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.

 

Jesus: Great Physician or Magical Civic Defender?

Christ RedeemerJesus wore many vocational hats in the New Testament:

Carpenter…

Rabbi…

Physician…

Exorcist…

But civic protector? That’s a new one.

Plenty of Greco-Roman cities had patron deities. Athens had Athena. Ephesus had Artemis. But where did Jesus fit into this role as polytheism declined in Late Antiquity?

A little-known artifact from Philippi suggests that Late Antique Christians came to view Jesus as exactly this—an anti-demon civic protector—by the 6th century CE.

About a century ago, archaeologists discovered two marble blocks that formerly adorned the city gates of Philippi. Inscribed on these blocks in compact, Byzantine script was the apocryphal correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus described by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastica Historia.

Abgar, who is wasting away from a disease, petitions Jesus to visit Edessa and heal him. He lauds Jesus’ fame and expresses vaguely anti-Semitic pity that the Jews are mistreating him, offering Edessa as a place of refuge if Jesus so desires to leave Jerusalem. In a short response, Jesus sends his regrets…apparently being too busy with his whole crucifixion thing to trouble himself with a trip to Edessa.

What would impel the Philippians to inscribe these words on their wall? Judging by the epigraphy’s professional hand and its prominent position overlooking the city’s main thoroughfare, the inscription certainly isn’t graffiti. Instead, a wealthy patron apparently saw this as an effective defensive weapon against potential enemies. Later copies of the correspondence—including the Philippian inscription—have a protective blessing added to the end of Jesus’ letter: “Your city shall be blessed and no enemy shall ever be master of it.” Eusebius’ version, which scholars assume is the earliest attestation of the document, completely lacks this addendum.

Because of this addendum, the Jesus/Abgar correspondence apparently gained traction as a magical strategy in Late Antiquity. Not only have archaeologists discovered similar artifacts in Ephesus, Euchaita, and Edessa, but a few magic books in antiquity invoke the Abgar correspondence as a potent spell. What better way to harness and channel ritual power than Jesus’ own written words?

In a forthcoming paper, I suggest that this Philippian inscription demonstrates how Late Antique Christians appropriated an existing tradition and invested it with new meaning—essentially re-branding Jesus as a magical civic defender rather than a Great Physician. The purpose of this study is to illustrate that religious traditions have a lifecycle and are not created in a cultural vacuum. The symbolic function and value of stories changes as individuals and communities adopt them for their own specific needs. In the case of Philippi, they apparently felt safer with the words of Christ carved onto their city gates.