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.

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.

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  • Anon

    Question: “Why on earth didn’t they wait for spectrometry?”
    Answer: “Will it cancel the book and documentary being planned? Not bloody likely.”

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  • Samuel Crow

    The amazing thing about this snippet of what is supposed to be a find is to undermine Christ’s Church. At some point in the near future someone will quote this piece of forgery as evidence of this huge…vast right wing conspiracy against women.

  • http://ascentofcarmel.blogspot.ca Jason

    People will do anything for an excuse to disprove Christ – I know. I did.

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  • Leo Ladenson

    Another strange feature is the way Smithsonian magazine is pushing this story, just as National Geographic pushed the faulty translation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. When did these middle-of-the-road organizations throw their weigh behind secularism?

  • Dixibehr

    I admit I don’t know Coptic.

    But the very shape of the papyrus scrap with its nearly clean edges and almost perfect rectangular shape looked suspicious to me.

    That it’s about the size of a cell phone is odd, as well.

    That we are not given a COMPLETE translation of the text, which is not that long, raises my eyebrows.

    Finally, that there is NO provenance–who found it, where, when, and its history in the meantime–should tell you lots.

  • My Gal Sal

    The paper looks too clean and it looks to have been cut, not worn or frayed. All the lettering on the paper fits inside the paper and the ink has a fadded look on clean paper. How?? Is the ink thin in some areas thiner than in others areas? To my untrained eye the piece looks odd. Where is the dirt, the age of time? Where did it come from, whos back yard? Egypt, Lebanon, or maybe some artist studio?

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  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    I’m reminded of Hitler’s diaries.

  • http://theraineyview.wordpress.com Serena

    It looks like a papercraft school project. Has the ink been analyzed? If it’s made from GMO soybeans, we have our answer.

  • Raymond J. Ryan

    I am offended by this Expose about the “wife” of Jesus. Deeply offended. Please provide me with the telephone and email of the best riot organizers and assasination experts. Thanks and God Bless us all. Ray Ryan

  • pagansister

    Why in the world is the Church so afraid that Jesus might have actually been a married man? He was a Jewish man, certainly of marrying age way before he started preaching….at what 30? IMO it would have quite out of the norm for him to still be single at that age in those times. People didn’t live that long so marrying was done at very young ages. Would the Christian world be all screwed up if Jesus was indeed a married man? All the stuff he was supposed to have said and done be worthless if he was—gasp!—married and not a celibate Jewish man?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Why do you assume it has anything to do with fear? The life of Christ is the most well documented life in the ancient world. If that life had included a wife it would part of the documents and thus an accepted part of the faith.

    But it wasn’t. We object to this nonsense because it is a lie. Do you understand that? I know pagans just make up crap, but our faith is based in a man, and an event. And it is true. You can accept that truth or reject it, but it does not add or subtract one jot to its truth.

  • http://n/a M E Wood

    Thanks for letting me lurk on your site for a while.
    Here is a Coptic ‘alphabet’ for your interest,

    http://stmark.co.nz/28_lang.html

    BTW what does the Coptic Orthodox Church think of this all? What do their earliest canonical documents look like, anything like the fragment in question? Since we cannot get the provenance from the owner I cynically assume it is another one of those ‘antiquities’ which I heard of as having been manufactured in 19th century Alexandria for the European and N American Collector, when I worked in minor positions in museums. That was the rumour.

  • Jacob Morgan

    Smithsonian magazine was a heck of a magazine 15 years ago, subscribed to it, enjoyed it, saved the back issues. Then it started to slide. About 10 years ago was taken over by people with an agenda to push, and that agenda is a sick sad one. It was no longer to celebrate America, or even to just look out on the world with wonder, it was to deconstruct. America’s attic hauled it all to the curb like trash, so far as the magazine went.

  • jj

    The march toward godlessness continues. All this is.. is a discussion among the Lost as they devise new reasons to sleep at night.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I noticed that as well. There are still good pieces it, but you come across more agenda-driven items than in the old days.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Lurk away. I appreciate your contibutions.

