Is the New Gospel Fragment a Modern Forgery? (For members)

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The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” has been publicly available for only three days now, and already New Testament scholars and scholars of Coptic and Gnosticism are hard at work on it.  Most of the effort so far has been in deciding whether it is authentic or forged.   And it ain’t lookin’ good for those who think it’s authentic! 

Some have pointed out that the fragment looks too neat around the edges to be believable; others have noted  that the writing looks fake; others have argued that there are grammatical problems; and some have thought that it really is just absolutely too good to be true that of eight lines out of an entire Gospel, with only a couple of words surviving per line, two of those surviving words would just happen to involve Jesus saying “My wife”! 

As this all is unfolding, I am reminded once again that there are some *amazing* scholars out there who can do  brilliant work on very short notice.   The following was sent out by my colleague at Duke (with whom I’m friendly even in basketball season), about an article written by Francis Watson, who teaches in the UK at the University of Durham.    Watson argues that the piece is a modern forgery, and he does so by making a minute comparison of its wording with the Gospel of Thomas, arguing that someone – a modern person – who is not a native speaker of Coptic concocted the piece by patching together words here that more famous Gospel.  Here are the links: 

First: the Technical version (which includes detailed comparisons in Coptic) is here: 

http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-how-fake.html 

An introduction and summary is here (this gives a shorter version in English, for all readers): 

http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/francis-watsons-introduction-and.html

 

The story has already made The Guardian (the newspaper in the UK): 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/21/gospel-jesus-wife-forgery

 Mark Goodacre concludes: “This coheres with what I would see as an emerging consensus that the fragment is not authentic. “

For those of you who don’t want to read the article or its summary, the thesis (these are Watson’s words) is this: 

The text has been constructed out of small pieces – words or phrases – culled mostly from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (GTh), Sayings 101 and 114, and set in new contexts. This is most probably the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic. 

The final summary and conclusion is this (again, his direct words):

Summary Six of the eight incomplete lines of GJW recto are so closely related to the Coptic GTh, especially to Sayings 101 and 114, as to make dependence virtually certain. A further line is derived from Matthew; just one is left unaccounted for. The author has used a “collage” or “patchwork” compositional technique, and this level of dependence on extant pieces of Coptic text is more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one. Indeed, the GJW fragment may be designedly incomplete, its lacunae built into it from the outset. It does not seem possible to fill these lacunae with GTh material contiguous to the fragments cited. The impression of modernity is reinforced by the case in line 1 of dependence on the line-division of the one surviving Coptic manuscript, easily accessible in modern printed editions. Unless this impression of modernity is countered by further investigations and fresh considerations, it seems unlikely that GJW will establish itself as a “genuine” product of early gospel writing.

This looks pretty damning to me.  We await further investigation!

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Comments

  1. maxhirez  September 21, 2012

    Does the physical examination come later in the process? It’s not like secret Mark where there were only photos by the time it mattered and the ink wasn’t available for analysis-they have the actual artifact this time.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 21, 2012

      Well, it’s a problem if you mean something like Carbon 14. The papyrus itself could be old, something a forger got ahold of (not hard to do). So you’d have to test the ink, but to do that means destroying it. Not good.

      • maxhirez  September 22, 2012

        Fascinating-how much of a piece is it worth it to destroy to validate the rest of it? Surely they wouldn’t have to mash up much more than that apparent hanging omicron at the bottom to test it, or would they?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 23, 2012

          I’m not sure. But there’s a general reluctance to destroy anything at all, if you have hardly anything to start with.

      • nsnyder  September 22, 2012

        Can’t you look for caesium–137 and strontium–90 with a mass spectrometer on a much smaller sample? That won’t give a firm date, but at least tells you whether the ink is older than the 1950s.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 23, 2012

          Yes, that’s what they’ll be doing next I believe.

      • lbehrendt  September 23, 2012

        If the piece is a modern forgery, then there’s no loss if the ink gets destroyed. Sounds like they might have to destroy the fragment in order to save it!

  2. Adam  September 21, 2012

    It’s remarkable how scholars like Watson can piece this together and make these connections so quickly. What’s more remarkable is the fundamental disagreement among experts.

  3. haoleboy26  September 22, 2012

    The discussion of this new find/forgery and the extra links that Bart has provided alone has been worth the price of admission (i.e., membership). I’ll bet this would be an exciting time to be taking a relevant colege level course.

