“Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts
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.