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“Jesus’ Wife” Fragment: The Collective Negative Judgment

July 20, 2015

The latest issue of the journal New Testament Studies (vol. 61, no. 3, July 2015) contains a battery of commissioned articles from several scholars that collectively present the reasons that the putative Coptic fragment referring to “Jesus’ wife” (GJW) is a modern forgery.  The small galaxy of scholars are of unquestioned expertise in the language and the texts, and here combine to show why the putative fragment cannot be accepted as a genuine early Christian text.   The table of contents of the issue is here.  (The link is slow, but wait for it.)

Simon Gathercole’s article, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Constructing a Context,” presents reasons why a reference to a wife of Jesus doesn’t really have a context in early Christian texts, contrary to Prof. King’s proposal.  And he reiterates reasons why the GJW fragment is a pastiche of phrases heavily indebted to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

Christian Askeland, “A Lycopolitan Forgery of John’s Gospel,” gives in his article a full presentation of evidence that the putative fragment of a Coptic translation of the Gospel of John (another fragment in the small batch passed to Prof. King) is certainly a forgery (created through use of a 1924 publication), and why this means that the GJW fragment must be also.  Among the reasons, the two fragments seem to be the same “hand,” so, if the one is a forgery, the other is also likely one.

Andrew Bernhard, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Textual Evidence of Modern Forgery,” presents fully the evidence that the GJW fragment was created by use of modern published versions of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas.

Christopher Jones, “The Jesus’ Wife Papyrus in the History of Forgery,” recounts previous examples of forgeries purporting to be genuine Christian texts, and shows how these typically are intended to reflect trends in culture and thought of their time.  The GJW fragment seems now to be the most recent instance of this.

Myriam Krutzsch and Ira Rabin, “Material Criteria and their Clues for Dating,” address the tests of the writing material and ink used to create the GJW fragment, showing the limits of these tests and how they cannot adequately address the question of forgery (especially if a forger is sufficiently clever).

Gesine Schenke Robinson, “How a Papyrus Fragment Became a Sensation,” summarizes the grounds on which it appears that the great majority of scholars with expertise in Coptic early judged the GJW fragment a forgery and now do so with greater confidence.

As of today, the Harvard Divinity School web pages on the GJW fragment here appear not to have been updated since the April 2014 publication of her article in the Harvard Theological Review.  The articles in the new issue of New Testament Studies, however, collectively give interested readers a rather full presentation of reasons why the GJW fragment is now widely regarded a hoax, Prof. King perhaps the scholar most seriously and cruelly the victim of it.  It appears that surely now, however, the appeals of various scholars for a candid response to the collective judgment that the fragment is a hoax must be heeded, and (unless the combined judgments of the aforementioned scholars can be shown to be erroneous) an effort should be made to trace (and disclose) the process by which it was attempted.

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15 Comments
  1. Michael W. permalink

    I’m interested in any possible corroborating archeological evidence. Have Dr. Tabor’s conclusions asserting a real son of Jesus been definitively refuted?

    • Tabor’s claims haven’t won much support among archaeologists and the wider scholarly fraternity. It’s up to him to establish them. We don’t treat a proposal as proven unless it’s refuted. YOu first have to establish it.

  2. Steve Walach permalink

    Simon Gathercole’s critique closes the door on the GJW authenticity question with a resounding “Not.” However, his essay gently opens another door, to a much more intriguing question: Namely, what exactly is the revelation he refers to that Salome and Mary Magdalene receive?

    “In these passages [Jesus with Salome, Gos Th 61 and Jesus with Mary Magdalene, Gos Phil 63], then, we have Jesus depicted as having an intimate relationship, with undertones of sexual intimacy, which is the occasion for revelation … The intimacy of Jesus and Mary in Philip is a function of Mary’s reception of revelation, such that she is publicly identifiable as a follower of Jesus (as recognised by the twelve), but also a true disciple who inhabits the light — in contrast to the twelve, who at least in the dialogue about their status relative to Mary are much more benighted.”

    The “news” that Jesus had a wife is People Magazine material. However, the possibility offered by Gos Th and Gos Phil is a meaningful one — that the alleged intimacy between Jesus and the two women had nothing to do with a physical relationship but, according to Gathercole, everything to do with a spiritual connection.

    What kind of media impact might insights into that connection create? Or would the media and its disciples prefer to be entertained by stories bordering on the salacious and otherwise remain as much in the dark as the disciples in Gos Th? Or is the public’s fascination with new details about Jesus’s personal life merely a screen or perhaps a substitute for our genuine thirst for light?

