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“Jesus’ Wife”: What’s the Story Now?

May 1, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, and especially over the last week, the “story” involved in the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment appears to be shifting rapidly and markedly.  After initially breathless press-media reports that scientific tests had bolstered claims for the authenticity of the fragment, things appear to be changing.  Latest press stories report on the newer (and dramatic) reasons for thinking that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment may be part of a larger body of hoax-material, faked texts written cleverly on re-used ancient papyri.

Of these recent press stories, perhaps the most striking one is the CNN article by Prof. Joel Baden (Yale) and Prof. Candida Moss (Notre Dame University):  “New Clues Cast Doubt on ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife'” accessible here.  This article is noteworthy precisely because the authors are scholars, not journalists, and Moss in particular is a recognized specialist in ancient Christianity.

Other press reports strike a similar tone, as illustrated in recent online stories in the Daily Mail here, and The Weekly Standard here.

The very recent analysis of the fragment of the Coptic version of the Gospel of John (by Christian Askeland and then others) has been particularly powerful in generating a growing scholarly judgement that this fragment is almost certainly a fake (and a growing number would delete the “almost” from my sentence).  This fragment was one of those brought to Prof. Karen King’s attention (Harvard Divinity School) along with the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, purporting to come from the same acquisition of the still-anonymous owner.  The point is that if (as appears to be the case) this Gospel of John fragment is a fake, this adds fresh reason to suspect that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment is a fake  also:  a kind of “poisoned well” effect.

Indeed, it raises the possibility that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment was the “bait” intended to motivate scholarly (and popular) interest, its contents sufficiently sensational to distract scholars from the possibility that it and at least some others in the cache of papyri were fakes.

So, with only a few days until the Smithsonian Channel documentary is set to air (05 May in the USA), what is now the story?  I take it that originally the story told in the documentary (originally set to air back in 2012 and put on ice when initial doubts arose about the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment) was the discovery of a remarkable fragment that cast fascinating light on developments in Christianity in the “late antique” period.  But it now appears that that “story” has been overtaken by another:  The increasingly likely thought that somebody may have managed to ensnare Prof. King (and the Harvard Divinity School press office) in a cruel hoax.  That is, the “story” now may well be how this happened, how the hoax was perpetrated and why it succeeded in this ensnarement.

That, too, would make a very interesting documentary.  But it would likely require a complete revamp of the one that the Smithsonian Channel has prepared.  It will be interesting to see what airs on 05 May, “old news” or what appears now to be “the news.”

 

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15 Comments
  1. Even if the fragment turns out to be unequivocally authentic, do you think that the criticism which the GJW raises will facilitate some second-guessing concerning other ancient documents that scholars have understood as authentic; or at lest cause scholars to reconsider the dating of certain documents?

    • There’s no automatic effect. Each artefact (e.g., manuscript) has to be examined and assessed on its own merits. Actually, fake manuscripts are pretty unusual. It takes a lot of effort to try to bring one off successfully, and often some elaborate “cover story,” and there’s a good chance it won’t succeed.
      As for the dating of (genuine) manuscripts, that’s a science unto itself, and there is no spinoff from detecting fakes. It’s a matter of dating handwriting, mainly.

      • Professor Hurtado,
        Forgive me for being pedantic (I am a lawyer) but if a fake manuscript is brought off successfully, then we would not know it was a fake? Thomas Weadon may have a point in that manuscripts accepted by earlier scholars as genuine may prove otherwise on re-examination with current approaches after advances in paleographical scholarship and scientific methods for dating? Or do scholars keep manuscripts accepted as genuine under review – do they occasionally challenge accepted wisdom in this respect?

      • Anything is constantly up for review. That’s the nature of true scholarship, especially in a field such as mine where the data is limited and can’t be enlarged by experimentation (as in the sciences). So, e.g., the dating of a number of NT manuscripts has recently come in for reconsideration: see, e.g., Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88, no. 4 (2012), 443-74.

  2. Hi Professor Hurtado,

    This comment is off-topic with regard to this post. I apologize for that–I just didn’t know where I *should* ask this question.

