Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Confirmation bias, and the story of Jesus' wife

In well-done science, conclusions are based on one thing and one thing alone: the quality of the evidence.  When physicists announced a few months ago that they had data that seemed to support the conclusion that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, every high-energy physicist  in the world began to sift through the evidence, looking for flaws, looking for inaccuracies, trying to see if the data supported such an earthshattering outcome.  And after rigorous analysis, the result did not stand -- Einstein's fundamental speed limit on the universe seems to have been vindicated once again.

Contrast that to how conclusions are drawn in other realms, where vanishingly small pieces of evidence are considered enough to support any conclusion you happen to favor.

This whole thing comes up because of the recent announcement that a small fragment of papyrus, covered with faded Coptic script, seems to indicate that Jesus might have been married.  [Source]  The finding, which has been analyzed extensively by historian and ancient language scholar Karen King, is the subject of a paper that was presented Tuesday in Rome at an international meeting of Coptic scholars.

Of course, the first question asked was, "Is the artifact a fake?"  And the conclusion was: probably not.  The script was examined by experts, and looks authentic.  The phrasing of the text seems consistent with other early writings in that language.  While the piece is too small to carbon-date, there is apparently some talk of a non-destructive spectroscopy on the ink that could give a rough estimate of its age.  One phrase begins, "And Jesus said, 'My wife...'" and then is cut off.  A later phrase on the piece says, "... she should be my disciple."

So: what we have here is a small fragment of paper, of unknown age, with two incomplete (but admittedly provocative) phrases.  And that was all it took.

Already we have people who are against the Catholic policy of celibacy for the clergy saying that this should change church law.  If Jesus was married, why shouldn't priests be able to?  Folks who want women to be priests jumped on the second phrase; the lack of a clear mention of female disciples in the bible is the only justification for church policy on the issue, they say, and this fragment clearly supports the ordination of women.

Then the woo-woos got involved.  Fans of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, both of which claimed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, are saying that the fragment supports that contention.  Many of these people seem not to realize that the book and the film both reside in the "fiction" aisle.

Even wilder stories have started up.  Take a look at this article, that claims that the piece of papyrus is a clear vindication of the wacky ideas from Laurence Gardner's The Bloodline of the Holy Grail, in which Jesus survived the crucifixion, lived another hundred years in which he traveled to Tibet, and his wife and children ended up in France where they founded the Merovingian dynasty and ultimately ended up on the throne of Scotland. 

And to all of the above, I can only say: will you people please just chill?

There's a name for taking a tiny, questionable piece of evidence, and pretending that it trumpets support for an idea that you already agreed with; it's called confirmation bias, and unfortunately for the proponents of married priests, female priests, and Jesus being the ancestor of the Kings of Scotland, it's a logical fallacy.  Meaning that thinkers who are being honest should not engage in it.  The evidence we have is flimsy at best; Karen King, who is clearly a scholar of some repute, isn't even willing to hazard a firm opinion about the piece's provenance, but has given a guess that it probably dates from the Fourth Century.  So even if it is authentic, the thing was written three hundred plus years after Jesus died.  At that point, anyone could have written anything, and it wouldn't necessarily have any bearing on the truth of the matter.  The piece of paper could state that Jesus had blond hair and was left-handed and liked to eat donuts for breakfast, and there's no reason to conclude that those statements have any relevance to what the real man was like, since it was written long after anyone who actually knew him had died.

But, of course, unlike in science, that's not how these things work.  The married-priest cadre will certainly be harping on this finding for a while, as will the female-priest cadre.  The Dan Brown Writes Non-Fiction Society is probably also going to continue making little excited squeaking noises about all this, and any woo-woos further out on the plausibility scale will have a field day drawing conclusions from what in any other field would hardly constitute any evidence at all.

As I've observed before: confirmation bias is these people's stock in trade.  So honestly, I shouldn't be surprised.  But I still am, somehow.


  1. Of course, the researchers who found the thing are much more restrained in their interpretations. It must be hell to be a scientist or historian or whatever whose work has hit the press and is being applied as evidence of everyone's crackpot theories. "Oh yeah, I've heard of you. You're that Jesus' wife guy."

    The reason you're constantly surprised, Gordon, is that you're basically an optimist. You know people can do better; maybe this time they will.

  2. "And Jesus said, 'My wife...'" and then is cut off.

    Perhaps the sentence actually went "my wife, she is not" and George Lucas actually based his Yoda on the broken English speaking Jesus.