“Jesus’ Wife”: What’s the Story Now?
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.
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.”