On Citing Monsters. Or not.
This short piece was presented on November 21, 2022 at a session of the Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship program unit of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. I have added hyperlinks at certain points as well as a few sources for further reading at the end, but have otherwise left the contents of the piece unchanged.
**Content Warning: this piece discusses sexual assault and child sex abuse images.
I want to offer my sincerest thanks to the Metacriticism program unit for the invitation to offer a few thoughts here today, and to the rest of the panelists for their comments.
I’m speaking today as a scholar of early Christianity and also as one of the editors of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. I will not pretend that I am somehow peering down from a lofty perch where I can see everything with piercing clarity, or that I believe that I actually have all of this figured out. Like many of you, I am still working through these issues, still figuring out how to navigate these important conversations. I consider this panel to be a place where we can share and improve ideas. I cannot speak for the other panelists, but I want to assure you that I am open to any and all challenges and pushback that are offered in the spirit of helping move the dialogue forward.
I’ll start with a bit of autobiography before muddying the waters and then moving to discuss some imperfect solutions.
Many years ago, while I was early in my graduate studies, I gave a paper at the Upper-Midwest Regional SBL. It was my first time presenting my research in a public forum, and I was dreadfully nervous. My paper was mediocre in every way, although of course I didn’t realize that at the time. When I finished, a man in the audience posed some wonderful questions about it. He offered helpful suggestions about sources I should follow up with. We chatted for nearly an hour about the broader trajectories of my research. He gave me his contact information and encouraged me to be in touch if I wanted him to look over anything I had written, or if I wanted to talk through any ideas that I might have for future avenues of exploration. His name was Richard Pervo, and he was witty, personable, kind, and generous.
I returned to the same meeting the following year, and Richard was there again. He remembered me, which was a nice ego boost for a graduate student. We had another pleasant chat. I told him I was going to be researching the Protevangelium of James for my dissertation, and he was excited to share a litany of questions that he had about the text. Later that day, I and my colleagues from Marquette got in the car to head home. One remarked to me: “I saw you were talking to Richard Pervo.” “Yes,” I responded. “What a nice guy!” My friend smiled and said: “He was a professor of mine at the University of Minnesota. Do you know anything about him?” I paused, not really understanding the question. Uh, he just published a Hermeneia commentary? Is that what my friend meant? He continued: “I’m not asking if you know what he researches. I’m asking if you know anything about him.” I confessed that I did not. My friend encouraged me to look him up when I got home. So I did.
A few minutes on Google and I discovered what many of you already know, that in February of 2001, while Pervo was teaching at the University of Minnesota, investigators seized his computer and confirmed that he had used it to receive and distribute thousands of sexually-explicit images of children. He pled guilty and was sentenced to one year in a state workhouse and then eight years of probation. His Hermeneia commentary on Acts was published while he was still on probation. He was still on probation when he and I chatted at the regional SBL. I was nauseous.
I went to my advisor who, as it turns out, had known Pervo for quite some time. He commented on how horrible his crimes were, and without any qualification. But there was also a sense that he had done his time, so to speak. Pervo had confessed to his crimes and accepted his punishment. For my advisor, Pervo’s scholarship remained usable for the simple reason that our work as scholars is separate from who we are as people. At least that’s how I read his position at the time. I now consider this logic to be a steaming pile of unadulterated bullshit, and although I have not asked him directly about this issue, I actually suspect my advisor may feel similarly. But I also will not pretend to speak for him on that point.
The question of what to do with Pervo’s scholarship has been smoldering for years, flaring up when he would publish a book review, when he was spotted at a conference, or when after his death in 2017 the SBL published a glowing obituary (penned by Claire Rothschild) that was sent via e-mail to all of its members. Fast forward to 2020 and this fire again ignited, when Jan Joosten, then professor of theology at Oxford, was convicted of possession of child pornography — somewhere in the neighborhood of 28,000 images — and was sentenced to a year in prison. Social media surged. Some supported a damnatio memoriae, arguing that Joosten’s work should not be engaged with going forward. Some argued that however repulsive his personal life may be, his work as a scholar remains part of our larger, communal attempt to understand this sliver of the ancient world. History, it would seem, does in fact repeat itself.
I ended up citing Pervo exactly one time in my dissertation. The citation doesn’t contribute much to the broader argument that I was making, and if I could do it all over again I would simply have left it out. I published my dissertation as a monograph a couple years later, and at the time I was not convinced that this citation was problematic. Pervo’s crimes were still, to my mind, separate from anything that he had to say about Acts. And so, the citation carried over. Maybe I’ll have the chance to edit and update this book at some point in the future. Or maybe not.
At the moment, this citation exists as a painful reminder to me that my attitude regarding the ethics of citation has not always been one that I would now approve of. But, this citation also exists as a helpful reminder that our attitudes toward such things can and do shift. Our various positionalities often limit what we are capable of seeing. But, we also have the capacity to change, to come to clearer understandings of what’s at stake in the decisions that we make as scholars.
