The end of the affair?

October 11, 2012

You may have heard about the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment which made waves in the news a few weeks ago. Briefly: Karen King, of Harvard Divinity School, submitted an article to the Harvard Theological Review claiming probable authenticity for a newly revealed (and privately owned) papyrus fragment which includes a phrase in which Jesus uses the phrase “my wife”. The papyrus is claimed to be of fourth-century origin, and the text is claimed to be of second-century origin. Harvard Theological Review‘s agreement to publish the findings was contingent on independent confirmation of the authenticity of the fragment.

I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the story at the time. No-one, not even Dr. King, who believes the fragment is likely authentic, claims that the fragment is evidence that Jesus actually had a wife, but only that at least one second-century author may have believed this. (As has been pointed out, the fragmentary nature of the text makes it difficult to rule out the possibility, for instance, that this literary Jesus was not using “wife” in a sense similar to that in which the New Testament Jesus speaks of himself as “bridegroom”.) It seemed a matter for specialists to sort out, without any apparent bearing on our understanding of the historical Jesus or the authenticity of the Gospels.

But the attention the fragment received in the media suggested that not everyone understood that. It is interesting, therefore, to revisit the question of the fragment’s authenticity, to see how things are shaping up.

Interestingly, the evidence is mounting that the fragment is a modern forgery. First, apparently the great majority of the phrases on the fragment occur in a known Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, a version from Nag Hammadi known as Codex II. The phrases have been pieced together, as a kind of pastiche, and in a manner which apparently introduced grammatical errors that are evident to an expert in Coptic. This strongly suggests that we are not dealing with an independent composition, and casts doubt on its claimed historical provenance. As Marc Goodacre, an expert on the Gospel of Thomas, puts it:

As I see it, there are two options here. Either the author of the Jesus fragment got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar in Nag Hammadi in the late fourth century to be buried for 1500 years, or s/he got hold of it after it came out of the jar in 1945. While we cannot rule out the possibility that s/he got hold of Codex II before it went into the jar, it is much more likely that the author got hold of it in the modern period with its multiple reproductions, in print and internet, of that one witness.

(In fairness, there is a third possibility: perhaps the author of the fragment worked from another copy of the Codex II version of the Gospel of Thomas, now lost. This could have occurred after the Nag Hammadi scrolls were buried.)

Second, just today it was revealed that the fragment reproduces a typographical error found in an online version of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. A single character is missing in both documents. Now, it is not totally beyond possibility that an ancient scribe might have omitted a character that a modern scholar, working independently, also omitted, but it is unlikely. To my mind this is fairly convincing evidence that the fragment has been forged at a date sometime in the past 15 years. (The online version went live in 1997.)

Experts are still awaiting the results of spectroscopic studies of the ink on the fragment. If the ink contains synthetic chemicals, it will show decisively that the text is modern; if not, the test is indecisive as to date.

In the meantime, this story showcases some fascinating literary detective work.

2 Responses to “The end of the affair?”

  1. Interesting and not surprising. But there is probably an appreciable number of people who now believe that scholars have proven that Jesus was married. I know a guy who’s quite smart, but not nearly as knowledgeable as he thinks he is, who asserted confidently the other day that scholars have established that the Gospels were written three or four hundred years after Jesus.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Oh, probably, and this could serve as a fairly serious indictment of the media culture we’re in. In the meantime, you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: