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Jesus’ Wife Fragment: What’s Happening?

November 14, 2013

Last year, from September onward, newspapers and the blogosphere were rippling with references to an putative fragment of an ancient Christian text in Coptic in which there appeared to be a reference to a wife of Jesus.  All through last Autumn scholarly queries about it were fast and thick, with a growing chorus expressing either suspicions about its authenticity or outright declaring it to be a fake.

It was to be the focus of an article reported to be forthcoming in the prestigious journal, Harvard Theological Review, but by this time last year this had been put on hold to allow physical tests of the fragment.  To date, no such article has appeared, and from a trawl through web sites this afternoon, I find nothing further of any substance.

So, honest question:  What happened to the fragment, the article, and the claims involved?  Surely, it doesn’t take 11 months to do the testing in question.  Were the tests conducted?  If so, results?  Where do we stand.  It’s not acceptable for something like this to go into silence without explanation.   Can we hear from Prof. Karen King?  Anyone (who actually knows something)?

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  1. Meanwhile, and as usual, many in the public are left with the belief that Jesus may have had a wife. You can bet if the doc. is a fake, it won’t get nearly the same amount of coverage.
    Perhaps one of the scholars on this blog can release an newly found ancient document saying Jesus is DEFINITELY God. Fake or not, it might just get some attention.

    • Well, newspapers don’t feature retractions as prominently as they do their sensational stories that prove incorrect. But in scholarship, we ought to have a clear record of things.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    My Coptic tutor last year gave a very interesting and convincing explanation of why this fragment is certainly a forgery, even to the extent of identifying where the forger had relied upon te Gospel of Thomas and misused Crum’s dictionary in fabricating the text. He prepared handouts on the subject that I wish he would publish as it’s better than anything I’ve seen online. One suspects Karen King is deeply embarrassed to have been taken in but such an obvious fake, and would prefer to say little more about the subject.

    • Well, I’ve no aim of causing her or others any shame. But, simply for the record (and to help dampen the frenzy on the blogosphere alleging some kind of coverup), it would be proper procedure for results of analysis of the item to be released. When Trever-Roper was taken in by the “Hitler Diaries”, he acknowledged it and helped to set the record straight.

  3. Larry, I agree that updates should have been given, but I am surprised to hear this from YOU. You have previously said that peer reviewed journals are the proper place for presenting claims and you agree that the publication process can take years. So you can’t really complain about Karen King’s recent silence, can you? Isn’t it at least theoretically possible that she is following your advice and taking her work through the publication process?

    • Richard, You’re confused,and I’ll clarify things for you. Prof King did present her work at a scholarly conference, and prepared an article submitted for publication in HTR. So far, so good. But I understand that when the article was sent out for scholarly review the critiques were so serious, reviewers suggesting that Prof King had been taken in by a fake, HTR chose to put the article on hold for more testing. That happened late last year. Since then, nothing, which allows all sorts of speculation to be promoted across the blogosphere. So, what should happen now is that someone (perhaps Prof King) should now report on the results of scholarly review of the item, or give permission for someone (e.g., editor of HTR) to do so. It would not be good form to allow the thing to go into limbo.

      • No, I am not confused. You have previously been very clear that claims in biblical studies should not be taken seriously until they appear in a peer reviewed publication. Yet you now want someone to report the results of physical tests without allowing time for those test results to go through a peer review process. Time would be needed for a) the tests (which could take a lot of time) b) scientific review of the tests c) King’s rewriting of her paper, incorporating the test results and perhaps reversing her conclusion, d) peer review of her rewritten paper, e) re-submission to another journal if rejected ….

        You had previously insisted on such a (slow) process, but now you (rightly) want more.

      • Richard: Yes, you are confused, and I’ll try again to clarify matters for you. The article by Prof King was sent out for review over a year ago, and the publication was put on hold on account of the reviews. The item was itself to be subjected to further tests, which were to take place from end of last year. These have surely now been conducted. All I am asking is that we have a reliable and direct report, from Prof King, the editors of HTR, or someone able to give us an update on where things stand. This isn’t bypassing peer review. It’s asking for the results of that peer review. So, no change of view on my part. I hope that confusion is now dispelled.

  4. Larry, I cannot tell you how often I’ve wondered the same thing over the past 6 months. I fully expected that some announcement would be made before my book went to press… an odd silence.
    Prediction: inconclusive results.

  5. Jack McDuff permalink

    I am surprised that an emeritus professor would resort to a blog to register a query like this. Would not normal academic channels have been more appropriate? Has our good professor actually contacted anyone in the know — like KIng herself — to find out what’s going on? Or is Larry too fundamentalist and too close to God to talk to his more secular peers when there are questions relating to dogma at stake?

