More From Francis Watson on “Jesus’s Wife” Fragment

Mark Goodacre has a supplemental report from Francis Watson of Durham University, who provided the initial report suggesting the fragment is a modern forgery. This one is called “Addendum: The End of the Line?

It’s interesting to see how the internet is shaping this story. In his first paragraph, Professor Watson mentions a comment by renowned Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham which orignally appeared on Professor Goodacre’s blog. (I quoted it in my follow-up because someone of Bauckham’s prestige weighing in on the issue is a pretty big deal, but his observations were limited to a combox.) Experts from myriad disciplines are bringing specialized knowledge to all aspects of this story, creating a massive, instantaneous, global peer review that puts the process of most journals to shame.

Watson’s title is bit of word play: the “end of the line” for the theory that this is a real document is torpedoed by problems with the ends of lines. That problem is one of line lengths. Line length in Nag Hammadi documents is between about 19 and 26 characters. Although other Coptic documents are longer, it’s not possible to put enough characters in a line to make the passage make any sense. Take it away, Dr. Watson!:

While these figures are broadly representative of line-lengths in the Nag Hammadi codices, it is quite possible that much longer lines could be found in other ancient Coptic manuscripts. If the Nag Hammadi sample is anywhere near the norm, however, then the putative gaps between GJW’s mostly 19 letter lines will have been strictly limited. If a hypothetical intact GJW contained lines of around 25 letters, this would make space for an additional 3 letters at either end of the extant lines, and the connecting passages would then be confined to around 6 letters each. One might of course double the available space by envisaging longer lines of around 31 letters; but even 12 additional letters might not be enough to close the gap between Jesus’ defence of his wife’s discipleship and his condemning an unnamed evildoer to an inflationary future.

If that is the case, then GJW has never been anything other than a damaged fragment. Or rather: it was designed to resemble or impersonate a damaged fragment. The gaps between the extant lines may have been there from the start.

Read the whole thing.

I’m curious to see how not only Professor King, but also papyrologist Roger Bagnall (who is extremely well-respected in his field) respond to this. Were these issues considered? Based on her work on the Gospels of Mary of Magdala and Judas, my impression of Prof. King’s skills as a scholar are not favorable. Bagnall is another case entirely. A true understanding of the text in an historical and theological context is sinking the claims being made for this document, and papyrology alone simply can’t address those issues in sufficient depth.

Does this settle the matter of the document’s authenticity? No, but Watson’s observations will be hard to answer. My initial reaction when the story first broke was that 1) King’s claims for 2nd century authorship were bunk, 2) claims for the original as 4th century were reasonable and came from recognized experts who had examined the document in person, 3) none of it seemed too far off from typical “spousal” imagery found in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, where Mary is the koinônos (companion or even consort) of Christ, but 4) Gnostic documents are useless for understanding the life of Jesus. Watson’s evidence seems extremely suggestive of an outright hoax (not, I hasten to add, by King herself). Time will tell.

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.

  • Rick67

    My initial reaction was the same as in your final paragraph. *And* I was willing to accept this might be yet another wacky Gnostic gospel. No biggie. I don’t disagree with the excellent Prof Watson but one is surprised if a semi-competent forger did not think of that, perhaps composing a “page” of Coptic text, and then somewhat arbitrarily choosing a section to be the putative fragment. Watson does make a good point which is “is there really enough space in the original text to get from ‘wife’ to criticism of disciple?”

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

    The thing about Thomas is that it’s a sayings gospel, and thus tends to use very small, discrete bits of text that don’t link one to the other. It seems possible, if this is following a similar format, that we’re just right at the break between two sayings. On the other hand: what’s the likelihood of that happening, AND of that break falling exactly on the juicy bits, AND coming from a unnamed collector trying to sell off a much larger collection with this as the sample, AND happening to satisfy the narrative obsessions (ie, sexuality and the male-only priesthood) of contemporary feminist Gnostic scholars?

    My bigger problem is that these items are coming from people who believe the scriptures and the history of the early church (and both are extremely well-documented) are in fact nothing more than a “narrative of the victors,” who rewrote history and scripture to suit some ill-defined agenda and suppressed the “real” truth. People who believe such things are not credible.

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