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More on Jesus’ Wife!

So here’s a topic I haven’t addressed for nearly a year and a half!  The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.  New developments happened about six weeks ago.   I meant to post on them, other things got in the way, I put it off, so now I’m way behind the times.  But in case you haven’t kept up with the story from other venues, I thought I should say something about it.   It’s all extremely interesting.

I won’t review everything I’ve said about the fragment already, but will give just a three-sentence summation of where the discussion stood last time I talked about it on the blog.   In 2012 Karen King, a superb scholar of early Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School (and a colleague and friend), announced that she had been given by an anonymous collector the little fragment scrap of a Gospel written in Coptic.  It was smaller than a credit card and contained eight partial lines of text that cited some words of Jesus, including a reference to “my wife.”  Prof. King planned to publish a long article on the text but as soon as photographs of the piece were available on the Internet other scholars gave long and rather compelling reasons to suspect that in fact the piece was a modern forgery.

That’s where I left the matter here on the blog in October 2012.   A couple of months ago it became known that scientific tests had been made on the fragment – a carbon 14 dating of the papyrus itself and a chemical analysis of the ink.   In April the results were announced: the papyrus dated back to the 7th -9th centuries – so it’s ancient, not modern; and the ink was said to be “consistent” with inks produced in that period, rather than inks produced in modern times.

That seemed to seal the deal.  It really was an ancient text, not a modern forgery.   Prof. King published her article on the text and there was a TV special that ran on it.  It was all very exciting.

But then there was a new, crushing, development.   In order to test the fragment, there needed to be some “control” material, and one of the control elements was another papyrus manuscript, also a fragment, taken from the same collection of papyri that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife had come from.  This other manuscript was a fragmentary copy of the Gospel of John, also written in Coptic.  Since it was used as part of the scientific investigation, an image of it was released as well.   Woops.

Two scholars working in Germany (one of them an American, Christian Askeland), who are experts on Coptic versions of the Gospel of John, noticed something very peculiar indeed about this allegedly ancient copy of John.   It is *exactly* like another a Coptic manuscript of John that was discovered in 1923, and that is now available on the Internet.  How exactly?  The words and letters on the left hand margin for all of 17 lines in a row of the “new discovery” match exactly those in the text that was discovered in the 20th century and that is now available for all to see, electronically, here in the 21st.

The chances of that happening by “accident” are virtually beyond belief.   Imagine two people independently writing out by hand the Gospel of John in English on different sizes of paper, hyphenating some of the words at the end of some of the lines; you take a scrap from one and the full text of the other and find that they began every single line with exactly the same letters.  It would never happen.   (It doesn’t even happen when a scribe is copying the text of another manuscript to make his own manuscript.)

Why does it happen here?  Whoever “made” this so-called ancient copy of John was copying the text that was discovered in 1923 and that can now readily be seen on the Internet.

There’s more.  This copy of John is also made of papyrus and the papyrus itself is old (as is the one that has the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife on it) – so old that it has worn out in places.  There are a few holes in the manuscript.  On the reverse side of the Gospel of John fragment there is writing (not from John but from another text).  As you would expect, wherever there is a hole, the letters on that side are simply missing (since the holes were formed by aging after the text had been put on the papyrus).  But on the side that has a copy of the Gospel of John, the person who wrote the text wrote *AROUND* the hole.   That means that *this* side of the papyrus was written on after the hole had been made in the manuscript.  That is, in modern times.  (In other words, this is an ancient papyrus that somewhat unusually had a text written only on one side, not on both; someone took that papyrus and, recently, wrote on the blank side).

And so why does this matter for the Gospel of Jesus’ wife?  For two reasons.  One is that it comes from the same collection owned by the same anonymous collector.  (It’s striking that he has remained anonymous.  Usually that’s not good news if you want to find out where a manuscript actually came from.)  That’s not a hopeful sign.  But what is more, experts in such things think the same scribe produced both documents.  If that’s the case, and the Gospel of John is almost certainly a modern forgery, then necessarily, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is as well.

So how do you explain that papyrus on which the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is from around the 7th century  and that the ink is “consistent” with that date?  The papyrus could indeed to be ancient, and written on (one side) in the modern period (as was done with the Coptic fragment of John in the same collection).  Evidently it is not hard to produce simple ink such as was produced many centuries ago.  Just don’t use modern chemicals.  If so, there’d be no way of knowing on the basis of this kind of analysis when the ink was made.  A good forger could do it.  It looks like one has!

It may be that this won’t be the end of the story.  It may be that the defenders of the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife will come up with yet more reasons for thinking that it is indeed authentic.  I hope they do!  I hope it’s ancient!    But, well, it’s not looking good.

For more discussions at greater depth, see the following discussions, one by Mark Goodacre on his blog and one by Joel Baden and Candida Moss for a CNN special.



Thomasine “Gnostics” and Others
Interview for The Skeptic Fence Show



  1. Avatar
    toejam  May 24, 2014

    I also read James Tabor’s blog, and at first he seemed very supportive of the fragment’s potential authenticity. But his last post on it a few weeks ago even he seemed to be distancing himself from claiming it authentic. I figure if Tabor is distancing himself from such a fragment, that is not a good sign LOL!!

