Guess what—Jesus not only has a wife; he’s got a sister-in-law as well.
The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—that well-publicized scrap of centuries-old papyrus bearing the Coptic words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’”—has an equally old twin-sister scrap bearing some phrases from the Coptic version of the New Testament Gospel of John. That latter fragment was part of a cache of six small pieces of papyrus written in Coptic (a language of ancient Egypt) and acquired, their anonymous owner told Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, from another collector, a German named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. King is the religion scholar who unveiled the “Jesus’ wife” fragment to huge press hoopla at a Coptic conference in Rome on September 18, 2012.
Interestingly, as it turns out, King submitted the John fragment for the same carbon-dating and ink-composition tests in 2013 that the “Jesus’ wife” fragment underwent—and both pieces of papyrus turned out to date to the same period, the early eighth century A.D. (their median, or most probable, dates are 718 and 741 respectively). Earlier, in 2012, King had shown all six papyrus fragments to Roger Bagnall, head of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Bagnall was the papyrological expert who assured King that the “Jesus’ wife” fragment dated from the fourth century A.D.—four centuries earlier—on the basis of a paleographical analysis of the scrap’s clumsy handwriting. During this process no one apparently thought to remove the two papyri for closer inspection from the plexiglass housing in which they had arrived at King’s office at Harvard.
Yet King chose not to publish the John fragment either in the first version of the article she wrote for the Harvard Theological Review analyzing the “Jesus’ wife” fragment—a version that was originally scheduled to appear in January 2013—nor in the drastically revised version of the article that finally appeared in April 2014. As I wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD here and here, the lengthy publication delay was due to the fact that, no sooner did King drop her “Jesus’ wife” bombshell in Rome in 2012, than a host of Coptic scholars worldwide declared the fragment a modern forgery whose wording (except for the “my wife”) had been cribbed from the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text whose fourth-century Coptic version has been widely published and popularized. Several of the scholars noted word-for-word correspondences between the “Jesus’ wife” fragment and various printed editions of Thomas, including suspicious line breaks and grammatical errors. The theory was that the forger had used a genuinely old piece of papyrus and a simulacrum of old ink to craft his phony text.
It was after that outcry that the Harvard Theological Review delayed publication and King submitted the “Jesus’ wife” fragment—along with the Gospel of John fragment—for scientific testing, for the first time, of the actual date of the papyrus and the composition of the ink used in both fragments (which the scientists at Columbia who did the testing found in both cases to be identical to ancient lampblack, or soot-based, ink). Brief articles detailing the results of both the ink-composition and the carbon-dating tests accompanied King’s article in the Harvard Theological Review.
During the course of my most recent reporting for TWS, I emailed Bagnall. He emailed this back to me, with reference to the carbon-dating tests on the John and “Jesus’ wife” fragments:
As the two are very similar and are likely to have been produced close in time, the overlap zone is what one should concentrate on. . . . As to the handwriting, it is not possible to date with confidence a very rudimentary hand of the kind in use in both of these fragments (which are if not in the same hand at least extremely close).
The “same hand”? “Extremely close”?
While I was puzzling over this, one of the original “Jesus’ wife” skeptics, Christian Askeland, a Coptic specialist and assistant research professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, uncovered a longer version of the ink-test results from Columbia that the Harvard Divinity School had linked as part of its online publicity for King’s article. That longer version contained actual photographs of the Gospel of John fragment—and boy, are those hands “extremely close”! (The longer version, for some reason, is accessible on the Internet only via the link in Askeland’s blog post). Askeland boldly asserted:
The fragment [of John] contains exactly the same hand, exactly the same ink and has been written with the same writing instrument [as the “Jesus’ wife” fragment]. One would assume that it were part of the same writing event, be it modern or ancient. In some sense, this is not a surprise, as the Ink Results indicated that the ink was very similar.
Askeland also pointed out that the Gospel of John fragment and the “Jesus’ wife” fragment were written in versions of a Coptic dialect called Lycopolitan that is believed to have died out before or during the sixth century, well before the likely eighth-century date of the two fragments.
Then, another early skeptic, Alin Suciu, a researcher in Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic literature at the University of Hamburg, reviewed the verso (back) side of the John fragment and discovered that its lines and line-breaks matched, word for word, the lines and line-breaks in a published 1923 edition of the earliest Coptic version of the Gospel of John. Furthermore, the John fragment contained only every other line of the Coptic version of John in the 1923 edition. A day later Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor at Duke University who knows Coptic well, performed the same review on the recto (front) side of the fragment and found exactly the same features—the same line breaks and the appearance of just every other line of the 1923 edition—as Suciu had found for the verso.
Meanwhile, the science news website LiveScience tried to track down Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, the man from whom the anonymous then-owner (now donor to Harvard) said he had bought the “Jesus’ wife” fragment. Laukamp, according to King’s article in the Harvard Theological Review, was supposed to have purchased all six fragments in Potsdam, in what was then East Germany in 1963. Later, the “Jesus’ wife” and John fragments were supposed to have been authenticated on the basis of some correspondence involving two now-deceased professors at the Free University in then-West Berlin. Laukamp died in Germany in 2002, a few years after he allegedly sold the batch of papyri to their current owner during the late 1990s. His estate executor René Ernst told LiveScience that Laukamp, owner of a now-defunct toolmaking factory in Florida, had been living in West Berlin in 1963 with no easy access to East Germany, and that he had never indicated any knowledge about, much less ownership of, old papyri.
Now, all of this might be explicable by a confluence of sheer coincidence and the unexpected oddities that distinguish real life from fiction. It may be that the copyist of the John fragment just happened to track the 1923 published edition, and that the copyist of the “Jesus’ wife” fragment—who could have been the same person—just happened to track the wording of the published Gospel of Thomas. This is getting into monkeys-with-typewriters territory, but it’s not inconceivable. Since it’s impossible right now to perform carbon-dating on the ink without destroying either fragment, we can’t definitively say that either the “Jesus’ wife” fragment or the John fragment is an outright forgery. It’s also plausible that Laukamp bought both fragments and the other four on an out-of-character whim that no one now living now knows about.
But it’s inexcusable that Karen King (who refuses to give press interviews, including to me, except under carefully controlled conditions), the Harvard Divinity School, and the editors of the Harvard Theological Review haven’t come forward with everything they know about the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” its papyrological context, the full circumstances under which it was bought and sold several times, and the reasons why the fragment’s existence was revealed to only a tiny handful of Coptic scholars before September 2012. We can start with the publication of the Gospel of John fragment. Jesus’ shadowy sister-in-law deserves no less.
Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. Her article“The Wife of Jesus Tale”appears in the latest issue ofTHE WEEKLY STANDARD.