Expert: “Jesus’s Wife” Fragment a Modern Forgery

It may not be a smoking gun, but it’s Col. Mustard in the Conservatory. The awesome Dale Price turned up this story in the Guardian, which is based on this report by Francis Watson of Durham University, first shared by Mark Goodacre.

What’s the proof? The fragment appears to have been composed from pieces of other texts, primarily the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, and cobbled together by a modern forger unfamiliar with Coptic. In short, it’s a collage. And not a very good one.

Watson’s summary:

Six of the eight incomplete lines of GJW [Gospel of Jesus's Wife] recto are so closely related to the Coptic GTh[Gospel of Thomas],especially to Sayings 101 and 114, as to make dependence virtually certain. A further line is derived from Matthew; just one is left unaccounted for. The author has used a “collage” or “patchwork” compositional technique, and this level of dependence on extant pieces of Coptic text is more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one. Indeed, the GJW fragment may be designedly incomplete, its lacunae built into it from the outset. It does not seem possible to fill these lacunae with GTh material contiguous to the fragments cited. The impression of modernity is reinforced by the case in line 1 of dependence on the line-division of the one surviving Coptic manuscript, easily accessible in modern printed editions. Unless this impression of modernity is countered by further investigations and fresh considerations, it seems unlikely that GJW will establish itself as a “genuine” product of early gospel writing.

Richard Bauckham had this to say in a discussion thread on Mark Goodacre’s post, where some experts believe Watson’s report is convincing and others are more cautious:

It occurs to me we’ve missed something that Watson’s argument really does demonstrate: that the text of this fragment (whether ancient or modern) was composed in Coptic, not translated from Greek. The Nag Hammadi Gospels and related texts were translated from Greek. So this is at best a late, not an early ‘Gnostic” text, dependent on the Coptic version of Thomas. Not, therefore late 2nd century, as Karen King suggests.

That’s a key point. Karen King knocked 200 years off the date based on a hypothetical Greek original, and that’s now dead in the water.

Why on earth didn’t they wait for spectrometry? I know they count on the public and the media being inattentive to details, but that one just boggles the mind.

Will we see retractions and apologies? Will it cancel the book and documentary being planned?

Not bloody likely.

Honestly, I’m glad for the entire episode. It’s exposed me to writers and disciplines that will help me be a better catechist and theologian, and I was reintroduced to Gnosticism, which I hadn’t studied since my 20s. This was a great chance to observe a controversy unfold as experts responded and poured over details in real time. I cannot think of an exact parallel to this episode since the internet changed everything.

Have a nice weekend.

Other links: one on Thomas and my initial post on the controversy.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.