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“Jesus’ Wife Fragment”: Further Observations

April 11, 2014

As a follow-up to my initial observations yesterday, I’ll offer a few more to underscore where I think things are at this point.

  • First, let me reiterate that all references to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” are completely misleading tripe.  What we have is a purported small fragment with several incomplete lines on each side, in which one line contains the words “my wife” ascribed to Jesus there.  If the fragment is authentic (i.e., from some Christian hand ca. 7th-10th century CE, as per the Harvard radio-carbon test), only God knows what it was.  But it’s totally mischievous to claim that it comes from some “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.  We have a “Jesus’ Wife fragment.”  That’s it.
  • The most recent palaeographical, chemical and radio-carbon tests reported in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review support the conclusion that the writing material is old, that the ink seems composed per methods used in the putative date of the writing material, and that nothing definitive in the handwriting demands that it is a forgery.  But, note well, Choat (Coptic palaeographer) also urges that his analysis doesn’t mean that it’s authentic, only that he hasn’t found clear evidence that it isn’t.
  • One thing mentioned but not (to my knowledge) probed sufficiently is the clear indication that the fragment has been cut (obvious on the top edge) from some larger piece of material.  The left, right and bottom edges appear to be torn, but the top edge has been cut.  Why?  Cut from what?  It is common for locals who find ancient texts to tear them into individual pages or portions, to get more money item-per-item than by selling the whole manuscript.  But, if this is a portion of something larger, where’s the rest of it?  And, in any case, it is to my knowledge at least very rare (I don’t know another case) for a fragment to be cut on one edge and torn on the other three.  Just one more curiosity about this particular item.
  • The major bases for allegations that the fragment is inauthentic have always been the contents, specifically, the Coptic expressions/phrasing.  Francis Watson and others have alleged that it looks like a pastiche of Coptic phrases from Gospel of Thomas, and the alleged con-artist inadvertently included some errors in Coptic that betray his/her work.  So, the focus of the debate has never been on things that could be settled by “scientific” tests.  It will continue to be conducted on the basis of analysis of the contents (and perhaps a few other factors that I’m not free at this point to discuss).
  • Finally, as Prof. King and others have consistently indicated, even if authentic, the fragment would have no bearing on (1) the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth, (2) the question of women’s role in churches, (3) the question of Catholic priestly celibacy, etc.  None whatsoever.  Nada.
  • For recent responses to the HTR articles, see comments by Watson here,  and by Christian Askeland here.  As will be apparent from these, the debate is by no means over.   So, the Harvard Divinity School press release “over-eggs” things in characterizing the tests as confirming authenticity of the fragment.  Confirming the approximate age of the writing material is one thing, and confirming the authenticity of the writing on it is very much another thing!

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  1. Mark Edward permalink

    Have you seen this post from Christian Askeland? It is from just today, but he makes a compelling argument from the inking that the Jesus’ Wife fragment is indeed ‘a modern fake’.

  2. Bear permalink

    Maybe it’s just that some early Christians believed that Jesus had been married? My good friend, Sam Tsang, recommended that I read your blog so here I am professor. Peace ~ Bear

    • If the item is a genuine fragment of a text from the early centuries in question, then, yes, it might reflect speculations about whether Jesus was married. Prof. King proposes that this would not have been mere speculation about Jesus, however, but would have been connected to other questions about gender, marriage, celibacy, etc., in that period. But the prior question remains: Is the item genuine?

  3. It seems to me that the only way to settle the modern-forgery-question once and for all is to date the ink itself. According to Candida Moss’s piece in “The Daily Beast”, this wasn’t done because the fragment was deemed too fragile, and collecting the necessary sample would damage/destroy the papyrus. So my question is this: couldn’t we have the best of both worlds? Presumably you’d only need a tiny sample of the ink to actually do the dating tests, so couldn’t we just risk doing some damage to a small portion of the artefact, and settle the question once and for all? We have loads of pictures of it, everyone knows it exists, so what’s a bit of damage to a corner of an already pretty ragged bit of papyrus? Also, didn’t they need to have an ink sample in order to do the tests on its chemical composition? How did they get that without damaging the artefact? Thoughts?

    • I take it that the tests performed on the ink were some sort of spectrometry, i.e., not destructive, testing the chemical composition of the ink.
      But the objections to the authenticity of the item have mainly been to do with the curiosities of the Coptic, and also charges that it is a kind of pastiche of Coptic words/phrases from other texts (esp. a particular online transcription of Gospel of Thomas).

      • Nonetheless, if they went ahead and dated the ink and it came back as 7th-9th century, like the papyrus, then we could confidently put this particular debate to bed. If it came back as 21st century ink, then we could pursue the pastiche theory, and the theory concerning the typo in Grondin’s online version, with more confidence and vigour (if anybody was still interested). Seems like it might be worth it to me!

      • The tests run suggest that the ink is composed of the sort of material used in the early period of the date of the papyrus material. But it’s not clear to me whether this could have resulted from a clever person preparing ink to this ancient formula. In any case, the tests run are likely to be the only ones to be run.

  4. Mark Goodacre , on 11 October 2012, came up with a superb analysis of this fragment, explaining how it was clearly based on Michael Grondin’s Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

    And yet there are people who still claim it is an ancient manuscript, despite the evidence produced by scholars showing clearly that it is not.

    What can be done about such people, except restate the evidence?

