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.