isn’t the first time Karen King’s objectivity and motives have been questioned. When the story of the fragment first broke, King was accused of sensationalizing the discovery and of deliberately obfuscating the provenance of the fragment. She and her colleague, Elaine Pagels, were mocked online and urged to find jobs in food service (see an account of the nasty side of the debate by Candida Moss here.
Top papyrologist Roger Bagnall was also convinced that the fragment was real, but though their conclusions were identical only the female scholar came in for harsh criticism. Perhaps like Eve, it was easier to see in her the oddly paired traits of gullibility and deceptiveness. It wasn’t Bagnall but a woman who was accused of “swallowing it whole.”
So-called “hyperfeminist” sensibilities, for Askeland and others, appear to be an enemy to objectivity. But there’s an irony here in the construction of bias. Askeland posted his work on the “Evangelical Textual Criticism” blog, which requires a pastoral reference and a statement of doctrinal commitment from anyone who wishes to post there. He’s part of a group of scholarsworking with the Green Collection, funded by Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby.
Containing the largest private collection of manuscripts related to the Bible, some of questionable provenance, the Green Collection has a strong evangelical agenda: it’s dedicated to proving the historical authenticity of the Bible through the publication of physical manuscripts. Green freely admits that a specific mission determines which artifacts he buys: “We are storytellers first, and these items tell a story… We’re buyers of items to tell the story. We pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit what we are trying to tell.”
There is no trope of the “ugly sister”
What about the “ugly sister” metaphor? There is no such trope, Askeland claims. “Ugly” refers to the paleography—the sloppy handwriting on the forged fragment. “Sister” simply refers to “sister” fragments, related texts that circulate together, in this case written by the same hand. “Ugly sister” has nothing to do with gender.
But language cannot be cleansed of its connotations. There is, of course, a long and illustrious tradition of the “ugly sister” in culture and literature. Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters are the obvious example, but the motif is contemporary, too. It’s a given, for example, in tabloid pieces about celebrity siblings (“I’m the ugly sister, I’m the fat one, I’m the transvestite,” says Khloe Kardashian), and in lifestyle pieces about being the “ugly sister,” whom men either ignore or use to get closer to the more attractive sibling. The “ugly sister,” along with the analogous “fat friend,” is an unmistakably real and recognizable trope.
The “ugly sister” motif is potent enough that it has become a productive metaphor in another scholarly context. British psychologist James Reason coined the term “the ugly sister effect” for when we try to remember something, perhaps a name, but something related but unwanted—the “ugly sister”—keeps blocking the desired memory. Through their close relation to the target, ugly sisters may attract undue attention and interfere with retrieval of the sought-after item” (D. Schachter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, 75).
References to fairy tales are a fun way to liven up scholarship, but what does this image of a memory block as an ugly sister perpetuate? It tells us something about the construction of the subject: in Cinderella the female is the attractive target of the hero, the prince, who can only be a male; in Reason’s construction the female is something ugly that stands in his way.
The male as subject and female as object—and the references to women’s appearance—are not unique or surprising. They are expected. A male actor or subject is assumed in much of the way we speak, and a woman experiences a moment of adjustment when she wants to participate as a subject. Like an ugly sister with a glass slipper, she must squeeze in to fit patterns of language that were not created with her in mind.
Like Reason’s “unwanted memory as ugly sister,” Askeland’s “fake manuscript as ugly sister(-in-law)” repeats the same marginalizing pattern. This is not to allege that either was consciously aware of it, or deliberately intended to offend women. Here, Askeland’s response that he “did not bring gender in” is symptomatic of a broader problem: the assumption is that if someone didn’t deliberately intend to marginalize women, then he couldn’t have. If someone didn’t deliberately “bring in gender,” then gender doesn’t exist in the conversation. But sexism can and does exist in the unreflective recycling of old motifs, and through the perpetuation of patterns in language and thought that have marginalized and silenced women for centuries.
Some of my best friends are…
While Askeland writes that he “support[s] historic feminism” and “[has] two daughters,” it’s unclear what he means by “historic feminism.” Perhaps it refers to the suffrage movement—shaky ground on which to build a case for commitment to gender equality. But it’s the mention of daughters that’s most striking here—for its utter irrelevance. The critique was about the alienating resonance of the “ugly sister” title, not about Askeland’s personal life.
One commenter, referring to the bankruptcy of the argument that having daughters somehow confers feminist credibility, compared it to the old cliché: “I’m not racist; some of my friends are black.” But responses like this one disappeared almost as soon as they were posted.
Askeland suggested that these issues should have been raised in private. But the blog is public, and the point is about what’s acceptable in public discourse. Issues related to women are not “private” issues that are only marginal to the “real” work of scholarship. Who gets to speak and whose voice is heard is central to that process. One prominent female scholar who had been asked to weigh in on the GJW decided to hold back precisely because of the alienating gendered tone of the whole conversation, an objective loss for scholarship.
We often think of the Internet as a place for open dialogue, a less constructed and policed venue than traditional publishing. But the “ugly sister” conversation reveal, once again, that this isn’t always the case. The comments section of Askeland’s blog actually reveals a highly constructed discourse, in which voices of critique have been deleted. Jon Henry asked Askeland to explain “historic feminism” and comment on how that commitment affects the way he does scholarship. It was a fair question, especially since Askeland is sure that Karen King’s stake in gender issues affected her work on the GJW. But it was promptly deleted. Joseph Ryan Kelly wrote that sexism is not always the result of individual, deliberate intent: “just because you support ‘historic feminism’ and have two daughters doesn’t mean you are immune to recycling rhetoric that alienates and shames women.” His words, too, disappeared.
These voices—both male, both biblical scholars—were silenced. As Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green says of his collection, “we pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit [the story] we are trying to tell.” Male voices who point out in public that gender is relevant and important don’t fit the story. The resulting comment thread should speak for itself. What remains is a carefully curated exhibit: some women complaining, and a man’s response. Only women, you see, are interested in gender.