Another Nail in the Coffin of the “Jesus’s Wife” Hoax

Evidence indicating that Karen King’s so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” (GJW) is a modern forgery just keeps piling up.

Most recently, we learned that the man listed as the source for the document (prior to the anonymous donor/forger) almost certainly never owned it. This came on top of a mountain of other evidence suggesting modern forgery.

Now Christian Askeland, who has been on this story with great vigor for some time now, has what he calls a smoking gun. And I agree, that is gun is a-smokin’.

Gospel of John fragment from same group as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

Before we go to Askeland’s discovery, I just need to reiterate the relative unimportance of the carbon-14 dating on the papyrus itself. No one ever questioned the age of the papyrus. Authentically ancient papyrus is what a good forger uses. The question is: when and how and by what hand was the writing applied to the papyrus.

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was purchased in a lot along with five other documents. (Just to reiterate, it isn’t a gospel and isn’t by or about Jesus’s “wife.”) The standard practice with passing along forgeries is to seed a group of fragments with items that are authentically ancient, but of minor importance. We’ve assumed all along that the other documents in the lot were probably minor, but genuine, fragments.

Askeland has taken a closer look at one of those documents, however, and the evidence that it, too, is fake is very strong.

The document in question is a fragment of the Gospel of John. As finds go, it’s not particularly important.  As a window on the authenticity of GJW, however, it’s revealing.

Here’s Askeland:

The shocker here is this. The fragment contains exactly the same hand, exactly the same ink and has been written with the same writing instrument. One would assume that it were part of the same writing event, be it modern or ancient. In some sense, this is not a surprise, as the Ink Results indicated that the ink was very similar. (The ink on both sides of GJohn was identical or similar to one another; the GJW had slightly different ink on both sides. All of the inks were highly similar.)

Actually, if you are a Coptic nerd, there apparently is a bigger shocker… The text is in Lycopolitan and apparently is a(n exact?) reproduction from the famous Cambridge Qau codex, edited by Herbert Thompson. What is so shocking about that? Essentially all specialists believe that Lycopolitan and the other minor dialects died out during or before the sixth century. Indeed, the forger tried to offer two manuscripts both in Lycopolitan, but made two crucial mistakes. First, the NHC gospel of Thomas is not a pure Lycopolitan text, but the Qau codex is. That is we have two clearly different subdialects of Lycopolitan, which agree exactly with published texts. Second, this GJohn fragment has been 14C dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, a period from which Lycopolitan is totally unknown.

Okay, so far we have a document written in a dialect after that dialect died out, and which copies from a famous, published codex. How closely does it copy?

Alin Sicui breaks it down for us by collating the fragment against the published copy of the Cambridge Qau codex. (Once again, this codex is a version of John in the same Lycopolitan dialect of Coptic.) Here are his results:

Look closely. Notice something?

All the line breaks are identical, as if they were copied from a modern published text.

And the hand, writing tool, and ink are the same as that used in GJW.

One final point: as Askeland observes, the two documents (John and GJW) were sourced from modern Lycopolitan Coptic texts, but the forger apparently didn’t realize that the two modern texts were in different Lycopolitan subdialects. He copied the words, but didn’t grasp the subtle differences in the texts, meaning he was writing as if he was a single scribe, but using two different, outdated dialects. It would make no sense for an ancient writer to do that, but only for a modern forger working from modern versions of ancient texts.

So we have a late appearance of a dead dialect in the same cache of documents, and with the same handwriting and style, as the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, and those fragments are done in different subdialects.

Let’s recap:

  • The Gospel of John fragment is clearly a modern fake.
  • The Gospel of John fragment matches the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”
  • Ergo, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a modern fake.

This is now beyond question, at least for me. There can no longer be any doubt that we’re looking at a modern forgery, in which case it’s time for Harvard and King to name their source.

I didn’t want this blog to become All GJW All the Time, but I’m the only person on Patheos Catholic covering this, and after hearing that this lie was repeated in a classroom in my own religious education program, I realized that merely ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away.

The more fascinating part of this entire story is the way experts have been able to collaborate and debate online, challenging each other and using a wide array of disciplines to analyze a single document. (My discipline is theology and Church history, so I’ve just been an interested observer.) No one person–indeed, no one university department–could ever direct this kind of diversity of thought and expertise, this quickly, to a single topic. This is a debate that has been fueled entirely by the internet, and we should welcome the shifts in learning and research it brings.

Think of it: mighty Harvard attempted to sell a pig in a poke to the general public, bringing all their reputation and PR muscle to that task, and even drafting the NY Times and Smithsonian into the effort.

And a worldwide network of scholars and bloggers exposed their fraud. At every step of this story, scholars with less traditionally “prestigious” positions have shown more skill, knowledge, and professionalism than the giants.

Goliath, thy name is Harvard, and you just got knocked flat by an army of Davids.

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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.