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.