    I saw recently that CSCO has an audio recording of your paper on performance criticism (“Oral Fixation & NT Studies”) and I was wondering if you knew when the article for NTS would be coming out. I am very much looking to reading it. Thank you!

    All the best,
    Danny Yencich

  3. I do not want to sound rude, but after having read the latest news and articles concerning this WJF, it appears to me that it has been a bit (?!?) overpublicised in the sense that the papyrus (even if it is authentic in the sense that it dates from and was written on in e.g. the 7th century) practically does not prove or disprove anything concerning the reality of NT times, does not add anything to our understanding of Jesus’s marital status and/or self-definition, and at best remains a valuable artifact on the shelves of a museum. One of the few things it did was, of course, to contribute effectively to the elevation of the citation index of all those who have publicised it and have written in its defence. The citation index, as we well know, is an essential element of what nowadays is called “scientometry” (what a ridiculous expression!). Anyway, I have decided that on 5 May I shall not watch the documentary on the Smithsonian Channel, partly because I have no access to it🙂, but rather turn my attention to a strong countercandidate, namely the new season of “24”, which begins to air on the same evening. My consolation will be that although “24” is fiction, it has very interesting connections to our current reality, and the authors never claimed it to be anything else than it always has been. After all, Jack Bauer is worth watching! Sorry for being a bit OFF topic.

  4. See also this from the Boston Globe, Sept. 2012, “King said the owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous because he does not want to be hounded by people who wish to buy the papyrus, which he has now offered to give to Harvard as part of a purchase of his collection of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic papyri. Harvard has not decided whether to pursue the offer.” http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2012/09/18/harvard-professor-identifies-scrap-papyrus-suggesting-some-early-christians-believed-jesus-was-married/dZJ1sIJCay8b8cra30wfQK/story.html

  5. I think the signs are that the fragment was intended for sale. Note in particular this piece in the Smithsonian article on the fragment, which often provides the fullest account (though several details conflict with the official version): “In late June 2011, nearly a year after their first exchange, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail that King shared with me, after stripping out identifying details. (King has granted the man’s request for anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector did not want the fragment to disappear in a private archive. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it” (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/update-the-reaction-to-karen-kings-gospel-discovery-84250942/#hoTVjYbEOqZemk6S.99)

  6. I’m not sure “hoax” is quite the right word, if someone was trying to _sell_ the manuscripts to Harvard or others.

    • I’m not sure that we know whether any attempt to sell the items was made. That may have been the ultimate aim, but I don’t know.

  7. Michael permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I wondered at first why you were bothering to follow developments on this (apparent-non) story, but my interest grew (not in the question of whether Jesus had a wife – the evidence appears he did not – but on the question of academic interaction with the media) . I can’t help feeling that this documentary will still be aired (T.V channels have to make a living?). I suppose there is a moral to be extracted from all this about academics (and pressure on academics) and the interest of the public in Jesus and Christianity?
    You do very well in your blog to maintain a certain academic distance from wilder theories that are posted here, while being polite to those who offer them.
    I speak as a lay-person but might it not be an idea for Professor King to perhaps admit that she was a little precipitous in her initial judment and approach to this matter? Mistakes can be forgiven, but persisting in trying to swim against an incoming tide may cause permanent damage to a no-doubt distinguished reputation?

    • I think that Prof. King will likely want very strong reason to think otherwise than what she has already claimed in print. That’s understandable. Critical judgement must go in both directions, not simply at her claims, but also at the counter-claims.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        Has she made any detailed attempt to come to grips with the paleographical criticism? Is not the onus on Professor King to deal with the (increasing) criticism by academics of her claims?

      • Well, now that serious reasons have been leveled for suspecting some kind of fakery/hoax, yes, it is the scholarly thing to do for all to reflect further on matters, pursue any additional feasible avenues of analysis, and then see what adjustments need to be made to any previous claims and opinions. But, given that Prof. King has set out a view on the matter in print, it is undersandable that she may not be quickly convinced otherwise, and that she and others will want some time to weigh matters.

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