“Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Redux

(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)
(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)

The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is in the news again. Here is a summary of the most recent developments; it seems that, despite recent news claims, the fragment is indeed a forgery.

The manuscript fragment labeled (by modern scholars) as the “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” first made news in September, 2012. Dr. Karen King, professor at Harvard, first published and commented on the previously unknown item. Then, as now, its origins and owner were unknown, making it difficult to place the fragment into a context. In the original publication, King claimed that the fragment, written in Coptic, dated from the fourth century, but was a copy of a text that likely came from the second century. This, she claimed, should lead us to reconsider early Christian view about Jesus, marriage, and sexuality.

The original publication received immediate criticism from a wide range of scholars. Several items were pointed out as problematic: The Coptic itself was not grammatically correct; the copyist was not skilled and used inferior writing instruments; the fragment has a large concentration of significant words, which is unusual for a fragment of this size; the shape of the fragment appears not to be the result of typical aging. After a few weeks, a most damaging claim was made by Dr. Francis Watson: that the fragment was a copy of random phrases drawn from a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas that was published online in 2002. Several scholars pointed this out individually. The grammatical problems are the result, they claim, of someone copying snippets of text from this already published fragment without understanding the grammar. In other words, by most appearances the fragment seemed to be inauthentic, a forgery.

In the midst of the uproar over this fragment, a few items are worth pointing out. First, the fragment is not a “gospel” in the sense that it is a narrative text about Jesus (as is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Rather, it is a small piece with a few lines of text that mention “Jesus”; to apply the word “Gospel” to this piece is not an accurate label, even though the news media (and Dr. King) continue to use this label. Second, the text says only “my wife,” a phrase which cannot be set into context (because there is no context due to the small size). Even if the fragment were authentic, alternative understandings are possible, such as that the phrase “my wife” might be metaphorical, referring to the church as the bride of Christ, rather than to a literal wife of Jesus. Third, no claims were ever made by King that this fragment contains any information about Jesus that can be traced to the first century, or to historical information about Jesus himself. Rather, at best it would derive from a group of people who may have used the name “Jesus” as a revealer figure  (as did other religious groups in the centuries after Jesus). So, even if the fragment were authentic (that is, not a modern production), this would not tell us anything factual or historical about Jesus. It would only tell us what some people did with the name/person of Jesus centuries after his life.

Since 2012, King has continued her research. Just before Easter she published a revised article along with several pieces of scientific research. Radio carbon dating tests were conducted on the ink of the fragment and on the papyrus material itself. The result were not consistent. One test dated the ink to 405-350 BC (or 307-209 BC); another test dated the ink to  659-969 AD. That is quite a span, and points out the limitations of scientific analysis of this type. Nevertheless, King’s second article claims that the fragment is still ancient, though now dated from the sixth to the ninth centuries AD. She continues to believe that the text of which this fragment is purportedly a copy still may come from the second century. The article and the results of the tests are available on a website hosted by Harvard Divinity School.

Commendably, the site and the issue of the Harvard Theological Review that contains this updated information also included a dissenting essay by Leo Depuydt of Brown University. Depuydt contends that King has not dealt with the grammatical problems pointed out earlier have not been resolved. Furthermore, a paleographical (handwriting) analysis published in the same volume by Malcolm Choat of Macquarie University is very tentative. He claims only that his analysis cannot demonstrate that the fragment is a forgery. Neither could he demonstrate, however, that it is not.

In the last several days, more evidence has come to light. The most significant comes from Christian Askeland, a Coptic scholar who questioned the claims made in 2012. He discovered that one of the manuscripts used in the radio carbon dating tests on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment, which was made available recently on the Harvard website, is a known forgery. It is a direct copy of a Coptic copy of the Gospel of John published in 1924–except that the forgery copied every other line from the published edition (see this site for a visual depiction)  The connection of this forgery to the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is important: both come from the same (as yet unidentified) source, both had their ink dated to the same time period, and the ink of both fragments has been shown to be very similar. And, most significantly, the copyist of both fragments is identical. This inextricably links the Coptic John fragment and the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment. Since the one is a forgery, so is the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”

Even though the papyrus material on which the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is copied and the ink both seem to date to the latter part of the first millennium, this could be easily accomplished by a forger. Scraps of papyrus without writing could have been used for the copy. The ink, which is made from soot rather than being iron-based (which is more common in this period), could have been produced from burned ancient plant material, perhaps even other papryus pieces. So, again, the scientific testing cannot prove that the papyrus or the ink is either authentic or a fraud. The other evidence, however, points overwhelmingly in the latter direction.

Caroline T. Schroeder, a scholar who initially considered the authenticity of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” to be an open question, has been convinced by the recent developments. In this online interview she discusses the newest evidence as well as highlights the lessons that have been, or should be, learned from dealing with unknown documents from unknown sources.

A news piece from the Huffington Post also describes some of these recent developments.

While it would be best to have the full evidence made available, including identifying the owner of the manuscript, the source, and the other texts (putatively) discovered with it, the latest discussion confirms the high suspicion that the original publication raised. In spite of the recent efforts and partial revisions by Dr. King, the available evidence continues to point to the conclusion that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment is, indeed, a forgery.

For a video overview and Bible study of issues raised by this fragment and how those who have confidence in the Scriptures should view such discoveries, see the video and Bible study “Lost Books,” produced by Greg Seltz and Lutheran Hour Ministries.





One response to ““Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Redux”

  1. Matt Priem Avatar
    Matt Priem

    Very informative, thanks!

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