By Bob Smietana
New evidence from scholars has raised more doubts about the papyrus fragment known as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” It’s probably fake, they say.
The inch-and-half wide piece of papyrus made national headlines after it was unveiled in 2012 by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King. Written in Coptic, it quotes Jesus as referring to “my wife.” That led to speculation by some that Jesus was married.
The fragment made its television debut this week in a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel.
But Duke University New Testament professor Mark Goodacre says new evidence shows the Jesus’ Wife fragment is likely a forgery, created as part of an elaborate hoax.
From the beginning there have been skeptics about the authenticity of the fragment. That’s in large part, says Goodacre, because no one aside from King knows where the Jesus’ Wife fragment came from
Most of the other non-canonical Christian texts have been found in well-known archeological sites, like the Nag Hammadi Library, which was discovered in 1945.
In contrast, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was part of a group of six papyrus fragments, which also included a piece of the Gospel of John in Coptic, given to King by an anonymous donor.
“This stuff just appeared out of the blue,” says Goodacre.
In the latest edition of the Harvard Theological Review, King says the anonymous donor bought the fragments in 1999 from a Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who in turn claimed to have bought it in 1963, according to photocopies of paperwork obtained by King. She has declined to reveal the name of the donor.
From the beginning, some scholars have said there’s something fishy about the fragment.
Leo Depuyt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University in Rhode Island, said the text on the Jesus’ Wife fragment – referred by scholars as “GJW” – is filled with grammatical errors. He says it appears to have been cobbled together using text from the Gospel of Thomas.
“The following analysis submits that it is out of the question that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source,” he writes in the Harvard Theological Review. “The author of this analysis has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”
She says scholars have found similar grammatical errors in other ancient Coptic manuscripts, and that doesn’t mean they are fakes. In some cases, she says, Depuydt and other critics got the grammar wrong.
“In short, what Depuydt regards as ‘grammatical blunders’ that prove the GJW fragment is a forgery are either attested in ancient Coptic literature whose ‘authenticity’ is unquestioned or are the products of incorrect analysis,” she wrote in the Harvard Theological Review.
King says the fragment doesn’t address whether Jesus was actually married. Instead, she argues, it refers to a debate over the role of women in the early church.
“The fragment does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, but concerns an early Christian debate over whether women who are wives and mothers, can be disciples of Jesus,” she wrote in the Harvard Theological Review.
When the Jesus’ Wife fragment was first reported, King said she thought it was from the 4th Century. But tests on the fragment by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) show the papyrus is from the 7th Century.
The MIT tests, which were published along with King’s article, sparked a new round of criticism of the Jesus’ Wife fragment.
Scientific Tests Raise Questions
This time, the problem is with a fragment that critics call Jesus’ “ugly sister in law.”
This second fragment is from a Coptic version of the Gospel of John. It appears to have been written in the handwriting as the Jesus’ Wife” fragment, says Christian Askeland, a Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University and regional director for the Green Scholars Initiative.
Both fragments were tested by MIT. And that’s where the problems start.
The tests showed the papyrus in both fragments dates back to around the 7th century.
But the writing on the Gospel of John fragment is in a Coptic dialect called Lycopolitan, which died out in the 5th century. That’s long before the actual papyrus from the Gospel of John fragment was made, said Askeland.
The text in the second fragment also is remarkably similar to a 1924 edition of a Coptic Gospel of John. Askeland compared the two documents, and found 17 instances where the small fragment uses the same line breaks as that 1924 version.
The writer of the Gospel of John fragment appears to have copied every other line of the 1924 edition.
“It seems to be an exact copy of the printed edition,” said Askeland.
The 1924 version of John is based on what’s known as the Cambridge Qau Codex, an ancient document that was buried in the 4th century A.D.
So it’s highly unlikely that the writer of the John papyrus would have been able to find that original document in the 7th century, said Goodacre.
“Given the massive similarities, it does suggest that we are dealing with a forgery,” he said.
The line breaks are especially damning, according to critics. Unlike modern books, which are typeset and then printed in standardized formats, ancient manuscripts varied widely in size and layout. Each scribe had different handwriting and used different sized paper.
Finding a fragment that matches an edition printed in 1924 is beyond belief, said Goodacre.
“You just don’t find ancient manuscripts that match like that,” he said.
Goodacre said there are other inconsistencies with the Gospel of John fragment. The fragment has holes in it – and at some points, it looks like the person copying the text tried to write around the holes. In other parts, the text continues and some letters are missing.
The whole thing strikes him as faked, said Goodacre, especially given the mystery of where the fragments came from.
And if the Gospel of John fragment is fake, he said, that casts suspicion on the Jesus’ Wife fragment as well.
“You have to say – it’s unlikely that one is a forgery and one isn’t,” he said.
Askeland agrees. He said that both fragments seem to be written in the same handwriting, using the same brush.
“Because we can label the Gospel of John fragment as a forgery, that drags both of them down,” he said.
Writing for CNN.com, scholars Joel S. Baden, an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, and Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame, put it this way: “If one is a forgery, they’re both forgeries.”
Jonathan Beasley, a spokesman for Harvard Divinity School, said that King and another scholar who has examined the fragments – Roger Bagnall, a professor ancient history at New York University – were aware of the concerns about the Gospel of John fragment.
“Professors Karen King and Roger Bagnall consider the new observation by Askeland of the very close similarity in the content and line breaks of the Gospel of John fragment to the Qau codex to be important,” he said in an email on Friday.
“Its implications for the dating of the fragment is not, however, immediately apparent, but will need to be taken into account as further study of a wide range of issues goes forward.”
This past weekend, King told the New York Times that it’s possible the fragment was faked.
“This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery,” Karen L. King, told the Times. “This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.”
Lee Strobel, apologist and author of The Case for Christ, said on the weekly webcast The Exchange that Christians who are encountering questions about the papyrus can use it as a conversation starter to talk about the authenticity of the Bible.
Christians don’t have to have all the answers, he said, but be willing to walk with people through the discovery process of what is truth.
By Bob Smietana