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“Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts

April 10, 2014

From an initial (and rapid) reading of the articles in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review about the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, I’ll offer the following preliminary thoughts.  (I had planned to pursue another project today, but an email early this a.m. alerting me to the HTR publications drew my attention to this “breaking” story.)

First, I’ll speak to Malcolm Choat’s preliminary observations about the fragment from a papyrological and palaeographical perspective.  (Choat is a recognized figure in these matters, with special expertise in things Coptic.)  I note that essentially Choat concludes that he wasn’t able to find “a smoking gun,” i.e., some clear indication of inauthenticity.  I was particularly impressed with his note that there didn’t appear to be any ink-traces on the part(s) of the fragment that seem to have suffered damage.  So, either the damage happened after the text was written, or else a supposed forger damaged the item after writing the text.  I’d guess, personally, that the latter is somewhat less likely, but that’s a guess.

Choat also notes the curious nature of the hand and the way the ink was applied to the item. He judges the hand to be that of a copyist of very limited abilities (noting, e.g., the irregularities in letter-formation), and that the writer seems to have used a brush (anomalous for the putative period in question) or (as Bagnall suggested) a poorly trimmed reed-pen.  As King now grants, the nature of the hand (and other factors) make it unlikely that the fragment comes from a codex and unlikely that the text functioned as a “gospel” liturgically.  Instead, as she notes, it may be some kind of school exercise or perhaps even some kind of amulet-type item.  So, can we all please desist from references to a “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”?  There is no reason to suppose that the fragment comes from any such text.  We have a “Jesus’ Wife” fragment.  Let’s stay with what we have/know.

As for the scientific tests, those on the ink produced results consistent with the item being old, not modern.  The two radio-carbon tests, however, are both a bit puzzling and interesting.  The proposed dates of the two tests are out from each other by several hundred years.  The one report (by Hodgins) notes the curious date-result (405-350 BCE and/or 307-209 BCE), about a thousand years earlier than the date from the other carbon-dating test (659-969 CE), and Hodgins suggests some kind of contamination of the sample.  But I’d assume that a contamination would come from something later than the ancient setting, and so skew the date later, not earlier.  I’ll need some help with this!

To come to Prof. King’s article (the main piece in the issue), I think she takes a careful line, seeking to defend her view that the item on balance seems authentic, but trying to take account of data that require some modification of her earlier judgements, and granting in the end that complete certainty is not possible.  Prominent in the modifications of her earlier view is the intriguing statement in the appended note at the end of the article that the carbon-dating (taking the dating by Tuross) now seems to demand a date sometime in the 8th century CE (not the 4th/5th century CE dating in her earlier paper).  As she notes, this takes us well into the Islamic period of Egypt, and so raises the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.

Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studies.  Contrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.

Instead, she continues to propose that the fragment may reflect tensions and questions about marriage, celibacy, child-bearing, and gender that emerged in early Christianity in the early centuries (indeed, to judge from NT texts such as 1 Tim. 4:1-5; and even 1 Cor 7:1-7, questions of this nature emerged quite early).   But, to repeat a point, the revised date for the papyrus (mid-8th century CE) introduces other factors to consider as well.

As to her suggestion that the Coptic text of the fragment might derive from a Greek original and that the latter might go back to the 2nd century, that (to my mind) cannot be taken as more than a possibility, and is certainly not required to account for the text.

Well, so much for now.  I’ll be keen to see what other scholars now make of the matter.

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  1. Thank you for this clear and balanced evaluation of this important issue. How often do people, even learned scholars jump to conclusions. Yet, with many testing the real results, we can have much certainty. That also goes for the authentic manuscripts of the Bible itself, and emphasizes the importance of the age of a manuscript rather than the abundance of late manuscripts supporting a specific reading.

  2. Charming that Harvard released their findings just in time for Easter…

  3. What reasons prompts King to assert that, even though the Coptic fragment from the 7th or 8th century: (1) it was originally part of a gospel and (2) an original Greek version of this gospel could be dated as early as late 2nd century?

    • Her reasoning is essentially this: (1) We have other examples of Coptic texts that we know derive from Greek originals (e.g., GThomas), so it’s entirely conceivabale, and (2) we know that issues about marriage, virginity/celibacy, gender etc. were in the air from at least 2nd century Christianity onward.
      These are cogent general considerations. But there is nothing that I can see that specifically suggests that the fragment preserves something from the 2nd century. Indeed, the absence of corroborative evidence (i.e., no other reference to assertions that Jesus was married) suggests otherwise.

  4. I think that at least one clear lesson emerges from this entire “much ado” around a small piece of ancient or mediaeval paper/papyrus/whatever. The lesson is that scholars should refrain from uttering or publishing sensationalist claims before verifying the evidence. I understand that our age demands its daily portion of shocking news, yet it is weird when scholars try to take part in the action in this manner. I respect Prof. Karen King for her research, yet her claims in September 2012 (e.g. her speaking at least ambiguously of “the Gospel of Jesus’ wife”, NB: even the filename of the published pdf is this! did not do a lot of good service to sound scholarship. To provide a parallel: I did enjoy Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (because it is a good detective story), yet when e.g. the “Sir Leigh Teabing” character seemed to know far more details and data about the Council of Nicaea (325) than all of the most reputed scholars put together, I said: well, the guy needs to sell his book. Which is, of course, fine: if you are writing fiction.

  5. Derek Dodson permalink

    It’s interesting that Choat’s palaeographical analysis does not render an estimation on the fragment’s date.

  6. I’ve personally found the article of Leo Depuydt a bit too harsh in presenting its conclusions regarding fragment’s authenticity. I’m always skeptic of “100% certain” statements about anything. I believe that King’s response is more balanced, and in some cases she’s probably correct in saying that Depuydt seems to draw conclusions based on his own personal premises (of which he’s “100% certain”).
    So said, apparently there’s no conclusive evidence on neither side.

  7. Very well summarized. Excellent observations!

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