Not convinced this scrap is a forgery, and let’s give Morton Smith some credit

Backlash against news of the Coptic papyrus fragment now known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife did not take long. There is the ethical question: does publishing (on) a text that appears to have been removed from Egypt illegally and separated from its archaeological context, including the rest of the manuscript, due to ignorance and/or greed, not promote more of the same? I think this is the truly compelling question, and it is one that I have to ask myself.

Realistically though, the question that will be discussed is the one of forgery. Here’s why I’m not convinced, at least not yet, that the text on the fragment was forged.

One. Yes, there are parallels with the Gospel of Thomas. Determining direct literary dependence has not been as straight forward as it might seem in the history of scholarship, even in the case of texts that survive in full. Before getting to forgery, it would need to be established that A) there is direct dependence rather than simply common (oral) background. Then it would need to be established that B) the text of the fragment depends on Thomas and not vice versa. Then it would need to be established that C) the text depends on the Coptic version of Thomas rather than the Greek. And finally it would need to be established that D) the text not only depends on the Coptic version of Thomas but the self-same manuscript in Nag Hammadi codex II. The coincidence of the line break is the strongest piece of evidence, but stranger things have happened. It’s no smoking gun. On the whole, I could easily imagine a scenario in which the ancient author knew Thomas and worked it into the text. Even assuming A-C does not prove forgery. Any one of the texts of the New Testament depends on another from the Septuagint.

Two. Yes, there is a parallel with the Coptic version of Matthew. But it is not at all clear that this parallel has an intersection. I would bet that countless such parallels two-and-a-half-words in length could be found between ancient texts in the same language that are known to be unrelated. Again, even if it is assumed that the text depends on the Coptic version of Matthew, and I am not inclined to make that assumption, this does not prove forgery.

Three. Is the Coptic sub-par? Well the same thing and worse has been said about the Coptic translation of Plato’s Republic 588a-598b in Nag Hammadi codex VI, which some experts says is so bad that the ancient translator might not have really known Coptic.

Four. Is it difficult to figure out how to restore what is missing from the text? There are such loose fragments in the facsimile edition of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Tchacos codex.

Five. The handwriting is not easy to date. Ok …

Six. The handwriting doesn’t look like other hands that come to mind. This is fascinating and when/if the text is published, it would be nice to see some Coptic and/or Greek comparanda in support of antiquity. If none are found, that could suggest forgery. Greek hands would have to be included in the search for comparanda, and I think it would take a seasoned papyrologist rather well read in both languages to be able to state matter of factly that the handwriting on the text is not literary, semi-literary, or documentary.

Bottom line. At this point, it’s not necessarily a forgery, and the plausibility of it being ancient is still very much real.

Should it prove to be forged, however, these few incomplete lines would be nothing next to the letter of Clement to Theodore. That forgery, accepting it was one, took rather extensive skill in Greek composition and handwriting. And if Morton Smith did forge the letter with its quotation from a Secret Gospel of Mark, he would not have been motivated by something so petty as cash from the sale of the manuscript. His motives would have been far more complex, honorable, and disturbing.

Update, since I guess some links are in order: backlash, e.g. here and here; also at Patheos and saying some of what I say but days before me is this; Secret Mark wiki.

  • http://www.believeallthings.com Believe All Things

    Interesting that Elaine Pagels of Princeton commented on CNN that she feels the document isn’t a fake because it is such a small find. Apparently, a larger, more extensive document would bring a higher value.

  • g.wesley

    Thanks, Believe. Had not seen that one.

    In isolation that argument is not the greatest, I’d say. On the one hand a longer text could fetch more money but it would be harder to fake and, odds are, easier to detect as a forgery.

    I would speculate that dealers often don’t know what they have in terms of content of a text, relying on specialists and/or playing specialists off of one another in order to determine/drive up value of a piece. So while size/extent/completeness is not irrelevant, value probably has more to do with market trends and marketability to the general public, sadly.

    I should probably clarify that I’m speculating about dealers generally, not the owner of this fragment in particular necessarily, who seems to be collector not a dealer, though the line gets blurry at some point.

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