Are Reports of the Death of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Greatly Exaggerated?

Are Reports of the Death of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Greatly Exaggerated? September 26, 2012

More and more people, including scholars, seem to be increasingly confident that the Coptic papyrus fragment referred to as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a modern forgery or fake. See for instance the blog post by Alin Suciu and Hugo Lundhaug. Craig Evans is among those saying that the Harvard Theological Review has decided not to publish Karen King’s article on the subject. Charles Halton also comments on that topic. UPDATE: Brian LePort has since linked to Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service who claims that the article has not been rejected. Brian LePort and Leroy Huizenga, however, raise important questions about whether bloggers – even scholarly ones – may be too quickly drawing conclusions based on partial evidence. And Michael Peppard has a piece in Commonweal expressing reservations about Francis Watson’s arguments and conclusions. (See too his article in the Washington Post.) I have had many of the same concerns. The arguments suggesting that the fragment may be pieced together from words and lexemes from the Gospel of Thomas sounds plausible, at first. But one could easily argue that any fragment of the blog post that you are now reading was strung together by taking words and word stems from some article on the subject and adapting them to create a new article. That is what texts look like, and this is how languages work, by using terms that have wide currency. We should not be surprised, particularly if the author of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife used the Gospel of Thomas and other texts when composing his or her own work, to find some points of agreement. One can go too far in the direction of assuming that common lexical features indicates derivation. One of my recent blog posts about Doctor Who, for instance, could well have been created largely using raw materials from the Bible. The reference to the woman with an issue of blood who consulted doctors could have provided the word “Doctor” with the plural ending dropped off. Then I perhaps took the “who” from “Whosoever does the will of my Father…” And the references to time travel could derive from Revelation’s “time, times and a half” combined with the verb in Revelation 18:17. But that isn’t how any of my blog posts have been created. And so hopefully this gets the point across that common vocabulary is not necessarily evidence of a forger grabbing lexical bits and pieces from a modern critical edition of a text. It could also simply indicate that they were using the same words in the same language. Elsewhere online, Time has an interview with Karen King. And Joel Watts and Jim West also comment on scholarship in an internet age. Caryn Riswold hopes that Jesus had a wife, and explains why. Mark Goodacre and David Meadows have round-ups with comments. I should perhaps add that personally I don’t think that Karen King acted at all inappropriately in how she proceeded. She issued very clear and cautious press releases so that, as she began to present her work on this papyrus to a scholarly audience, it was not left to rumor mills to take over.

In other newsLife and Land blog has a piece on another artifact and the question of its authenticity, and Fox News has a report about ancient “cult fiction” in Egypt.

UPDATE: James Tabor shared a link to this post with some comments, while Joel Watts linked to Christian Post article emphasizing Karen King’s own doubts about the authenticity of the fragment.

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  • Charles Halton

    James, re: Karen King did nothing inappropriate; but what about her not even testing the ink before announcing the press release, participating in the NYT article, and the Smithsonian Channel interview? Or, how about her sensationalistic title “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”? It seems to me that she designed this story to sell just as much as the NYT or Smithsonian and, indeed, she jumped the gun in doing so.

    Also, something is fishy about the HTR story. At first it was reported as the article was forthcoming in January. Then, the editors backtracked and said that it’s publication was pending a review. So, either the HTR editors are lying or King wasn’t forthcoming about the status of the article (or, the reporters skewed what King told them). I tend to think King acted a bit inappropriately in all of this.

    • It’s entirely possible that there were things done that were inappropriate – my point is that there is nothing that I can say was inappropriate, without knowing what has happened behind the scenes.

      Testing the ink and/or papyrus will involve at least some damage to the text. And so I’m not sure that if it were me, I would go ahead with that prior to bringing the wider scholarly community into the discussion, since I suspect that if I only released news about this find after I had destroyed some part of the text with tests, I might be criticized for that too!

      Anyway, I didn’t mean to suggest that I know with absolute certainty things that I don’t. I just meant to emphasize that bringing the scholarly community into the discussion, and releasing press releases emphasizing that these is doubt about the authenticity and that, at best, the fragment tells us what later Christians thought, seems to me the best a scholar could do to avoid excessive sensationalism.

      • Stephen Goranson

        It is not the case that ink testing necessitates any damage to the text. See, for example, the non-destructive study Rabin, Ira, Oliver Hahn, Timo Wolff, Admir Masic, and Gisela Weinberg.
        “On the Origin of the Ink of the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QHodayota).”
        Dead Sea Discoveries 16/1 (2009) 97-106.

        • Great – hopefully there will be results from such an analysis soon!

      • Stoical1

        Testing of the ink will not do any damage, because will be done by spectroscopy, which is totally non-invasive. Carbon dating would do some damage, as you need to cut sample of the papyrus, therefore carbon dating will not be done.

  • Just Sayin’

    Methinks you need a leetle more skepticism . . . add a large dollop of Calvinistic depravity into what you see going on — if people can fake things, they WILL fake things, this being a prime example. Just like the depraved Morton Smith’s rubbish.

    • susan

      The lesson of Morton Smith is that if you discover anything that goes against the traditional Jesus, just destroy it. If you publish it, you will be castigated, ridiculed and disenfrachised. There is no hope of a real investigation of this fragment because it goes against church doctrine. Also, what you have just said about Morton Smith is dispicable.

    • I have to say, this sounds like what someone would write if their only knowledge of what Morton Smith wrote is Stephen Carlson’s book arguing that it is a forgery. I’ve blogged about it here, and while some certainly do think that, many scholars have been persuaded that the evidence of handwriting experts, of Smith’s own behavior, and of the text of the Secret Gospel of Mark not supporting the interpretation Smith sought to give it, all points to him not having been responsible for creating it.

