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"Gospel of Jesus' Wife" - One year later

You may recall the hustle and bustle about the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" papyrus fragment from a year ago. I blogged about it a few times (here and here) and contributed to the Washington Post on it here. (And then Grant Gallicho cleverly mocked me at a Commonweal event, to which I responded here.)

Recently NT scholars Larry Hurtado and Mark Goodacre, both active bloggers, have raised questions about what has happened to this papyrus. While I am certainly not privy to the details at Harvard, I did have a chance to see infra red photos of the papyrus last year and to discuss it with some other papyrologists.

Below the jump I'll summarize my notes from that meeting (beyond what was previously blogged). Beware: content very boring to non-specialists!

- I don't know if the ink and papyrus were tested. The ink was to be tested by spectroscopy, but in fact this can only falsify the document—it can’t demonstrate authenticity, as many others have already noted. In addition, an ancient formula of carbon ink is not difficult to make. The infrared images suggest the ink is carbon-based and thus either ancient or made according to an ancient method.

- All the other papyri in the owner’s collection appear to be normal and bland documentary papyri (Greek, Coptic, Arabic).

- Documentary papyrologists are used to looking at sloppy handwriting, irregular ink strokes, variant spellings, and uneven word spacing. I do not think this text “looks fake.” It looks unprofessional, to be sure, but documentary papyrology deals with all kinds of handwriting.

- I was not persuaded that the epsilon in line 6 (shafene) demonstrates that the writing instrument was a brush. There seem to be no other letters that would lead to this conclusion, and it’s not likely that a scribe (ancient or modern) would switch instruments while writing.

- That being said, some suspicious items included: the ends of lines 3, 5, and 6 seem not to include ink for the subsequent letters, where we might imagine some.

- I was not convinced that the fragment provides “too much content.” Coptic is an efficient language, especially with articles, pronouns, and prepositions. If we cut out parts of Coptic Thomas from Codex II and give ourselves 19-21 letters per line for 7 lines, we learn a lot of content and can reconstruct even more.

- Nor is this text’s content “too good to be true.” We have already learned lots of what seemed to be outlandish bits of content from the authentic Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Philip, etc.

- The back of the papyrus is the most interesting thing not usually discussed. It does not seem plausible that the back is a modern forgery. That being said, the differences between the back and the front have been discussed, especially the fewer lines on the back and slightly larger letters and line spacing.

- The infrared images showed a few things more clearly: First, it seems likely that the proposed oblique stroke in line 4 is more likely the right side of an upsilon, and possibly the end of the word maay (“mother”) or mmay (“there”). Second, it seems like there is ink at the beginning of line 7 underneath the iota of line 6. Third, the infrared image makes the back of the papyrus more legible, or at least, easier to see that there is more text there.

- One of the things noted about the text on the back is that the word ebol seems clearly to be written with an omega (as ebwl). It's possible to say that on the front, the word anok (line 7) seems also to have a lengthened vowel and be written as anwk. If so, this could strengthen the case that both front and back were written by the same person.

- That being said, one attractive hypothesis for those on the forgery side would be that the back of the papyrus could be ancient and the front could be a modern forgery. The problem with that, however, is that would entail the vertical fibers to have been used in antiquity and the horizontal fibers to have been blank and reused for the forgery, which is unlikely.

- I also still think it highly unlikely that someone could forge the abrasion and stripping of the fibers at the beginning of line 4 on the front. Then again, every expert forgery teaches something new, I suppose.

- On the whole, I see many suspicious things about the papyrus, but the weighing of probabilities does not necessarily tilt toward the conclusion of “forgery,” certainly not a “clumsy forgery,” as some have said. On the other hand, I don’t think there remain many “true believers” in staunch defense of the text’s authenticity.

- in conclusion, if it is a forgery, then the forger got very lucky in finding a papyrus in cartonnage that had ancient writing on the vertical fibers and blank papyrus on the other side.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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In my opinion, Andrew Berhnard has convincingly shown how the papyrus was constructed from similar words and phrases in Gos. Thom. Particulalryl notewothry is the transformation of an epsilon into an iota in line 6 and the fact that the papyrus replicates a typo from an online verion of the Gos. Thom. that was later corrected.  

It is probably best to let the whole matter die without further comment.  It appears that this is a huge embarrassment to Karen King and the others who uncritically proclaimed it authentic, as well as for HTR which has decided not to pusblish the article.  This seems to me to be the reason that people have gone silent on the papyrus and are unwilling to comments or recant.

Beware: content very boring to non-specialists!