    • Well, Steve, the Gospel of Thomas seems to emphasize the secretive nature of the knowledge that it espouses (right from the opening lines), and reflects an elitist (I’d say even haughty) version of saving knowledge, involving radical disdain for the body, the world, other Christians, etc. So, I personally don’t think that there’s much positive, at least for my tastes, in that text or the Gospel of Philip. I’d refer you to 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

  3. Stevan Daviesw permalink

    Is the infancy Gospel of Thomas your evidence for Jesus’ views at an early age? If not that, what?
    I think it is most likely that Jesus was married, but his wife died, perhaps in childbirth, and so he was a widower during his last years. Accordingly, there would have been no reason for evangelists etc. to mention his late wife and no grounds for Paul, e.g., to cite him as an exemplar of celibacy.

    • Stevan, Where on earth did you get any idea that I drew on Infancy Thomas?? What a red herring! I have no idea of Jesus’ “views at an early age”. I simply cited the precedents of figures such as Jeremiah (portrayed as ordered by God to remain unmarried in view of his special mission), and John the Baptizer (likewise, celibate on account of his prophetic mission). My point is that it wasn’t singular for Jesus to have been celibate. He too seems to have felt a special mission/calling conducted with eschatological urgency. As you may know, the saying ascribed to Jesus in Matt 19:10 about those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is often thought to allude to John and to Jesus.

  4. Thanks for your post on this, Larry. A couple of minor things maybe worth adding: (1) The NTS issue is free for all, as was the HTR issue that it is criticizing and (2) There have been a couple of minor additions to the Harvard Divinity School web page on this. The site currently says “May 2015 update”. The additions appear to be on the Q&A page, as follows:

    13. Can I see the fragment?

    The fragment is available for study in its digital form on this site. The original is extremely fragile and access has to be strictly limited. If your research requires such access, contact the curator of early books and manuscripts at Houghton Library (stoneman@fas.harvard.edu) to arrange an appointment.

    14. Where is the fragment being kept?

    In May, 2015, an agreement was signed by Harvard University and the owner of two Coptic papyrus fragments (the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment and a Coptic fragment of the Gospel of John). It provides for the fragments to be deposited at Harvard for a ten-year period (renewable) for purposes of study and research.

    http://gospelofjesusswife.hds.harvard.edu/QA

    With my best wishes
    Mark

  5. Thanks for this, Larry. I’ve added it to my 2015 update of events related to the fragment (http://gospel-thomas.net/x_gjw3.htm). I think we can take it one step further and identify the forger as the person whose translation of line 4 (“Jesus said THIS to them…”) was transmitted by email from the collector to Prof. King (as reported by Ariel Sabar in the early Smithsonian article.) The reason I believe so is that the word ‘this’ in such a context is unique to my online interlinear, as far as I know. A competent Coptic scholar would not have included the word ‘this’ at that point in a free translation of line 4, nor would Sabar have likely inserted it. It seems to me, then, that the “translator” of this line wasn’t an outside expert looking at the fragment anew (as one might assume), and that his “translation” wasn’t that at all, but rather was a statement of what he believed he had inscribed on line 4, based on his knowledge of my interlinear.

  6. Larry
    Thank you for keeping us informed of this all along the way.
    The links are not working for me right now, but it seems that this is because the servers containing the articles are under too much pressure — not surprising, considering the circulation and popularity of your blog! No doubt I’ll be able to see the articles later, or another day.
    Trevor

  7. Could it be that (depending on when Joseph died) as the eldest male, Jesus was responsible to care for his sisters until they were married?

    • In principle, anything is possible. But why imagine something when we have the sort of precedent and pattern that I’ve mentioned: John the Baptizer, Jesus’ predecessor, who took voluntary celibacy as part of his prophetic calling, as did Paul, in view of their perceived eschatological situation?

  8. Very interesting update. You can bet the media won’t make any mention of this.

  9. Thanks for this. But why would anyone go to such lengths to forge such a document?
    There is another question unrelated to this but similar. Was Jesus married? Surely he must have been given the culture in which he grew up.

    • As surveyed in the article by Jones, there are various reasons for such forgeries. In this case, we don’t (yet) know the person(s) involved and the motives.
      Was Jesus married? All indications are no. It was, to be sure, somewhat exceptional for a Jewish male not to marry. But not without precedent or analogy. The biblical prophet, Jeremiah, for example, is pictured as commanded by God not to marry (Jeremiah 16). John the Baptizer wasn’t married, whom Jesus affirmed as a true prophet. Indeed, if seems the case, Jesus at an early age saw himself as specially called to a prophetic role, he might well have felt obliged to forego marriage.

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