Perils of publishing (and my do-it-your-self guide to forgery)

So it looks like the fragment is not going to be published, at least not now and not in Harvard Theological Review. Why not?

If it is because of the ethical question, better late than never I suppose. But hasn’t whatever damage already been done there?

If it is because of the question of forgery, still why not publish? Questions of forgery were hanging and have continued to hang in the air around any number of material objects said to be from antiquity that happened to resurface one way or another in the last one hundred years, such as the Letter of Clement to Theodore with its quotation of a Secret Gospel of Mark or the Gabriel Revelation with its highly unusual medium of ink on stone. They were published. Why not this text?

If it has been forged, wouldn’t publishing it help lead to that determination? The credibility of HTR would not be at stake so long as the text has not been proven to be a forgery, and I don’t see that it has. What I see are some scholars saying it might be a forgery (including those associated with the original announcement of the text but who decided to treat it as most probably ancient), other scholars saying it was probably forged but they’re not sure, and only a few that are certain it’s a forgery, at least sometimes. I also see media outlets and other online venues acting as though the case is closed, and as though HTR’s rumored refusal to publish basically equals proof of forgery. Unless something like an ink test has already been done and the case is indeed now closed (actually, as Mormon history teaches us, it is not impossible to reproduce ink from a given time and place), I don’t know that the rumored refusal to publish means much about the antiquity of the text.

But as forgery is the new sensation, what would the logistics have been, if the text was forged?

Someone/s would have had to secure a genuinely ancient scrap of papyrus with at least one blank side. This would not have been terribly difficult for someone in or watching the antiquities market. (The text on the other side of the fragment is faint and has not been studied at all, as far I can tell. It looks like it might take something like infrared imaging to be able to read it. Its faintness compared to the ink on the side with the text about Jesus’ wife is not necessarily proof that the latter was forged, although it is definitely worth noting.)

Then the forger/s would have had to compose some lines of Coptic using bits and pieces from the published edition of the Gospel of Thomas, bits and pieces that are one, two, three, and at most four words in length (take a look at the side by side comparison here, noting that the Thomas material comes from various passages). This would have been somewhat difficult, requiring what amounts to maybe a semester of introductory Coptic study, perhaps less, depending on the diligence of the forger/s. They would have had to know enough Coptic to be able to rearrange these bits and pieces into new lines of text that are passable though admittedly not textbook grammar and of course incomplete. This would have involved such things as changing pronouns from masculine to feminine in order for the text to refer to Jesus’ wife, and adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form so as to fit the changed bits and pieces from the Gospel of Thomas together. (I want to reiterate what I said before about determining literary dependence and how we get from that to forgery. There’s also this.)

In the composition of the text they also would have had to introduce some spelling variations and grammatical infelicities. It is curious to see how (mostly NT) scholars (and biblical textual critics) are assessing these, especially given the fluid state of spelling and grammar in other such heterodox Christian texts surviving in Coptic translation from Greek. On the one hand, if the forger/s simply employed a method of cut and paste (with some rearrangement) from the Gospel of Thomas, as some scholars seem to be suggesting, why would the forger/s not have spelled things exactly the way they appear in Thomas and without introducing grammatical infelicities? Especially if they knew enough to be changing pronouns from masculine to feminine and to be adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form. Were they so careful that they actually introduced these variations and infelicities for the sake of verisimilitude and to cover up their tracks, not wanting the text to look too much like Thomas? (Spelling and grammar in everyday Roman Egypt, a multilingual environment, hardly matches what is in the standard academic reference books on Attic Greek and Sahidic Coptic that scholars use to learn the languages.)

Once the forger/s had a text composed, then they likely would have had to practice writing it out before committing it to the fragment. In their study of Coptic they may have done some practice handwriting already. On other scraps of papyrus they also likely would have had to experiment with various inks and methods of application, such as a small paint brush (brushes were used anciently, though a ‘pen’ would be expected in Roman Egypt). At any rate, they must not have practiced that much because the handwriting of the text is poor and does not look like other handwriting samples such as from the Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas itself in Nag Hammadi codex II. (In general, poor handwriting is not common in literary or even ‘para-literary’ manuscripts like the Nag Hammadi codices, but in documentary texts, especially personally written ones, the handwriting can be pretty bad; if this para-literary fragment is ancient, it would be unusual as has often been said.)

As far as the question of forgery is concerned, the interesting thing about the handwriting being rather unpracticed is that it is like the introduction of spelling variations and grammatical infelicities: if the forger/s knew enough about Coptic to be changing pronouns from masculine to feminine and to be adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form so as to fit together an assortment of changed bits and pieces from the Gospel of Thomas, why not do a better job imitating the handwriting of that manuscript which is readily available in facsimile edition not to mention online? If it is a forgery, the forger/s must have gotten pretty lazy at the end, after having gone to the trouble of obtaining a genuinely ancient papyrus and learning enough Coptic to compose the text.

But then they may have gotten a second wind, forging a handwritten note (not signed or dated) and a type written letter (signed and dated 1982) in German, ostensibly from scholars who examined this now (in)famous fragment and also another papyrus of the Gospel of John some years ago (read about them here). Or perhaps the type written letter is genuine along with the papyrus of the Gospel of John that it refers to; whereas the handwritten note referring to the fragment was forged in order to tie the fragment into a genuine history and collection (admittedly it is curious that the letter does not mention the fragment and that the note is not dated or signed).

Oh, one other thing that the forger/s would have had to do is distress the fragment after writing the text onto it. This may have included trimming it down, fraying the edges, and abrading the surface (see). And just like the writing process, they likely would have had to practice this first on a few other scraps of papyrus. Getting it right the first time would be tricky.

That’s the way I understand it to have happened, if the text was forged. I’m still not convinced that it was. But who knows? Maybe we’ll know for certain one day if the forger/s are found out and admit to it. Until then … I’m popping some popcorn for this weekend.

  • Kevin Barney

    Wait, what? HTR decided not to publish? I thought it was a hell of an article.

  • g.wesley

    that’s the rumor anyway.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com Aaron R.

    Have firstthings removed their piece on the HTR’s rejection? It seems that the link is no longer working.

    These are interesting reflections on this interesting moment for NT studies.


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