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“Jesus’ Wife” Fragment: A Continuing Puzzle

December 5, 2013

A few weeks ago I asked here what further news there was about the so-called “Jesus’ wife” fragment announced to the world in late summer 2012.  Since then, despite direct inquiry to Prof. King (the email address listed for her no longer valid) and asking several scholars who were in various ways directly involved in the analysis of the item last year, it has proven impossible to get anything further than the last notice about it given in early 2013, that it was undergoing further “tests”.  (How long does it take to conduct such tests, after all?)

We do know that the article on the fragment by Prof. King on the fragment announced as forthcoming in Harvard Theological Review was put on hold, and, so far as one can tell, seems now likely permanently so (i.e., it isn’t going to appear).  It also seems that the TV programme in preparation last year has been cancelled (so far as one can tell, again, without any formal notice given).

I can say that I have some direct sense of the sort of reviewer judgments about the fragment solicited by HTR that likely prompted the editorial decision not to proceed with the article.  There were thereafter full-length analyses published by various scholars that were also largely critical of the authenticity of the item, the study by Prof. Francis Watson having had a particular impact and available online here.  Indeed, I am informed that a number of leading experts in ancient Coptic dialects also judged the fragment suspicious or even a fake.

Now, to my knowledge, no one has accused Prof. King of having any involvement in the production of the item, so let that be emphasized.  If it is a fake, she was taken in, not guilty of anything else.  These things can happen, and have happened before.  Just think of the notorious case of the “Hitler Diaries” and poor Hugh Trevor-Roper!

But that comparison illustrates my puzzlement over the Jesus’ wife fragment.  In the case of the “Hitler Diaries,” Der Spiegel and Trevor-Roper acknowledged that they’d been taken in, and got it initially wrong.  They didn’t simply go quiet and hope that it would all die away.  They set the public record straight.  So, if in fact, after initially reported to have accepted King’s article for publication, HTR has now decided otherwise, why not say so publicly?  And if the weight of scholarly opinion is largely that the item is not a genuine text from some ancient Christian person/circle but instead a modern fake, shouldn’t that be registered properly?  Having publicized the item to the roof, shouldn’t Harvard Divinity School now update things a bit and indicate whether the institution still affirms Prof. King’s initial proposal or recognizes the widespread scholarly judgment that it is an unsafe item?

I am told of a recent conversation with a leading scholar of ancient Christianity who is sympathetic to the initial claims about the fragment, and who as of a few weeks ago professed to be unaware that major scholarly critiques had been lodged against it.  That’s curious, isn’t it?  Debate about an item central to this scholar’s area of interest, and the scholar is unaware of it?  So, do we have some sort of “tribalization” of scholarship, in which one simply doesn’t pay attention to those scholars who take a line different from what you prefer, or what?

One scholar central in the critique of the fragment to whom I expressed my puzzlement over the silence about the matter simply shrugged, opining that pretty much everyone in the know recognizes that the fragment has been discredited and now those who initially proffered it just hope that people will forget the earlier claims.  If they stay silent long enough, he suggested, we’ll all move on.  Well, that’s one way to handle the matter, I guess.  Call me naive, but I still think that the standards of good scholarship require us to keep the record up to date, to admit valid criticisms of our ideas and claims, to admit when we get something wrong, or, in this case, may have been duped, or whatever.  Trevor-Roper did so, and I respect him the more for it.

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  1. This reminds me of the 2012 report that an ancient version of the “Gospel of Barnabas” had been found and would destroy Christianity. Haven’t heard anything more since. Nothing confirming that the manuscript was indeed this pro-Muslim work. Nothing about its age. Nothing about its authenticity. Silence.

  2. DBlocker permalink

    I hope I am not necro-posting.
    I wonder how any conclusions about Jesus’ marital status can be drawn from a mutilated, incomplete and out of context fragment of text.
    Even if one assumes that the fragment is from an ancient text, there is no way of determining how the text was used. Was the parent text considered to be a legitimate gospel by its owners, or was it an anti Christian satire? There is no way of knowing.
    To my knowledge the only “apocryphal gospel” that clearly stated Jesus was married is a Toldoth Jesu variant first published in Latin translation in 1705.