  4. James Dowden  September 22, 2012

    “A modern parallel to the author’s collage technique may be seen in the composition of the
    Secret Gospel of Mark passages which – as I have argued at length elsewhere – are to be attributed,
    along with the letter in which they are embedded, to their alleged discoverer, Morton Smith.”

    Ouch. I do wonder what Karen King’s Coptic hand looks like…

  5. Don M. Burrows  September 22, 2012

    Since you’ve gone back and forth with Wallace before, do you have any thoughts on his take? I thought his characterization of King as “deliberately provocative” was a bit unfair (not to mention his occasional assertions about “the true Christian faith”). But it seemed largely fair overall.
    http://danielbwallace.com/2012/09/21/reality-check-the-jesus-wife-coptic-fragment/

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 23, 2012

      Well, I think it’s a *bit* provocative to call it the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. But then again, I think Dan is way too provocative to suggest that he’s discovered a first century manuscript of Mark but then won’t tell us anything about it!!

  6. donmax  September 22, 2012

    I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance the fragment is authentic. DCS

  7. SJB  September 23, 2012

    It must be very gratifying to work in a field that can produce front page top of the fold headlines all over the world. I would imagine Assyriologists or scholars of Late T’ang dynasty poetry look on you and your colleagues with a certain amount of envy at times like this!

    I’m assuming that even a bad forgery would require a certain amount of expertise given the materials and the script. Would it even be possible for someone to produce a forgery of this kind that could withstand an examination by experts? And wouldn’t someone have to be an expert to produce such a forgery?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 23, 2012

      Well, you would need to know how to compose Coptic; you’d have to be able to imitate a fourth century Coptic style of handwriting; and you’d have to be able to produce a plausible Gospel account. That would take a good deal of expertise. And yes, some forgeries do escape detection!

      • SJB  September 25, 2012

        “And yes, some forgeries do escape detection!”

        including several books of the New Testament I hear!!!

  8. theology64  September 23, 2012

    I have not been on this blog for a few days – due to Uni, and therefore, it has come as a surprise to learn about “Jesus’…wife….etc. This was last night. I actually closed this blog due to the shock. Straight away, i thought “is it authentic”? I was thinking all-sorts – genealogy and the blood-line to the present day.If Jesus had children…I always wondered what made me be drawn towards Jesus and made me stand out from the “ordinary crowd !! THAT IS A JOKE AND THE BRITISH SENSE OF HUMOUR!

    On a serious note, and due to carbon dating and waiting for the ‘experts’ to come to a conclusion as best they can, is exciting .In the mean-time, I will follow the links that Prof Bart has suggested.

  9. RonaldTaska  September 23, 2012

    I am still thinking about the criticism that your books and work receive such as that from the “Ehrman Project” website. I wonder if you wrote with someone like Ben Witherington, with whom you have recently written on his website, if such a writer or writers could add another opinion or opinions at the end of some of your chapters? Would that tone it down a bit? Like I have said before, I love your books, but, even I, was taken back by the word “Forged” in the title of your recent book for the public. I understand how you reached this conclusion and don’t intellectually disagree with it, but, nevertheless, the word “forged” is quite strong. Somehow, toning down words like that might be useful. I hope this is helpful because I care deeply about your work.

  10. Dennis Steenbergen  September 24, 2012

    Possible or probable that John 2:1-12 is referring to Jesus’s own wedding? Probably a mute point if the wife gospel is a forgery.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/reverend-william-e-flippin-jr/john-2-jesus-married_b_1900831.html

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 24, 2012

      Impossible I’m afraid. Jesus and his disciples get invited to it!

  11. dmthliana  September 25, 2012

    I believe there is going to be an ink test. Is it possible to age ink by modern methods? And if such methods exist, are they detectable? With so many forgeries having been revealed in the recent past, my initial reaction is that no one would be foolish enough to attempt to fool anybody again. And taking into consideration Prof King’s stake in this, I don’t believe she would dare take the chance of publicizing a forgery.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 25, 2012

      Well, if it’s a forgery, she certainly didn’t know it! And she did ask several bona fide experts, who thought it was authentic. But we will see. yes, there are ways to detect whether hte ink is modern or not, yet to be done I believe.

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