“Jesus’s Wife”: Still Fake

More than 18 months after the mainstream media splashed front pages with credulous headlines about a “new” “gospel” “proving” “Jesus” had a “wife” (and I’ve used up my allotment of scare quotes just writing that much), we finally have the results of testing on the age of the papyrus, and the results are … meaningless, just like this entire story.

My very first reaction to this document was that if it was authentic, it was just more from the Gnostic Noise Machine. Some of King’s colleagues are noting that she is taking a “careful line” in her new article, which I have not yet had time to read. If so, that would be a welcome change of pace for her. Let’s recall that at its best the document was a minor 4th century Gnostic text telling us nothing whatsoever about the historical Jesus. She parlayed into a media firestorm until the internet hive responded with convincing evidence of fraud.

So, is it ancient or not? We’d have to define what we mean by “it.” Most people arguing that the document is a modern forgery have no problem with the papyrus being ancient. Forgers use ancient papyrus. They even scrape ink or lampblack from surfaces or inkwells to get ancient ink. The question is: was the text put on that paper in ancient times or modern.

I tend to believe, along with many others, that the evidence of modern forgery is pretty strong, but if it makes the other side happy, I’ll concede that it was written in the 8th or 9th century, in which case, we have a giant nothingburger with a heaping side order of hype and some extra anti-Christian dipping sauce.

However, Harvard’s “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Fragment to be Ancient” headline is almost willfully misleading, since it doesn’t take into account the actual composition of the text or the inconclusive results of the dating itself.

Carbon-14 dating from different tests and labs produced the following results: 405-350 BC, 307-209 BC, and 659-969 AD.

That’s not actually worthy of a “testing indicates” headline . That’s a “testing inconclusive”  headline. I’d readily admit to the ancient nature of the papyrus because I’d expect a forger to use ancient papyrus, but I fail to see how a potential 1,400 year spread in results is useful at all. I guess when two results are clearly impossible (the two  from hundreds of years before the birth of the Jesus you’re attempting to debunk) and one is face-saving (several hundred years after your original dating), then you just pick the date you like and run with it.

King has revised her theory from it being very early Gnostic text, to it coming from some time in the 8th century. If indeed it was written in the 8th or 9th century in Egypt, then it came from an Islamic culture which would have expected Jesus to have a wife. That makes it a nothing more than a curious scrap of non-Biblical literature.

This was never a particularly interesting text, even if it was authentic. If authentically old, it may have shown us a slightly different attitude in certain Gnostic sects toward women and marriage, but given the diversity of Gnostic texts and beliefs, it would, at best, have been merely a footnote. Now, even by King’s standards, it’s an irrelevant text likely reflecting Islamic views, even if it is genuine.

My problem all along has been with how the material was handled. Consider:

*The material was presented to the public as ancient without proper tests being run.

*The textual concerns that were expressed almost immediately upon release of the document are still a major issue.

*King dubbed this mere fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Why? It was never a gospel by any proper definition of the word. Her decision in this regard was done with an eye toward exploitation.

*Harvard and King worked hand-in-glove with mainstream media to gin up maximum media coverage and outrage in order to stoke the fires of public interest. The story was peddled to mainstream media outlines who were certain to pick up the most exploitative elements of the story and run with them. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times is a reliable voice for inaccurate, biased anti-Christian coverage, and she helped make the initial story the farrago it became. Now Goodstein is back with another slice of sublime BS, telling us that

Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests.

“Inflamed  the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests”? Really? Which churches were these? Because it didn’t “inflame” any debate whatsoever in the one Church that’s your usual target: the Catholic Church. We dismissed it as the meaningless scrap of nothing it is and went on our merry way.

And “skepticism” was “fierce” (can skepticism be fierce?) because the text looked fake. It still looks fake. It might not be, but we can’t wave away the evidence of forgery yet.

*Before she even presented the document, she was working with Smithsonian on a television documentary about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” A book of the same title was sure to follow. It must be hard being a scholar of ancient Christian history and seeing Bart Ehrman rake in all that money from documentaries, lecture fees, and books by selling revisionist history to the credulous masses. No one ever goes broke by kicking Christians in the groin.

*After more than  a year of pressure to say anything about the progress of the testing, the results are released the week before Holy Week, the traditional season for the mainstream media to unfurl their annual anti-Jesus stories. Odd, it’s almost like they planned it that way! April: the month of improving weather, the Boston marathon, tax day, and Debunking Christianity Week (formerly known as Holy Week).

Enough of this nonsense. When I have time, I may go ahead and read King’s article, but I honestly just don’t care, and never really did. It’s just more noise, and stoking these fires again during the holiest time of the year is in no one’s interest.

See, Jesus lived, died, and rose again. His eleven surviving disciples carried on his mission, with their authority passing to other men in a line down to our current bishops, chief among them the heir to the seat of St. Peter: Pope Francis. This Church has carried the Truth of Christ through the centuries and, along with sacred Scripture, provides that Truth to us today. It’s very simple: God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not die but shall have eternal life.

That is what we’re remembering this week, and shame on anyone who would dare attempt to distract people from the saving truth during this week of all weeks.

For more information:

Here is the new, heavily revised article by King, the rebuttal by Depuydt , and King’s reply to Depuydt. James Watson debunks here.

Harvard has thoroughly updated their website.

I’ve written more on the hoax here.

Christian Askeland does a potent takedown.

Short version: This is potentially an 8th or 9th century text that tells us nothing about early Christian history. The probability of modern forgery has not been conclusively eliminated by testing, and textual issues that suggest forgery have not been convincingly rebutted. 

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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