    • I’m afraid you’re shooting at a phantom: No one proposed on the basis of this fragment that Jesus was married. The question is whether the fragment authentically derives from some Christian circle in late antiquity who posited this.

  3. John Moles permalink

    Sorry to have to say that I find this and similar postings on this particular issue rather ‘off’. As I recall, Prof. King always made it clear that, if genuine, the fragment had no value whatsoever as regards the historical facts. As for the plea (which I absolutely support) for ‘proper scrutiny through proper scholarly channels’ (etc. etc.), no one here needs reminding that practically every new NT book that comes out arrives already garlanded with ‘scholarly’ endorsements, that is, proper scholarly assessment has already been preempted in the great religious enterprise … of selling books! As an academic in another discipline (where also this is practised but not to the same cynical degree), I think this practice is immoral. (Nadir recently reached when the recent book of Francis Watson – one of the ‘heroes’ of this blog – was recently endorsed by one of his colleages in Durham!)

    • John, Read my posting more carefully, please. There is nothing in it accusing Prof. King of anything underhanded, and there is also no mention of what impact there is on the “historical” Jesus. You’re chasing a hare! My sole plea is that at this point, given that we probably have the results of scholarly analysis and the “tests” that were supposed to run, it’s time for those responsible to speak to the public/scholarly record about results.
      As for your other complaint about scholarly endorsement of books prior to publication, you’re quite wrong that it short-circuits full scholarly review. The latter certainly proceeds whether the book is endorsed or not, and I see no effect one way or the other.

  4. There was also a report of a first century manuscript of Mark having been found.

    That has also gone as quiet as the grave.

    Is there a pattern here?

    • Steven: I’ve spoken to this item previously. The item does exist, apparently, but has not been acquired and placed before competent scholars. The public record, thus, is that this item and the claim of it being a lst century copy of GMark is completely moot, until/unless it is produced for scholarly analysis.
      That’s a different situation from the one involving the “Jesus’ Wife fragment,” where it has been examined copiously. What we need is appropriate people to go on record with summative results.

  5. J.J. permalink

    I think it would be helpful if Profs. King, Bagnall, and Luijendijk explain where they got this … fragment. Whoever [may have] made such a blatant attempt at deception cannot be trusted to proffer any reliable relics or artifacts. Forgers often repeat their crimes.
    [Edited by Hurtado to avoid unsubstantiated (as yet) claims.]

  6. Well, there is an old proverb, which was made famous by Seneca the Younger, yet is often quoted in its incomplete form. It begins thus:
    “Errare humanum est”, i.e. “to err is human” – which is fine.
    The continuation, however, should not be forgotten, because that makes the statement of Nero’s teacher truly complete:
    “Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum, et tertia non datur.”
    “To err is human, to persist [in the error] is of the devil, and there is no third option.”
    I am not saying anyone is in error, nonetheless, there is a hardly explainable “persistence” in this “scholarly incertitude”, and the third option (the silence) is simply not working.
    Or, as Master Yoda would probably put it: “Mmm… Unfortunate this is.”

  7. Professor Hurtado,

    I always assumed this (the original blaze of publicity about a supposed discovery of a fragment indicating that Jesus had a wife) was a piece of nonsense not worth any attention. But on reflection you are correct to press the issue. of why a Professor (holder of the oldest endowed chair in the United States) who obtains attention because of her position as well as her views should not have to answer for the apparent failure to subsequently follow up her announcements. That reflects poorly not just on her but also on the institution with which she is associated and which publicised her initial announcement.

    Harvard Divinity School still has this on its website:

    ” How do we know this fragment is not a forgery?

    Thus, on the basis of the age of the papyrus, the placement and absorption of the ink on the page, the type of the handwriting, and the Coptic grammar and spelling, it was concluded that it is highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text. Although a final conclusion about the parchment’s authenticity remains open to further examination by colleagues and to further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink, these assurances were sufficient for work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment to begin in earnest.”