A panel like this one is evidence that conversations about citation practices as a guild have also been shifting. The questions and issues that we are discussing today have existed for years, and we have been talking about them for years. But the questions that are now being asked explicitly and publicly would have been precarious to pose even in private settings ten years ago, or at least that is the case in some circles. We still have a long way to go, but these conversations are good things, positive and proactive steps in the right direction.
Now, let’s muddy the waters a bit. What do we do with scholarship that is produced by terrible people? Or, if you prefer, by people who have done and continue to do terrible things? Can we cite it? Should we cite it? Do we have to cite it?
Let’s also keep in mind that when we ask these questions, we are dealing with different categories of people, at least in terms of what we are permitted to say publicly about them. You may have noticed that I have been speaking quite openly about the crimes of Richard Pervo and Jan Joosten. I am able to do so because they confessed to them AND were found guilty of them in courts of law. To discuss their violations is to discuss confirmed facts that are both visible and indisputable. But there are others who occupy a terrain that is far, far messier.
Consider Helmut Koester, for example, whom Elaine Pagels accused of sexual harassment and assault in her incredible memoir, Why Religion? Less than thirty pages in, Pagels claims that Koester assaulted her when she was a young graduate student at Harvard, and that he continued to be predatory toward her during the remainder of her time there. Pagels claims that her experiences with him were also not an anomaly, and that she has spoken with other female colleagues who experienced similar behavior. In fact, she reports that he was such a regular topic of conversation at Harvard Health Services that the therapists gave him the nickname “Koester the Molester” (26).
I want to state without any ambiguity that I have no reason or motivation to deny the veracity of Pagels’s account. My policy is to always believe those who claim to have been victimized unless there is pretty clear evidence that the claims are false. Anecdotally, I will add that in my experience, such claims generally are not false. I believe victims, and I encourage others to do the same.
Why, then, do I put Koester in a slightly different category from, say, Pervo and Joosten? Why have I opted for the more careful language of “Pagels has claimed that X is the case” rather “Koester is guilty of X”? Well because frankly, being sued for slander and/or libel is not high on my list of professional goals. Pagels is now “on record” with her story, and I have trouble conceptualizing the bravery that it took for her to put this story in print. I’m glad that she did, and I hope that it will encourage us to create spaces where others can feel safe and supported enough to share similar stories that may exist. In the meantime, because I believe Pagels, I have opted to not mention Koester’s name or scholarship in any of my own work since reading this memoir. It is an intentional choice, and I can’t imagine that it will change any time soon.
Let’s go a bit further into the weeds and address the individuals who are perhaps the most complicated, at least when it comes to a conversation about the ethics of citation. Let’s talk for a second about “whisper networks,” and the predatory figures who are spoken of in them. Whisper networks are private and exclusive spaces, and there are good reasons for this; the stories that are shared in these media are personal, private, and painful. Whisper networks vary in terms of their size and form, whether that be a group text, a secret Facebook group, a Google doc, an e-mail exchange, or a conversation at SBL. These are spaces that we use to warn each other about people in our midst who are potentially or actually dangerous, and perhaps in ways that are not always self-evident or obvious.
Many of the individuals who are spoken of in these networks are recognizable, and pretty broadly so. “Big names,” if you will. Some of the names that I’ve seen talked about in these settings have surprised me, not because I do not believe that people are capable of doing horrible things, but because I’m an insufferable optimist who wants desperately to believe that we are better than this. Alas.
So what are we to do when it comes to citation? Should we be citing the work of people like the ones I have been discussing here? I warned you at the start that I have no tidy solutions, but here are some thoughts.
When I think about citation, I like to start with the sage words of the ever-brilliant Sara Ahmed. In her Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed writes that “citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow” (15–16). Scholarship is about exploration and discovery, and making arguments, but it is also about conversation. When we write, we discuss what we have found in the course of our research, and we put our own voices and thoughts in dialogue with those who have helped us think.
But framing scholarship as a conversation does not mean that we should cite everyone or everything. Receptions at SBL are fun, but they frequently become too crowded and noisy for individual voices to be heard and engaged with in any meaningful sense. The same is true for our footnotes.
Continuing to think with Ahmed on this, in her Living a Feminist Life she notes that she was quite intentional when it came to selecting her own conversation partners. In fact, she chose to exclude an entire demographic from her bibliography. “In this book,” Ahmed writes, “I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men” (15).
Ahmed’s words may bristle some, but I think it is important to be clear on this point: no one has a right to be cited. No one has a right to appear in your prose or footnotes any more than they have a right to be published in this or that journal or by this or that university press. That is not how it works. Of course there are some who believe that such things are in fact owed to them. And I will go out on what I imagine is a fairly stable limb and suggest that toxic entitlement of this variety is precisely what fuels the types of behaviors and attitudes that make panels like this necessary. Let the reader understand.