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 25, 2014

    This is very helpful. The Smithsonian channel show you describe really did not discuss the Gospel of John issues. I had read about these Gospel of John issues on the Internet on Dr. Tabor’s blog, including the references Dr. Tabor listed, but did not really understand them. As usual, you have a gift for clarifying stuff.
    By the way, the Smithsonian channel 2- part series, entitled “Bible Hunters,” is especially helpful in discussing the Smith sisters and their finding of the Syriac Codex at the Catherine Monastery. The stuff about the Washington Codex.in the series is also fascinating. This series also discusses how money can be made selling ancient fragments on the antiquities market.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 25, 2014

    I assume people forge things like this because they expect to get a lot of money for them. *Has* someone paid that “anonymous collector” big bucks for the “Jesus’s wife” fragment? Frankly, I can’t see why it would be considered valuable, when even the 7th century is so long after Jesus’s lifetime.

    I recently rewatched an episode of the History Channel’s “Digging For the Truth.” They told how – a good many years back – Israel’s agency for antiquities (or national museum, or something like that) paid over $500,000 for a tiny ivory “pomegranate” figurine bearing an inscription that said it came from King Solomon’s Temple. After they’d shelled out all that money, they ran a test that showed that while the figurine was old enough, the inscriprion (which supposedly proved the existence of the Temple) was moden fakery. I assume they couldn’t get their money back, because there was no proof the collector they bought it from had known it was a fake.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      As I understand it, he has been trying to sell his collection to the library at Harvard.

  4. Avatar
    schabetc  May 25, 2014

    I am a member of the blog and I am looking on the website for a place to pose a question to Bart. Can anyone help me with that?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      The easiest way is just to do it as you just did: in the comment section of a post, just raise a question, even if it’s not directly relevant to the post.

  5. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 25, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    If this is a forgery, what is the impact and repercussion in terms of publication criteria? What does it mean that a respected scholar working for a respectful academic institution defended the authenticity of a potentially fake document despite so much controversy from the start? Is this the kind of thing that could have happened to any scholar?

    Thank you!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      Yes, I’m afraid any of us can be misled. That’s why there is scholarship — to weed out the mistakes! But if Prof. King had not published the fragment, the scholarship that has argued it is a modern forgery would never have happened. Luckily, she never came out definitively saying that it must be ancient, so she was not staking her career on it.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2014

    P.S. I got sidetracked recently and have been reading about the three choirs of the Christian angelic hierarchy described by Pseudo-Dionysus during the fourth and/or fifth centuries. It reminds me of what you have written about ancient people thinking that there were different levels of divinity which initially was a hard concept for me to grasp. Seeking a Christianity that makes sense gets progressively more difficult the more I learn about Christians just making stuff up. I guess that is the way it works.

  7. Avatar
    willow  May 27, 2014

    It seems to me the bottom line to all of this is, we will probably never know, definitively speaking, that Jesus was or was not married. Unless an earthen vessel is found, or some long since buried papyri, containing a document(s) that explicitly states Jesus had a wife – a document that has not ever found its way to the antiquities market, the mystery will remain as it is, unknowable.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 27, 2014

      Yes, no one thinks that this document is serious evidence otherwise — even the scholars who maintain that it is relatively ancient.

  8. Avatar
    JeffinFairfax  June 7, 2014

    Forgive me if you’ve already addressed this elsewhere (I can’t seem to find a method to do a global word search on your blog) but what do you think of James Tabor’s thesis in “The Jesus Dynasty” that a careful reading of the New Testament shows that Jesus was originally conceived as both being in the line of royal succession and leaving a dynasty after this death (first in the person of his brother James), a view that the victorious Gentile faction in the early church attempted to edit out and undermine by repeatedly making derogatory references to Jesus’ actual biological family?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 7, 2014

      I don’t think anyone born in the first century had a clear notion of what their genealogical connections were. On the other hand, given the way genealogies work, probably all Jews on the planet today (and many non-Jews) can trace a line back to David! But I haven’t worked through James’s book carefully enough to give a critique of it.

      • Avatar
        JeffinFairfax  June 9, 2014

        Right about descent from past famous people. Steve Olson in “Mapping Human History” notes some fascinating results of the mathematics of descent (such as that most of us of European stock are likely descended from Julius Caesar).

        But let me ask the question more basically. Jesus (ironically chosen as the poster boy by pro-family social conservatives) appears to me to repeatedly make very un-Jewish, anti-family comments. Apart from more general comments like “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters . . . he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26) and his encouraging people to abandon their natural families (Mark 10.29), there’s that set of texts where Jesus again and again rejects honor for his own biological family (“. . . a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’”–Luke 11.27, 28) and even rejects applying familial names to his biological family in favor of the new family of God in the kingdom (“. . . and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’ ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked . . . ‘Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’”–Mark 3.32-34).

        So here’s my question: are there good reasons to believe that Jesus’ repeated disparaging of his own family is an authentic tradition from the beginning or are these twistings by later Gentile, Pauline Christians to denigrate the natural, biological family of Jesus, who, in the form of James the Just, inherited the mantle of leadership after Jesus’ death?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2014

          Yes, the “anti-family” traditions are, in my judgment, almost certainly historical, and were glossed over by his later followers.

  9. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 20, 2014

    ok jesus had marry
    but who did john the baptist have ?
    a woman right ?
    can’t seem to find that one .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 20, 2014

      There’s no evidence to suggest whether John the Baptist was or was not married.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  August 20, 2014

        Yea I figured that
        Jesus met up with him
        So you never answered me did John the Baptist ask jesus to baptize him first
        And jesus said no or is that false . Or did jesus eventually baptize john like john asked
        And we’re THEE TWO kingdoms of john and jesus spoke of thee same kingdom ?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 21, 2014

          No, almost certainly John baptized Jesus, and Jesus himself was not baptizing others.

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