  8. Mike Grondin permalink

    Many thanks, Larry, and you too, Mark, for publicly upholding the standards of good scholarship. That there’s been no word about what is and has been going on is, I suspect, partially a function of the number of players involved, and their reputations. No one may be willing to speak out unless all the other players concur. If, in addition, the fragment’s owner is in some way delaying the process, that adds uncertainty as to what can be said and when.

  9. Hi Larry, thanks for the post(s) about this fragment. The issue was raised in one of my Coptic classes just a couple of weeks ago, and we were all equally at a loss to explain what was going on. We all seemed to agree that the silence itself was deafening, and seemed to point towards the idea that the fragment is a forgery of some description. After all, as you say, how long do these tests take? On the other hand, literally moments ago, I heard from a highly reputable source (a leading Nag Hammadi scholar) that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife documentary which aired on the “Smithsonian Channel” (never heard of it myself, being a Brit) is to be translated into French. So clearly some people, albeit the popular media perhaps, are still taking it seriously!

    • That’s an interesting rumour, Matthew. I would not be surprised if Smithsonian still hope to air the documentary given the time and money they have invested in it. One clarification, though: the documentary has never aired in the USA, not anywhere else, to my knowledge.

  10. Alan Taylor Farnes permalink

    I think all of us know exactly what is going on with the fragment. Nothing. Mostly everyone knows it is a forgery and, yes, the three *world class* scholars who attached their names to it are hoping that the whole thing would go away. That Dr. Luijendijk called in “sick” at last year’s SBL is an indication that, due to the negative reaction after the initial reports, she did not want to discuss it much (however, I think she was also pregnant with twins at the time). I think Dr. King also failed to appear in Chicago. So I think they want to sweep it under the rug. And I don’t see much wrong with that. If it is a forgery, then I cannot conceive of any scholarly purpose for further questioning. I know that academia is not an arena where we are careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, however, perhaps this time we can just let them off the hook on this. Was I the only one who felt a chill in the air when Ulrich Schmid brought it up in his SBL presentation with Dr. Bagnall sitting only feet away?

    I find it disingenuous that you would bring up this issue here on your blog. Did you approach either Dr. Bagnall or Dr. King or Dr. Luijendijk and ask them about this specifically at SBL? I know that you were in the same room as them on a number of occasions at SBL. Did you ask them for an update on the fragment? Day after day all three of them were with you in the conference center and you did not ask them. Why not? Why e-mail Dr. King’s defunct e-mail address when you could ask her in person? Was any one of these three scholars among the “several scholars who were in various ways directly involved in the analysis of the item last year” who you asked? You could have even directly asked Dr. Bagnall during the Q&A after his SBL presentation or Dr. Luijendijk after her presentation. But no one did. Are we too scared to ask them to their faces but would rather blog about it?

    As much as we are all interested in what happened to it, we all already know what happened to it and again, nothing scholarly can come out of it. We need not rub their faces in their mistakes. Perhaps a small press release by HTR or the Discovery Channel would be appropriate but we need not bother these scholars with these skeletons. These three world class scholars have much better things to do with their time than defend this past mistake. Perhaps we could all show a little clemency and let it go away. Then again, who knows but maybe it is “authentic” and all involved are preparing a grand reveal and are just building our suspense!

    • Alan, Along with some good sentiments (e.g., not wishing to humiliate anyone, and I don’t know that I or other scholars have sought this), the accusatory tone in your second paragraph is misguided. I’m not interested in hounding King or any of the others about their reported initial judgment on the item. What I’m asking for is that King or HTR or Harvard Div School, i.e., those who were initially reported as promoting the item, might now give a report on the status of things, just to set the public/scholarly record straight. As there was a very public announcement and promotion of the item last year, it is now appropriate for a public statement as well, reporting adequately on the nature of the scholarly and any scientific analyses.

