The Rise and Fall of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

Recto-flatEven when the major news outlets fall silent, the academic blogosphere continues to buzz. New evidence has arisen that casts doubt on the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW)—the small scrap of Coptic that Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School brought to light in 2012.

The true irony here is that Harvard Divinity School released the definitive answer that the fragment is ancient, and therefore, not a forgery a mere few weeks before this revelation. They based its authenticity on several conclusions:

1. Radiocarbon analysis dated the papyri to around the 8th century CE.

2. Analysis of the ink revealed it is consistent with ancient ink.

3. Respected papyrologists Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk argued for its authenticity.

At the time, I generally agreed with these findings and wrote on how talk of Jesus’ wife was nothing special for late antique Christians.

What wasn’t readily apparent to most scholars, though, is that the GJW has a sister text—a fragment of the Gospel of John—that Karen King acquired at the same time. Christian Askeland over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, along with a few other respected voices, determined that this sister text was written with the same ink, odd handwriting, and writing implement as GJW (probably a brush according to palaeographer Malcolm Choat).

However, this Gospel of John fragment, at least according to its detractors, is more obviously a fake.

In short, it seems a modern forger copied the Coptic text line-for-line from Herbert Thompson’s readily available Coptic edition of the Gospel of John. The lines even seem to break off precisely where Thompson’s lines end on the pages of the modern publication, implying the forger had a copy in their possession while fabricating the text.

JohnRecto (1)

Notice that the purportedly ancient text cuts off precisely where the modern publication moves to the next line. Unlikely coincidence?

For scholars such as Larry Hurtado and Mark Goodacre, this is the smoking gun everyone has been waiting for. If this fragment of John is obviously a fake, then the GJW, which exhibits the same ink and handwriting, must also be a fake.

We are still awaiting a response from Karen King, but several questions remain:

1. If the writing is modern, we must still admit that the papyri on which it is written is ancient—that much is incontrovertible. Any potential forger would have needed to obtain two blank pieces of ancient papyrus. Surely not impossible, but definitely difficult.

2. The ink on the GJW matches other black carbon-based ink used between 1 CE and 800 CE. I’m waiting to see a satisfactory argument how someone could reproduce this ink today.

Although this debate may never see a resolution, at the very least, it has offered a glimpse into the scholarly process. From the start, there have been world-renowned scholars on both sides. They have argued their positions without vitriol and supported with textual, scientific, and archaeological evidence. Even the most brilliant ancient historian isn’t infallible, nevertheless, their research will always endure a rigorous peer-reviewed process. Imperfect? Yes. Slow? Definitely. But when sensationalism grips the media airwaves, keep in mind, a balanced yet lively debate likely continues in the ivory tower.

 

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent summary. This is one of the few which really hits the nail on the head. A note on the Raman spectroscopy results… These results did not conclude anything about the date of the ink, only the composition, which, it was concluded was soot. They did determine that the ink did not have any of the constitutes of modern manufactured inks, such as you would buy at Staples. We had all predicted this result, as the ink looks like soot. One encounters two basic varieties in ancient manuscripts (generalization!) iron gall and carbon (=soot). The reason this looks like a brush (not really possible after 300 CE) is that the modern forger concocted a soot-based ink, and painted it on with a brush. Soot is the obvious choice for a modern forgery!

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Thanks so much for the clarification Christian, I do appreciate it. It’s impressive (and a little bit disconcerting) to see how a modern forger can fool so many scholars. I’d be interested to see how this process occurs. Is it just someone in their basement with the right tools and a nominal knowledge of Coptic? Seems like a lot of work to go through just to baffle a few dozen ancient historians. As much as the antiquities black-market is a booming business, though, I’m not surprised.

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