What's interesting, is that that is exactly what should have been the case with GJW fragment. A papyrus fragment? What could be more "inside baseball" than that? New Testament Studies, however, is perhaps unique among academic disciplines in its (li)ability to break through the ivory shell surrounding scholarship and ooze out onto the public. There really are, as you said, just all sorts of texts "stranger" than this one that have been kicking around the academy for years, but the hunger people have for some further insight into the life of Jesus is all that it takes to push a papyrus onto the front page of the Huffington Post (or NYT!). I think that the technical issues are interesting, but what's really fascinating is the reactive combination of so many different impulses: media hype, careless promotion, scholarly (and parochial) reactionarism all coming together to produce a lot of light and little heat.

People latched on to the question of what the text might say about the historical Jesus, even though it, of course, said nothing at all with respect to that. All of which is too bad, because this text (and, in my opinion, all other early Christian texts) are more interesting for what they say about their social and cultural environment than anything else.

a lot of light and little heat.

I meant the opposite, of course...


People latched on to the question of what the text might say about the historical Jesus, even though it, of course, said nothing at all with respect to that. All of which is too bad, because this text (and, in my opinion, all other early Christian texts) are more interesting for what they say about their social and cultural environment than anything else.

That is exaclty the point.  If it is a forgry it does not tell us about the social and cultural environment of early Christianity.  It tells us what someone wants us to beleive about thart environment regardless of the truth.

When everyone is finished debunking the papyrus fragment that may give us some inkling of Jesus personal history, I would suggest purusing the writings of Prof. James Tabor of University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.  Here are some tasty hor d'oeuvres:

Oh, good Lord, no...

Btw, he's at UNC-Charlotte.

What's wrong Abe?  Not in your wheelhouse?

I like his 1986 monograph; he has since gotten tied up with Simcha Jacobovici and various sensational archaeological boondoggles.

Abe, I'm reminded that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's archeological studies - which heavily influenced his philosophy and theology - were not exactly welcomed by his Jesuit superiors and the Holy Office because they so threatened the dominant ideology of their time.

Nonetheless, the church benefited immensely from his then rejected scholarship, and of course his personal sacrifice.

Ok, but I'm not really sure that the two situations are similar. I am sure that Tabor has his detractors because they don't like the implications of his work, but mainly it seems that his methodology and conclusions are what is being critiqued.

Teilhard's "detractors" also didn't like the implications of his work, and his methodology and conclusions weren't a big hit at the Holy Office either.

You still haven't explained how the two figures are the same, other than that they had detractors. Just because one guy was unfairly rejected, doesn't mean that evryon whose scholarship isn't accepted is being mistreated. I don't really know/care about how the "Holy Office" responds to scholarship; Tabor's findings aren't being rejected by Catholic officials, they're being rejected by other archaeologists.

I read the link Jim provided and was pretty surprised. If what is said, is true, then it is an amazing discovery and the implications are indeed mind boggling.  I am curious as to the problems with his methods.

The way he laid it out sounds all very convincing.

As a total amateur in this area I was struck by one thought. If this tomb really is the burial of Jesus how on earth would this not have been known? He seems to accept the gospel tradition of Mary Magdalene being at the empty tomb first to anoint the body. Now, if Joseph of Arimethea provided for the other tomb and arranged for the anointing, who would have done the anointing if not Mary? How can they at the same time be intimate and yet she is not the one who anoints his body? Who else would have done it? Who usually prepared bodies in that culture?

And how would this not have been more widely known?

Why the overwhelming insistence on the resurrection? It is one of the most compelling and clear messages prevading the whole of the New Testament. I just have a hard time believing that the gospel writers would have tried to knowingly hoist a fraud on the community especially one that was easily known or would have been known. The writers did not try to conceal the fact that Mary was pregnant and Jospeh was not the father. Mark did not mention it at all nor did Paul so there must have been a reason Matthew and Luke did. I suspect the reason was because the rumours about this were all around so it had to be addressed. Same thing for Judas. Benedict makes the point that the messiah was suppoed to have gathered all the tribes of Israel (symbolized by the twelve) and yet they had to deal with Judas which did not neatly fit the narrative. So it is not like the gospel writers were ignorant of scandal and difficulties with matching the real history with what was assumed in prophecy.


There is a simple explaination for this “story” about Jesus’ wife. Consider the work of liberal sycophants today. They make things up to advance their world view and agenda. Examples? Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Misquotes Ambassador Michael Oren on Israel, then denies she said it even though video footage of her statement exists) and Barack Obama (The Lie of the Year 2013, You can keep your plan, you can keep your doctor, period). People with these moral values have existed since the beginning of time. Why should anyone be surprised that some of their writings have survived the millenia? Doesn’t make them any more true than Obama’s lie.

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