  11. Caroline T. Schroeder permalink

    I wish HTR had fast tracked a revised version of the original article with a summary of critiques for the academic record. As Mark said, HDS used the internet and media to promote this research project pretty widely, and this led to an accelerated academic response via new media, the likes of which 20 years ago would have taken several years to publish in traditional journals. What I see as the failure of traditional scholarly publication here isn’t so much the process that led to the original draft article (many articles get published and then the conclusions are challenged, modified, etc. over time), but the lack of response to the online critiques. I would love to see HTR or another journal of equal stature take this on more proactively. There is so much to be written about not just in terms of the fragment but also the role of the internet and new media, the antiquities trade, etc., that need to be unpacked. Someone needs to do this regardless of whatever the owner is doing about the fragment, and I hope Karen King and others involved in the original evaluation of the fragment as well as the ensuing debate will participate.

  12. Further blog comment here, with links to key posts that point to forgery:

  13. Here’s the report that I find troubling:

    “”The owner of the fragment has been making arrangements for further testing and analysis of the fragment, including testing by independent laboratories with the resources and specific expertise necessary to produce and interpret reliable results. This testing is still underway,” Kathyrn Dodgson, director of communications for the Harvard Divinity School, said in a email to CNN.”

    The date of this piece is January 2013. I think I’ll blog this again to ask the question publicly.

  14. realmessiah permalink

    Hi Larry

    I know you’re a top notch scholar but you are not much of a detective. Maybe I’m not much of a scholar but at least I managed to piece together what’s going on with the Jesus Wife fragment.

    There are people on both sides of this issue that know what’s going. They obviously don’t like you enough to tell you what’s what.

    My advice to you is to stay out of the detective business.

    Morton Smith is smiling somewhere.

  15. Thanks for keeping us posted Larry. For my part, it’s hard to respect scholars who try to sweep things under the rug or who hope that silence will guarantee continued respectability.

    • Jim, I’m making no accusations about anyone in particular myself. The situation that I complain about can give rise to suspicions and accusations, but they’re not helpful anymore than the silence.

  16. Ben Marx permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado,

    I wholeheartedly agree. It is quite curious how things are working out these days. To be honest, persons I most admire have at one point or another stood at the lectern and said: “I stand corrected.” There is nothing wrong with that … but there is something wrong in making huge claims and if it should turn out to be otherwise to be silent about it. In my opinion there is no need for a huge apology but a simple “we had it wrong…” should suffice. Honesty and integrity are two major ingredients in serious scholarship.

    Thanks for your entries, I am always looking forward to them.

    Benjamin Marx

  17. Here are some interesting points about the issue…

    On Professor Karen L. King HDS faculty page, you will find on the right side, beside her picture, a PDF named “Jesus’s Marital Status” and it is dated October, 2013. There is no mention of the Jesus’s Wife fragment in this article, but to be fair, the article is about the Gospel of Philip. And maybe it is proper procedure not to reference an unpublished finding.

    It seems a little odd that if Harvard is trying to let the whole thing just go away, why do they still list the Jesus’s Wife fragment under their research projects? It’s the last one on the list.

    Also, it’s curious that the draft of Professor King’s article is still available, if they want to make it all go away.

    Click to access King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0920.pdf

    And finally, after looking over Professor King’s published books, she has been writing about women and other gender and marital issues for a long time. Did the owner of the fragment choose her because of her background?

  18. I appreciate the post, Larry. I too am somewhat baffled by the apparent decision at Harvard simply to say nothing. One of the issues here is that Harvard used the internet in a savvy way to publicize the claims, with excellent hi-def pictures published, a draft article, Q&As, video clips and so on. So we are not talking here about blog-responses to published work. We are talking about responses within the same medium, responses, moreover, that were carefully considered, fair, detailed and rhetorically sensitive. If there are good answers to the critiques of Francis Watson, Andrew Bernhard, Christian Askeland, Alin Suciu and others, then they need to be heard.

    I think the case for forgery is overwhelming but I don’t think there is any shame in its early advocates admitting this if they are now convinced that it is the case. The internet brings something new and really valuable to scholarship, the availability of many eyes to look at something together in collaborative scholarship of a kind that was not available when, for example, Coleman Norton published his Jesus agraphon hoax.

    One concern that I have was a throwaway comment made earlier in the year by Harvard to the effect that the anonymous dealer was arranging for tests himself. If this is the case, then that presumably means that the fragment is not even in Harvard’s possession.

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