Privilege Beyond Bounds: A Response to the Conviction of Jan Joosten

On Monday 22 June 2020 the news broke of the conviction of Jan Joosten for downloading thousands upon thousands of images and videos of child abuse and pornography. I first read about it in an article in The Guardian. There are numerous other reports in other papers, too: the Daily Mail , The Times of Israel, and Euro Weekly. The images that accompany these articles show the protzy façade of Christ Church, Joosten smiling, Joosten mid-lecture. An older, white male scholar who has blended right into the various biblical studies conferences he’s attended over many years – Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Society for Old Testament Study (SOTS), International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT)… I’ve seen him there, talked to him, received his recommendation for a publication of his to read and for references to chase up.

As the newspaper articles report, Joosten is a former pastor, who taught for 20 years at the University of Strasbourg before, in 2014, taking up “the prestigious regius professorship of Hebrew at Oxford.” Until his suspension, Joosten was based at Christ Church, renowned for its academic excellence, Old Master paintings, and for being home to Oxford’s cathedral. Until recently, Joosten was editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum, according to its site, “a leading journal … generally recognized to be indispensable for scholarly work on the Old Testament,” publishing articles in English, French and German, all languages in which Joosten is fluent. 

The lashings of respectability, status and privilege that have until recently enveloped Joosten – “pastor”, “Regius Professor of Hebrew” (founded in 1546 by Henry VIII), “Christ Church”, “University of Oxford”, “Princeton Theological Seminary”, “Hebrew University, Jerusalem”, “father of four”, “married”, “one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation” – add force to the shock and outrage that have met the revelations of Joosten’s conviction. Shocking, too, is the sheer volume of images (27,000) and videos (1000) depicting abuse, including rape of children, which Joosten downloaded. The brilliant man falling from his high pedestal: as a German, I think right away of the legend of Faust. Such hubris and such hypocrisy. Did Joosten think a different law applied to him? Did he believe he was too clever ever to get caught? 

Joosten did get caught and his reputation is shot. His sentence, however, is paltry: one year in prison, placement on the sex offender register in France, a three-year programme of treatment, and a ban on any activity bringing him into contact with minors. Furthermore, Joosten has not gone to prison (yet?): his sentence will be “supervised” and “may be amended.” The Guardian reports that “Joosten was yet to decide whether to appeal on Friday” (he gets to decide that?!). His family “were aware of his offences” and argued Joosten should not be imprisoned, “because he was a first time offender” (hardly: he was caught for the first time – he is now known to have been offending thousands of times for six years), “presented little risk of reoffending” (how so?), and “had sought psychiatric help voluntarily” (albeit only following arrest). In court, so it is reported, Joosten declared that he was relieved to be arrested. He described his addiction as “a secret garden, in contradiction with myself.” To many ears, including those of biblical scholars, this expression is particularly jarring and repugnant. It conjures up imagery from Song of Songs, of eroticism and lovemaking (e.g. “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride…” Song of Songs 4:12). But this is brutal child pornography that is at issue! And watching such is not a victimless crime. Child pornography is no “virtual reality”; it depicts suffering, severe and profound damage; the demand for it proliferates this; in some cases consumption of violent pornography leads on to committing sexual abuse.

As would be expected, the general public and the scholarly community to which Joosten belonged have been vocal in their outrage and repulsion. Twitter is abuzz. People are “reeling”, “shocked and horrified”. A terse comment on the SBL website, stating that the Society had requested Joosten’s resignation, evoked protest on account of being woefully inadequate – rather like the Christ Church statement that “Our thoughts are with anyone affected by this news” (reminiscent of the “thoughts and prayers” routinely following school shootings in the US – in lieu of doing anything). A petition led promptly to a fuller statement sent to all present and past members of SBL. SOTS followed with their statement soon after, resolving to build “a more inclusive and ethical Society” and expressing concern “for the unknown children who are the ultimate victims of such crimes” as well as for Joosten’s family, colleagues and supervisees. One of Joosten’s co-authors has expressed feeling “shocked, shattered and disgusted” – he is donating all royalties of the book, past and future, to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Another scholar has set up a GoFundMe page “Biblical Scholars Against Child Abuse”. There is a powerful piece out deploring “himpathy” for Joosten (that is, excessive sympathy that is directed at perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse) and there are many expressions of contempt for a situation where “*reputations* of men are more important to keep safe than the *bodies* of women, children.”