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Even if this fragment is a red herring when it comes to the actual matter of whetherJesus had a wife, isn’t it also fair to say, regardless of this fragment, that the Jesus of the gospels, if he existed in any meaningful sense, probably did have a wife. Inasmuch as it was extremely rare for a male to remain unmarried in that time and place, and just because a wife is not mentioned in the gospels does not mean Jesus did not have a wife. None of the disciples’ wives are mentioned either (although one mother in law) yet few would argue this means they were all bachelors.

    • Yes, sure, it was normally expected of Jewish males to marry. However, we know that there were exceptions, especially in cases where the individual felt called by God to forego marriage (famously, the character of Jeremiah). It appears that John the Baptizer didn’t marry either, and Jesus seems to have linked his own mission closely with that of John.
      We know that Peter and others of Jesus’ followers were married because their wives are mentioned (e.g., 1 Cor 9:3-7, where Paul also contrasts his unmarried state with the married Peter).
      So, given that the Gospels mention Jesus’ mother, sisters, brothers and father, the lack of mention of a wife seems rather telling.

  6. The Coptic fragment may be 4th to 10th century, however doesn’t mean it was composed at that relatively late date. It could have been written as early as the 2nd century and that the fragment merely represents a later translation and copy of an original. The parallels to sayings 101 and 114 of the Gospel of Thomas are very evident. But all four Canonical Gospels also drew from Thomas. I shine the light on these parallels in my blog article posted last night.

    • Uh, no, Ariadne. There is NO evidence that the Gospels drew upon GThomas. In fact, there is more evidence that it went the other way. See the recent studies published by Goodacre & Gathercole.
      But to the main point: The carbon-dating = 7th-10 cent for the fragment. In principle a Coptic text from that date COULD be a translation from an earlier Greek text. But a case has to be made, and the one made by Karen King is circumstantial, not clinching. But the prior question remains: Is this an authentic Christian fragment from the late-Byzantine/early-medieval period? That isn’t yet settled, and the HTR articles advance the debate but don’t settle it.

  7. Excellent post, Larry! You’ve zeroed in on essential points said exactly what needs to be said about them.

  8. Bowman Walton permalink

    The Fragment

    (1) Are the grammatical errors ordinary scribal errors? If not, would it have been contemporary practise to draft a new and unedited text on materials like these?

    (2) How do we assess the provenance of this text? It seems to have come to the light of day in the hands of a scholar who did not discover it and is perceived as having a stake in the authenticity of it. Does this not imply the existence of an earlier person in the chain who could (a) read the text, (b) know Karen King’s likely interest in it, and (c) entrust it to her personally rather than an ordinary Coptic paleographer or an institution? Can that person be trusted?

    (3) Who benefits financially from certifications of the text’s authenticity?

    The Significance

    (4) Could you comment briefly on any obvious implications of the text, assuming that it is authentic? On the face of it, this fragment seems too small to be contextualised, hence it seems not to lend clear support to any hypothesis except, as Karen King says, the one that there were heterodox circles debating gender and marriage in late antiquity. Is that hypothesis disputed?

    (5) Why are reactions to this text so strong (eg posting on the HDS website, emotional denial) and so polarised (eg nobody says, “it may be authentic, but it is not very important”).

    Thank you for persevering in your blogging despite the pestilence of trolls, derps, etc

    • Bowman: Actually, when the item was first announced back in the autumn of 2012, I stated then (on this blog site) that, if genuine, it wasn’t such a big deal. The fragment only has the phrase “my wife”, with no identification of who/what she is. My posting noted that Christian tradition from the NT onward has always posited that Jesus has a wife: the church (e.g., Eph 5; Rev 21). Moreover, if authentic, and if “wife” = some particular woman (King proposes Mary Magdalene), that would (as she says) only tell us that in late antiquity some Christians may have indulged in this speculation. We know that that was a period of wild-n-crazy diversification in Christianity, so it would be just one more example.
      As to your other questions, yes, it would be good to have fuller information on the history of this fragment before it was made public. It’s still far too much under wraps, and so generates suspicions.

  9. I suspect the fragment is a fake created by someone who knew a great deal more about using the right materials than he knew about ancient Coptic writings. Not that I have any expertise in any of the relevant areas but just going by the “looks like a duck, quacks like a duck” theory of interpreting artifacts.

    • Brice: I’m afraid that your blog-posting isn’t really about this fragment but is instead your musings about “history/historians” in the light of the (somewhat simplistic) outlook of Avalos (et al.). You raise some interesting questions (e.g., why has HDS devoted such boo-ha to this item?), but the item has been flagged up by Karen King and HDS, and so seems to demand some attention to those claims. It’s only because of the claims made for the item (that it comprises unique evidence of an early Christian speculation that Jesus was married) that raises the stakes about its authenticity.

  10. These further observations are indeed spot on. Thank you for them. It is always paramount to define from the very outset what we are talking about and what can be excluded from the discussion.

  11. jfjoyner3 permalink

    Your comment “a few other factors that I’m not free *at* *this* *point* to discuss” implies you are aware of forthcoming information that is significantly relevant to the discussion. Without discussing it, can you share some marker to recognize what other factor is forthcoming? You imply it’s not about contents, is there more information about the fragment itself, forthcoming within weeks, months, years? May we assume you will announce it when possible?

    • I’m aware of concerns and questions that pertain to the issue of whether the item is genuine, but these are at this point in very early stages of investigation. When I know more and can say more, I will.

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