  • Macarius

    I suppose I don’t really understand the rush to condemn this papyrus. It’s an irrelevance – the canon is set, and even if it dates to the second century, it’s an interesting tidbit about gnosticism, not an overthrow of the canon and Church teaching. It’s impact on the teaching that Christ was celibate is roughly nil. If the mainstream press don’t get that, well, what do they get about Catholicism?

    From what I can see, it definitely says “Jesus said: my wife [...]“. Can’t translate much else of it, though: my Coptic is lousy.

    “Why on earth didn’t they wait for spectrometry?”
    Dr. King presumably presented her initial findings at the conference in Rome. If she had waited for spectomatry findings, she would have had nothing to present.

    “Will we see retractions and apologies?”
    From whom, for what? From Dr. King for doing her job as an academic? Or from the media for a half-baked attempt at sensationalism? In either case, as you say, it’s unlikely there will be one.

    Dixiebehr:
    “I admit I don’t know Coptic.”
    If you want to learn, Bentley-Leighton’s “Coptic in Twenty Lessons” or Lambdin’s “Introduction to Sahidic Coptic” are both pretty good.

    “But the very shape of the papyrus scrap with its nearly clean edges and almost perfect rectangular shape looked suspicious to me.”
    Certainly, it looks like it was cut from something else, but on the other hand, it’s not impossible it broke like that. Papyrus can be quite brittle, and if it came from a papyrus discovered a long time ago, it may not have been treated too carefully, like the Turin King List. It is pretty rough around three edges, so it could be torn, though the top appears far too neat for me for it to come rom anywhere but the top of a sheet.

    “That it’s about the size of a cell phone is odd, as well.”
    Maybe, but on the other hand, why shouldn’t it be?

    “That we are not given a COMPLETE translation of the text, which is not that long, raises my eyebrows.”
    A complete translation was provided in Dr. King’s paper (pages 14-16, following a transcription and followed by notes: http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf ), and there’s a full transcription/translation with this HuffPo article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-_n_1891325.html . I seem to recall the initial article I read having a full translation but, typically, I now can’t find it.

    “Finally, that there is NO provenance–who found it, where, when, and its history in the meantime–should tell you lots.”
    Not really. A lot of pieces found into the 20th century have only limited provenance if any, and many things bought by dealers have absolutely none. That hardly means they’re all fakes. It’s really not that uncommon to have a find without a provenance, although a recent history is provided by Dr. King in the (draft) paper on the Harvard website (pp. 2-3): http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf

    MyGalSal:
    “The paper looks too clean and it looks to have been cut, not worn or frayed.”
    I don’t know about that. Higher-res photos now surfacing show a greater degree of fraying around the edges. It could have broken off – papyrus can be pretty brittle. As for being clean, most papyrus is found either rolled as a scroll, or in a codex (i.e., a modern book), so it doesn’t have much of chance to get dirty. And if it wasn’t in a book, it was most likely found in the desert. There isn’t much which would stick to it in the desert. A final possibility, of course, is that it has been cleaned since its discovery – it has been tentatively traced (Dr. King’s paper, p.2) to Gerhard Fecht (d. 2006, aged 75), and could potentially have been in Germany for 50 years or more before its recent publication.

    “All the lettering on the paper fits inside the paper and the ink has a fadded look on clean paper. How?? Is the ink thin in some areas thiner than in others areas?”
    Well, I’m not an expert on papyrology, but where the ink is thicker may simply represent where the writer re-dipped his pen.

    “To my untrained eye the piece looks odd. Where is the dirt, the age of time? Where did it come from, whos back yard? Egypt, Lebanon, or maybe some artist studio?”
    If it’s genuine, it most likely comes from Egypt. Coptic wasn’t spoken outside Egypt. If it’s not genuine, then it seems to me it doesn’t need to come from anywhere in particular.

  • Macarius

    Just to add: I don’t think all the lettering does fit inside the page. Pretty sure I can spot at least traces of incomplete letters off both edges of the recto.

  • RT3

    How does this disprove Christ? Could he not be the Savior if he were married?

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