    • Dear Jack, I have made inquiries of people closer to the scene than I, and they’ve all responded with equal puzzlement and uncertainty. My blog was really an honest query, and also indicative that this isn’t a satisfactory situation or way of handling the matter. It shouldn’t be necessary to pester the principals involved to find out what’s happened/happening. No ulterior motive, and your sneering and somewhat silly final comment does not serve you well.

    • Karl watts permalink

      I think . . . . . . . . . and that is why things are in Limbo. I think maybe HDS is just hoping this will just go away.

      • Karl,
        I’ve edited out of your comment a claim about Prof. King that would perhaps be “actionable”. It’s not right or fair to make accusations based simply on suppositions, and it could land you in some legal trouble! But, yes, it is perhaps the case that some people would like it all to go away. But that’s not responsible scholarship, and one hopes for better things.

  6. You should have asked the question a week ago. November 7th “Harvard Divinity School Discussion with Prof. Karen L. King.” where she apparently discussed the manuscript. So maybe you can find out what she said here.

    • No. No information on this link, merely an advertisement that Dr. King was to speak on a broad topic in which questions might emerge. But no report as to what she said.

  7. Dear Mark,
    A few months ago I had the chance to hear a talk on the subject by a renowned Coptic papyrologist (who shall remain nameless, as I don’t want to speak in his place), who was asked by K. King to examine the fragment last November.
    He suggested further testing, as it proved difficult to prove or disprove the authenticity of the document at the naked eye (remember that R. Bagnall had actually not discredited the idea that it could be authentic).
    In fact, that was the whole point of the talk: there are a number of issues with the fragment that could invalidate its authenticity, just as they were a number features that could give credence to it.
    So the papyrologist left it at that and suggested that if we did not hear any more from it (i.e., if no paper appeared in the HTR by around this time), then it would probably mean that the tests were inconclusive.
    Sadly, we will probably never know for sure.
    But if nothing appears in the next two or three volumes of HTR, we can be pretty sure that tests haven’t revealed that it is authentic or have proven that it isnt.

  8. Don’t hold your breath. It was amazing that a document like this ever slipped thru the net in the first place.

    • Mark: What “net”? Or do you mean that it’s amazing to you that it received so much initial attention?

      • “What net?” The one first cast by the early heresy hunters, broadened after Nicea and spread out everywhere by the Inquisition. Most of the “embarrassing “stuff’ long since disappeared. Although I for one, still have hope…

      • Mark: You really must see someone about that conspiracy-complex. We know about ancient “heresies” largely because of descriptions and critiques of them in “orthodox” writers. And the Inquisition didn’t extend much beyond parts of Spain, for heaven’s sake! In any case, the situation now is such as to privilege anything that claims to be novel, “unorthodox” or such. Note the massive publicity given to such things, whether shown to be valid (e.g., the Tchachos Codex”) or fraudulent (e.g., the “Lead Codices” of a couple of years ago). Take a breath. There is every incentive for scholars nowadays to produce new finds. And the critical process doesn’t involve hooded Inquisition figures, just other scholars.

  9. labarum permalink

    Frankly, I think everyone knows the answer. Similarly, I wonder what happened to the allegedly first century fragment of Mark that Dan Wallace mentioned but has yet to appear. Has that one faded in the mist as well?

    • Well, I don’t know the answer. I agree that a number of people suspect the answer (that the piece has come under such doubt that it has been laid aside), but this isn’t the way things should be handled. Scholarship proceeds by new understanding, new data, and also by critique, refutation, and correcting of previous scholarly claims/views. So, if in fact this purported ancient Christian fragment has been discredited, then this too should form part of the scholarly record.

  10. I just assumed since it was shown to be a forgery (based on linguistic grounds), that any further study of it was abandoned.

  11. Professor hurtado,

    I don’t know what happened to that nonsense though I would certainly like to hear from Daniel B Wallace on this:

    First-Century Fragment of Mark’s Gospel Found!?
    “At my debate with Bart Ehrman (1 Feb 2012, held at UNC Chapel Hill) over whether we can recover the wording of the New Testament autographs, I made the announcement that a probable first-century fragment of Mark’s Gospel had been recently discovered. I noted that a world-class paleographer had dated this manuscript and that he was pretty darn sure that it belonged to the first century. All the details will be coming out in a multi-author book published by E. J. Brill sometime in 2013″


    • Mr/Ms Gould: Per my information, there is such a fragment, but the dating is to this point only a second-hand report, and there have been problems in fully securing the acquisition of the item, in part caused by the public controversy over it. Until scholars are allowed full access to the item, it is inappropriate to make anything of it. Wallace’s comment was premature, or at least should be taken as highly tentative in force.