  • brianleport
    • Thanks. I’ve added a mention and link in an update to the post above.

  • Dr. David Tee

    You guys fight over it all you want to but the fragment’s status means nothing and has no bearing on anything ancient or Jesus’ actual life. The assumptions people make on this are astounding. Since it is a possible 4th century work, it cannot be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Since it is a non-christian work then we know it has little to do with the truth even if authentic.
    To discover the real meaning of the words one has to learn the author’s intent not use modern day interpretation and apply those assumptions. Then we need to find the real motivation, the real purpose and whether or not the author was truly a believer or some false teacher preaching an alternative to the truth of the Bible
    As it stands, the 4 words on the page are subject to any number of assumptions, leaps to conclusions and a lot of eisegesis. They are 4 words with no evidence to support them except other non-christian works, who also have no foundational evidence to support their claims.
    When you learn to deal in true and false instead of scholarly discussion then you might not be so confused and learn something.

    • John Petty

      You’re missing the point. Nobody is saying that this tells us anything about the historical Jesus, but it can tell us something about discussion in the church c. 2-4th centuries.

      • Dr. David Tee

        I see my posts are being deleted as I responded to you yesterday. I didn’t miss the point as it sheds NOTHING about discussion in the 4th century as context and purpose are missing.

    • Claude

      Physician, heal thyself.

    • “Since it is a non-christian work”

      You can tell just by looking that the unknown author is not a Christian? Remarkable. How do you do it?

      • I think we’ve already ascertained that – he does it by defining “Christian” as a category that includes only people who agree with him.

        • Dr. David Tee

          Its not hard to determine who is or isn’t a christian as GOD set the criteria not I. The problem today is that too many scholars write their own criteria and lump false teachers in with true Christians. That practice causes confusion which is not of God.

  • brianleport

    My most recent update:

    Most recent update:
    Craig A. Evans responded via email. He says that he has been in conversation with Huffington Post journalist Jaweed Kaleem who he says he advised to contact “Helmut Koester, Karen King, and others at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Theological Review.” Evans writes, “His column has just appeared in the Huffington Post and represents a very fair and accurate assessment of where things now stand.”
    Jaweed Kaleem’s column is “‘Jesus Wife’ Research Leads to Suspicion that Artifact is Fake” ( wherein he reports:
    – Karen King confirms that the fragment has been sent for testing. Kaleem summarizes that, “…the tests should determine if it is from the fourth century as originally proposed, or if parts of it are a modern forgery, as an increasing number of scholars of Coptology and papyrology have suggested.”
    – About the owner of the fragment: “King said the owner acquired the piece in 1997 from a German owner and wants to remain anonymous.”
    – As we reported here through Craig A. Evans’ post Helmut Koester has expressed doubt regarding whether the article will be published and he maintains that it is a forgery:
    “Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School and a former 25-year editor of the journal, said in an interview that he heard ‘they did not want to publish because of doubts from two respected scholars.’ Koester, who specializes in early Christianity and early Christian archaeology, added that after seeing an evaluation of King’s work from a colleague in the field, he was ‘absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.’”
    – King’s paper has been accepted “provisionally,” which confirms aforementioned statements on my blog by Jonathan Beasley, HDS’s spokesman.

  • I find this entire micro-tempest both amusing and baffling.

    Fact: in the modern world, you can find someone saying just about anything you’d care to invent about Jesus — he was God, he was man, he was a space alien, he didn’t exist at all. It would hardly be newsworthy to find a modern scrap of paper asserting Jesus had a wife. Or that he had two heads.

    Fact: early Christianity (pre-fourth-century) was as diverse if not more diverse than it is today. Some people thought Jesus was Osiris; others, Dionysus. Some said god; some said man. At least some of them must have thought he was married. Or that he had two heads.

    Why is it newsworthy that a scrap of paper asserting anything at all about Jesus turned up in someone’s collection of “old scraps of paper?” Even if it turned out to be fourth-century ink on fourth-century paper, who is to say that the author wasn’t some crank-case selling health potions and yet another weird Iasian cult-of-one?

    The existence and even the authenticity of this scrap of paper says nothing about whether the church in the fourth century was “discussing” this issue: indeed, their “discussion” may have consisted of rolling their collective eyes and saying, “Oh, heavens, not this guy AGAIN.”

    The real issue here is the implicit challenge to the authority of the Church in the present day: the statement — said out loud — that (gasp) the Church might have gotten it all wrong about Jesus’ wife, and therefore might have gotten equally wrong all the teetering and pathological thought and practice built atop the presumption of Jesus’ celibacy over the course of seventeen centuries.

    This isn’t about fourth-century ink. It’s about modern sexual pathology as taught by the Church. It’s about challenging the authority of the Church.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    Did you read Watson’s, Suciu’s, and Bernhard’s articles closely? The objection is not just that the same words appear, but that the lines in Karen King’s FGF (Forged Gnostic Fiction – my name for it) fragment tend to correspond to lines of the printed text of Gospel of Thomas. How does that happen? And there’s also the observation that an unusual feature in the fragment’s text is accounted for by the forger repeating the spelling-error of a digital edition of Gospel of Thomas.
    It looks to me like everything is pointing in the same direction, and I don’t think ink-tests will reverse the trend. (How would ink-tests really resolve anything? If a forger were to use genuinely old ingredients to make ink, wouldn’t the ink register as old in the tests?)
    Yours in Christ,
    James Snapp, Jr.

    • Whom are you asking? I assume it isn’t me, since I’ve been linking to the relevant articles and discussions online since King’s announcement. So I wondered if you meant to reply to another commenter and your comment somehow didn’t end up in the right place.