The Continuing Hilarity of the “Jesus’s Wife” Controversy

From the beginning I’ve found the entire controversy over the papyrus text purporting to declare (in a context-free sentence fragment, no less!) that Jesus had a wife to be nothing short of hilarious.  It has primarily served as a reminder of the pathetic, discrediting lengths that a few members of our intelligentsia and even some in our religious communities will go to try to discredit the canonic biblical narrative. The very idea that someone would find the papyrus persuasive at all is more of a reflection on their own prejudices than it is a reflection on the inerrancy of biblical text.  A post-card sized papyrus fragment found hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and written hundreds of years after Jesus’s death is supposed to trigger a debate about Jesus’s life?  To put this discovery in context, it would be like finding in Tennessee a few recently-typed sentence fragments about George Washington and declaring that it had opened up “new avenues of debate” about our first president’s life and times.

Given its inherent silliness, the story was bound to get better, and it has.  Believe it or not, this ancient papyrus may contain . . . a typo!

A copied error from an online translation of the Gospel of Thomas may be the “smoking gun” that strongly suggests the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, a controversial papyrus fragment that supposedly refers to Jesus being married, is a forgery, scholars say.

If the text is fake, it would represent an extraordinary tale of how an amateur with no knowledge of a long-dead language could fool some of the world’s leading experts by using a readily available Internet tool — and how scholars countered by rallying online to swiftly investigate the case together.

In other words, it looks like a modern forger essentially tried to copy/paste ancient coptic text onto a papyrus fragment — but in so doing copied a common grammatical error from an online translation of an ancient pseudo-gospel.

If this is true, then the papyrus fragment will join a host of other forgeries that have excited the public until debunked by more sober-minded and skeptical scholars.

While I’m having a bit of fun with this most recent news item, there is a more serious point.  For quite some time there has existed something of a cottage industry of those who seek to prove or disprove biblical claims through the use of archaeology.  To be clear, I love archaeology and completely endorse the quest for ever-greater knowledge about our distant past.  But let’s have a bit of humility about the enterprise, refrain from hysteria until many scholarly voices have had a chance to weigh in, and — above all — remember that archaeological conclusions are always subject to clarification and contradiction through new discovery.

But for those of you who wanted to place more faith in the veracity of fragmentary postcards than the canon of scripture, you have my sympathies for falling for what now appears to be a rather amateurish forgery.

  • Russ

    What’s surprising to me is how quickly some scholars accepted it as legit, whereas other discoveries they would approach much more skeptically. Reveals a bias that clouds reason. Good point about “let’s have a little humility” and give it some time before reaching our conclusions.

    • David French

      Yep, as we find again and again throughout history, people are eager to believe almost anything that reinforces their world view.

  • David Safina

    What’s most surprising to me is that some people who ran with this story thought that they can change inerrantist’s views on anything at all.

    I was surprised how important this fragment was to some people, we have early gnostic and proto-orthodox (and gnostic) texts that say more bizarre things than this Jesus’ wife passage, and inerrantists just ignore those. so whether this is an authentic text or not, it’s at best only going to be of real interest to coptic scholars and people in religious studies circles.

  • Souheil Bayoud

    What the Gnostic writings has to do with the true gospel of salvation? Through history many people had and still tried to strip Jesus of His deity.The marriage is taken to be proof that He was not God in the flesh,but only a mortal man.In fact lies sell very well but the truth always prevails and anything based on a lie is a lie.The Holy blood Holy grail pretend that Jesus escaped death on the cross and married Mary Magdalene.Then da vinci code pretend a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the real blood of the grail is inside Mary based on the painting of the last supper by leonardo da vinci.Now a scholar has a writing words on a papyrus about Jesus wife and titled that papyrus in the shape of a credit card.a gospel! Actually in the above fake stories there is a very dangerous and deceiving lie about the real blood and the wife.The truth is that REAL and HOLY blood is on Jesus’ forehead and not in the womb of Mary Magdalene or any other woman.This is revealed in the true story the coin of the temple by souheil bayoud.As for the wife,the impossibility of the marriage of Jesus cannot be seen by the blinds and is not revealed to opponents to Orthodox Christianity and the Church.

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  • DougH

    I’ve never been able to understand what the excitement was all about. Even if the fragment is completely legitimate, it proves nothing about Jesus’s marital status one way or the other any more than the infant gospels prove anything about Jesus’s actual childhood.