Chanelling Ahmed, what would it look like to begin an article with a short footnote along the lines of: “In this article I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite the scholarship of known sexual predators.” On the one hand, a solution like this is remarkably clean. And if you are working in the field of, say, ancient fiction, such a statement will undoubtedly be understood as “I will not be engaging the work of Richard Pervo,” but it could also apply to others who are spoken of on the whisper networks.
But a statement like this could also be problematic and harmful. Let’s say that the author of this footnote doesn’t cite a piece of scholarship for the simple reason that it was unavailable or unknown to them. And of course this happens, because keeping up with everything published in our field is a Sisyphean task. But in a case like this, couldn’t a non-citation be interpreted as a signal to readers that the uncited scholar was rumored to be a sexual predator? A hermeneutic of suspicion, but not a helpful one.
Another solution could be to simply refrain from citing certain authors, and to do so without commentary. If scholarship is to be a meaningful conversation, then it is imperative that we be intentional in choosing our conversation partners. It is certainly the case that some genres in our field — like dissertations — demand bibliographies that are exhaustive, or at least close to it. It is also the case that the absence of a citation may be understood by an editor or peer reviewer as evidence that an author needs to do more research before their work is ready for publication. And so while this solution can and does work in many settings, it can only bring us so far.
At the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, our policy occupies a bit of a middle ground. I quote it here in full:
“The Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies is dedicated to publishing scholarship oriented toward issues of social justice. Sexual violence of any kind is a scourge, and when it is allowed a place at any table, it works against the seeking of justice. Papers and submissions that insist on uncritically citing the publications of known sexual predators will not be considered for publication in JIBS. This includes but is not limited to the work of Jan Joosten, Richard Pervo and CTR Hayward.”
I have not mentioned Hayward yet. He was a professor of Hebrew Bible at Durham University and was convicted of possession of child pornography in 2016.
The key word in our policy is “uncritically.” We allow for the work of Pervo, Joosten, and Hayward to be cited if necessary, but we require that it be accompanied by some type of statement indicating that citation of them is in no way an approval of their crimes. Or something like that. I like this policy, and not just because I am one of the people who wrote it. I like it because it is bold and clear. It’s also not perfect, and for a couple of reasons. Right now I am speaking here as one of the editors of this journal, and while my views may align with those of the other editors, it should not be assumed that this is necessarily the case.
The first imperfect thing about this policy is that it continues to allow for the work of bad people to be placed in the spotlight. Those who are on Twitter (assuming it still exists at the moment) might be familiar with the disclaimer that is present in so many profiles, many times at the request of one’s employer: “Retweets do not equal endorsement.” Well, if it is true that there is no such thing as bad press, then it is also the case that retweets are actually always endorsements. Amplification is amplification, even when it is done with the intention of drawing attention to something unsavory. Could we not say the same thing about the citation of a problematic scholar that is accompanied by a disclaimer?
This policy also doesn’t account for predators who are known but who have not been accused publicly or found guilty of what they’re accused of. We have our own whisper network at JIBS, an informal cloud of names and stories from conversations that we have had and, in some cases, stories from our own experiences. When we are working with authors, it has occasionally been our editorial practice to recommend that a citation be removed or swapped out with something else. Most of the time, such requests are approved without difficulty, and without question. In the event that an author indicates they would rather leave the citation in, however, we are in a tricky spot in terms of what we can and cannot require. I will say anecdotally that conversations along these lines have also been happening less and less, which could mean that the names on our “list” are actually on quite a few lists, and that word is spreading.
And I suppose this is my hope, here at the end of my time. I hope that word is spreading. I hope that these conversations continue and increase, and that they push us to be more intentional in terms of which voices we are bringing into our scholarship and which ones we are now no longer going to amplify. I hope that editors and dissertation committees will work intentionally toward creating spaces where these hard exchanges can take place. I hope that publishers will look at their catalogs and make some decisions about which books need to be replaced. You’ll recall that I mentioned a certain Hermeneia commentary. Most importantly, I hope that all of us can continue to support each other as we navigate all of the complexities that are involved in reimagining what our field could be.
Update with further readings, added December 1, 2022, 6:00 PM Eastern
“Making a Monster” by Sarah Scullin, which discusses the work of classicist Holt Parker, who like Richard Pervo and Jan Joosten, was convicted of possession of child sex abuse images. I was not aware of this piece until after I had written and posted this paper. I consider its absence from my research to be an utter failure on my part, and one that I will not attempt to make excuses for. I look forward to interacting with Scullin’s excellent handling of these issues in future work on the topic.
“An Ethics of Citation” by Rebecca Futo Kennedy, which discusses some of the issues in this post and offers some helpful guidelines on “acknowledging obligations” to people who have helped us think.
“Good Words from bad People” by Joel Christensen, which poses some challenging thoughts about the separation of ideas from the people who have those ideas. I should note that while I do not agree with certain of Christensen’s conclusions, I think they need to be part of the conversation.