      • What public controversy was there over the reported fragment of a first century manuscript of Mark allegedly found?

        How did Wallace get access to Brill’s publishing schedule?

      • Well, some excitement in the blogosphere. But I don’t think there was a press-release, or a TV programme, or such (as there was for the Jesus’ Wife fragment). It was a remark made in a debate. Wallace was given information from someone then involved in the acquisition of the item, and thought he was allowed to make it public. As I’ve said, that was in the event unfortunate, and has now complicated the acquisition and editing of the item. It therefore must be treated as an unverified (and for now unverifiable) statement, and so cannot carry any weight.

      • There was some excitement in the blogosphere, but I can’t imagine many real scholars being excited by news of a first-century manuscript of Mark.

        Certainly if Wallace announced such a thing and wrote a blog post about it ,and claimed that a leading paleographer had verified the date , and it turned out to be discredited, no blame should attach to him whatsoever.

      • No. And I neither attach nor imply any blame to Prof King as well. But the situations are a bit different. In Wallace’s case, the item wasn’t his, and he was simply passing on second-hand information about a text that apparently does exist and is not now/yet available (because of complications in acquiring the item from its present owner).
        In the case of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, it is available, has been subjected to tests, which must surely have been completed by now. So, all that is needed (and necessary) is that these results be officially made public.

  12. Interesting comment as Simcha in a recent interview claimed that ‘she was hiding under the bed’ due to all the criticism for making such a claim. Whereas i seriously doubt if she was actually hiding under the bed in fear of academic criticism, his remarks seems more in the realm of his recent ‘Con Film Festival Award, it would be of interest to see what the tests actually show.

  13. The only recent mention of it that I’ve come across is this news article on the Harvard Divinity School site.

    “King bumped up against the categories of orthodoxy and heresy again in September 2012, when she announced the existence of a scrap of papyrus that bore the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’.” The fragment, which as of this writing is undergoing testing to clarify its age and origin, almost immediately became a lightning rod for controversy, despite King’s admonishments that the text could tell historians nothing about Jesus’s marital status.”

    • Nick, Yes, hmm. Well, the real problems with the reported fragment weren’t “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, but queries from specialists in Coptic and papyrology about the validity of the item, and features that suggested to a number that it was a fake. “Orthodoxy” was never in question. King herself made it repeatedly clear that, if valid, the piece may have reflected only one type of 3rd/4th century speculation about Jesus, and that it had nothing to do with the historical figure of Jesus.

      • Agreed. I only meant to point out that the article was written last month (October 2013) and says “The fragment, which as of this writing is undergoing testing to clarify its age and origin…” Since this was written at HDS, I’m inclined to think that this is being written with closer knowledge of the process and that it truly is still in testing. But I suppose you could also email Dr King to see what information she could provide.

  14. Granville Sydnor permalink

    Larry, please see this link. This does not appear to be hyperlinked but the site provides much of the information you were looking for. Appreciated your lectures in Houston. I look forward to your take on this website.

    • Granville: The link you give is an old one, from back in last year, and with no updated report on what “further testing” has determined. That’s the problem.

  15. If it had been something, we would have heard by now. If the suppositions and claims have proven false or if they discovered the piece was bogus, then their silence is unsurprising. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie…’ as it were, and maybe no one will ask….

    • But this won’t do!

      • i’d like to know more as well. but it doesn’t seem they have any interest in saying more.

      • Stewart Felker permalink

        In a recent discussion I had with James McGrath and others, it was strongly suggested that a missing (and essential) direct object marker was the “smoking gun” for its being a forgery – as this same clause appears verbatim in the online transcription of the Coptic text of GThom, where the marker had been accidentally omitted.

        I’m sure you’re aware of this; but this issue seems to have only been tangentially addressed thus far. But in lieu of having anything else to go on at the moment, if one were still determined to find out more info, I think it’d be worth consulting Coptologists on this issue – and if they were to confirm that this is indeed a fatal mistake (one that could not be conceived of as having occurred in the ancient world), I would see no reason to continue the search.

      • Stewart: This and other observations about the Coptic of the fragment have been made, suggesting something amiss. But my posting was that, whatever the results of the analyses and supposed physical tests, there is an obligation by parties responsible to make the results public, to keep the scholarly record up to date.

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