When I read of Joosten’s conviction I, too, was reeling, shocked and horrified. I probably shouldn’t have been. Sadly, I know many people who are survivors of child abuse and of rape. The statistics of The Office for National Statistics do not strike me as exaggerated. And when you know there are so many survivors, you know there are very, very many perpetrators, too – the numbers have to add up. Even taking into account that perpetrators tend to abuse multiple victims, the numbers of perpetrators must still be very high. The same goes for the abuse that is consumption of child pornography. The amount of child abuse material is staggering – so, really it isn’t surprising that I know people who are revealed to be abusers. I also know that – for all the stereotypes and rape myths about rapists and pornography users (“creepy men in raincoats” we used to jest) – there is no “type” – so a depraved person can be an Oxford don (clearly). Having worked in universities for over 20 years, I’ve twice known of cases where a member of the university community was charged with child pornography. Two people I have encountered in my community have been charged with possession of child pornography (one committed suicide). I had already reeled a few years back at the conviction of Holt Parker, who received a four-year prison sentence for offences not dissimilar to Joosten’s. I had admired Holt’s work and wrestled then with the question of “do you cite scholars who have done appalling things?” (I still wrestle with that question – as compelling as I find Stephen Young’s article, I also see some of the complexity so well articulated by Sarah Scullin. Do I read a biography of every author before I cite their work?) 

Fact is, in my earlier work I have cited Joosten. I met Joosten in 2011 in South Africa. We were both attending a meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (my first far-flung work trip since my younger child was born). I had not met Joosten before and I was mostly preoccupied with dear friends from my years in southern Africa. But on some bus trip or other we sat together and had one of “those conversations” about research that you have at these kinds of conferences. He was friendly but quite intimidating. One of those scholars who can quote in multiple languages and recall titles and years of publication of articles on any topic that arises in conversation. I was working on my book on fathers and daughters in the Hebrew Bible at the time and told Joosten so when he asked me. He told me he had published an article on the missing daughter in the laws of Leviticus 18 – but it was in French: did I read French? I admitted that my French is pretty lousy. Not much more was said, as I recall it.

Shortly after I returned home, there was an email from Joosten. (I have been re-reading the short exchanges he and I had in 2011 and 2013 and they make me uncomfortable now.) It said, “It was nice to meet you at the conference. While browsing through my computer I came across an English translation of my paper on the missing daughter. I attach it herewith.” I was touched. It was a nice thing to do. I thanked him. I read the article and found it helpful for my research. In the book I published I thank Joosten. That’s what you do. 

Two years later I received another email: “While searching for something else on the internet I came across your recent book on Fathers and Daughters. Congratulations! And thank you for the generous reception of my article on Lev 18.” (Two short emails, in each a mention of a computer or the internet. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time – it only reads as sinister in retrospect.) After 2013 I did not communicate with Joosten again. I did cite his work in my next book.

When I read about Joosten in the paper, I felt deeply troubled. I couldn’t shake it. I searched for and found the emails from years before and eventually decided to write to him.

I wrote of the revulsion I felt and of wondering how many hands of “respectable men” I had shaken without fathoming what they were capable of, of being repelled at the “secret garden” obfuscating, even romanticising and eroticising the brutal abuse of frightened and utterly vulnerable and helpless children. I wrote that I cannot comprehend why, if he acknowledged the harm he had done, he would not willingly go to prison, “Why should you not go? What will you do now, I wonder?”

To my astonishment, Joosten wrote back very soon after. He said my words hurt but that he deserved them. That he had always known his “doings” were not victimless, that they were “sordid and destructive”. He wrote that he “came across” the images and videos looking for pornography and that they were “freely available and easily accessible”. He describes how this became an addiction from which he could not break free, that he did not want to make excuses but did want to heal, with the help of a psychiatrist. He spoke of the support of his family who accepted him with his defects, characterizing them as an ugly “stain” on a beautiful painting. Ever the linguist, Joosten explained the expression “jardin secret” as “a mental and emotional space one doesn’t wish to share with anyone” but that he had not intended to evoke anything positive but rather that “the world of those images and videos and the real world” in which he lived his life were “completely separate”. He closed by saying he felt deep regret for what he had done, could not undo it and had to look to the future. The closing words were, “I hope one day you will be able to forgive me.”

