Yesterday msnbc.com yesterday carried an article by Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News about new research on the medieval legend of St Ismeria. The article referenced a paper by Dr Catherine Lawless from the University of Limerick that examines the story of Ismeria contained in 14th and 15th century manuscripts from Florence, Italy.
The article was published by msnbc.com under the headline “Medieval work reveals Jesus’ great grandmother” and by Discovery News under the headline “Jesus’ great grandmother identified”. In it, Viegas states that “The legend of St. Ismeria, presented in the current Journal of Medieval History, sheds light on both the Biblical Virgin Mary’s family and also on religious and cultural values of 14th-century Florence.”
The plain implication of the article is that Dr Lawless’ work tells us something meaningful about real people and events in first century Palestine. The idea that those kinds of conclusions can be derived from a legend written (I believe) some 1400 miles away and 1300 years later, apparently absent any corpus of corroborating evidence, struck me as a little hard to swallow.
So I did what Jennifer Viegas apparently didn’t: I emailed Catherine Lawless and asked her directly if the way Viegas has characterized her paper actually represents her real views about the significance of the manuscripts she studied.
Her response: it doesn’t. Specifically, the manuscripts “tell us nothing at all about 1st century Palestine, but quite a lot about what Florentine beliefs and religious practices in the fourteenth century.”
Which is what I suspected. The conclusion? Accuracy in reporting appears to be less important to Discovery News than headlines that satisfy their need to provide exposure for their advertisers, including Craftsman, Lincoln, Chevrolet, Shell, GE & Nissan.