A number of people have asked me about scholars and non-disclosure agreements. This is tangentially related to the long thread I’ve just finished on the alleged first-centry copy of the Gospel of Mark. Scholars have told us it exists and that they have had something to do with it. We all *assumed* it was because they had actually seen it and probably studied it; turns out *that* was wrong. They almost certainly haven’t studied it and evidently haven’t seen it.
Why do I say “almost certainly and “evidently”? Because they won’t tell us. And why won’t they tell us? Is it because they are mean-spirited? Unreliable? Boasters-but-not-doers? Liars? No, not at all. It’s because they’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement. So, what does that mean, and what do I think about it?
It turns out that I’ve been in that boat myself – of having signed a non-disclosure agreement — and later took a lot of heat for it, a few years ago. That had to do not with an alleged early manuscript of the New Testament, but with the recently discovered Gospel of Judas Iscariot. More on that in a second.
First, what are non-disclosure agreements? Well, these are what they sound like: an agreement that someone reaches with someone else not to talk about a particular topic involving insider information to which they are given access. When it comes to “discoveries” of something ancient (or modern, for that matter) a non-disclosure agreement is sometimes (rarely) required as a condition for being given the insider information. So it works like this. Someone who is in possession of, or who has been given legal access to, a discovery or a study or an important finding may want experts to look at it and evaluate it. The experts are allowed to see it only if they agree not to tell anyone about it. The reason, usually, is that the owner – or the person given legal access – does not want information leaked prematurely until all the investigation is complete. That can be for a variety of reasons, including financial. (If word leaks out about the details, no one will need to buy your presentation of the material, e.g., in a book or TV documentary, etc.)
For the world of scholarship, non-disclosure agreements – which again, happen rarely – are not just inconvenient (both for the persons sworn to silence and to the scholarly world at large) but actually contrary to the normal rules of free and open investigation, which alone can generate long-lasting and valuable knowledge. But they are sometimes a necessary evil. Not because the scholars like or prefer them, as a rule (I’ve never met a scholar who does, though maybe there are such people out there), but because those with access to the discovery or information simply will not allow the scholar access unless she or he signs the legally-binding agreement. I don’t know what is driving the need for secrecy for this allegedly early fragment from the Gospel of mark uncovered from a mummy mask. But I know what the situation was for the Gospel of Judas.
It’s a long story and as is my wont, I will tell it in a round-about way, which will take me a couple of posts.
In the Fall of 2004 I was in my study…
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