The email troubled me. (A part of me was very surprised that Joosten clearly had access to a computer and to his University email address.) The sheer eloquence troubled me – but of course he is eloquent: he is a linguist, scholar and prolific writer. I was troubled that he wrote of “coming across” horrendous child pornography (is it that easy and happenstance?), and of the addiction and harm that he acknowledged as a “stain” and something to “heal” from, as if it were somehow separable from him, a “secret garden” apart from his “real life”. There is nothing “unreal” about the violence depicted in child pornography – enacted on real children whose lives, psyches, futures, potential, are deeply harmed. 

As I read Joosten’s email I found myself recalling a correspondence I had over many years with a prisoner in the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It started when a letter addressed in meticulous handwriting to “The Bible Department” landed in my office at the University of Tennessee. The writer, “E.”, had found Jesus in prison, where he was incarcerated for life. He had also taught himself Hebrew. He had questions about grammar and points of translation. It was enjoyable finding ways to explain features of Hebrew and reasons for translations that might not match the Hebrew text. E. was always eager to learn. Years passed. I moved to England. In time, we came to write about more than the language riddles that had brought us together. E. spent hours in the prison workshop and made my daughter a wooden box and some metal earrings with her (Hebrew). name engraved on them. I wrote about my children growing up, juggling work and family life, travelling; he wrote about his past, including (eventually) the crimes that transpired in his incarceration. What began to unfold was an early life of chaos, deprivation, struggle and petty crime. Next came an act of violence done to him by a sheriff, when he was put in a cell overnight for marijuana possession. E. was cagey about what took place but I was able to find newspaper articles, which reported that the sheriff was found guilty of sexually abusing young men in his custody. If that is what happened to E., he could never bring himself to say so, stressing instead how many girlfriends he’d had in his youth. He never used this as an excuse for the violent crimes he went on to commit. What struck me was how hard he tried to do something good – even from within prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement or labouring, with only one library book to read each week. He had written to all his victims; he was always worried about his mother and the pain he had caused her; he wrote to his son, who seldom replied; he worked hard at learning Hebrew; he tried hard to convert me to Christianity, earnestly believing that if he didn’t, I would not be saved. 

Unlike E., Joosten has enjoyed enormous privileges. He still does. Life must feel frightening for him and his prestige and reputation will never recover. But he has his freedom, the support of his family, access to a psychiatrist, even access to a computer and his email account. He also has a first-class education and tremendous talent. 

I feel the same anger as many of my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. Condemnation is right; outrage at the light sentence is right; donating to organisations that support vulnerable children is right. But what more? The SOTS statement goes some way towards pointing out that more must be done within our discipline, too. A legitimizing patina of respectability has for too long shrouded a great deal of ignominy. What Scullin says of the discipline of Classics is true also of biblical studies: both have “a troubled history (that, unfortunately, continues to the present) of participation in various oppressions.” Just as the BLM protests have led to a flurry of statements and self-searching, that momentum must be harnessed and taken much further. The cracks in the patina have become very visible in recent days and weeks. It is no surprise at all actually that Joosten was able to persist in his “doings”. In large part, his respectability and his privilege have enabled it. They have also, I have no doubt, cushioned him from a harsher sentence. E. would have stood no such chance in the same court room. 

It is one thing – in the case of Joosten – not to read or cite his scholarship, to evict him permanently from all societies he has belonged to, and to support his students. But what more? Even if Joosten receives a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of his offence, is that then adequate? Eventually, he would leave prison. It is not possible “to lock up all paedophiles and throw away the key.” 

What I see in E. and find myself missing with Joosten is any attempt at restitution. I do hope that as Joosten looks to the future he will apply all his abilities – his mastery of languages, his research and writing skills, his experience and insight gained from therapy –  for helping other addicts and for helping victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. If I can help with that, I will. 

The forgiveness he says he hopes for from me is not mine to give. Vladimir Jankelevitch writes, “forgiveness is not for swine” and the first step towards forgiveness is full admission of wrong. Today Joosten may appeal. I hope he takes full responsibility and does not.