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The Wife of Jesus Tale

An investigation into the origins of a scrap of papyrus raises more questions than it resolves

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Around the same time Francis Watson, a theology and religion professor at Durham University, looked at an online photograph of the “Jesus’ wife” fragment and noticed that whole phrases in it were identical to phrases in the Gospel of Thomas, the best-known and most widely reprinted of the Nag Hammadi texts. On September 20 Watson published an eight-page online article titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed.” His theory was that a forger who knew some Coptic and had access to a printed text of Thomas (one was published in 1970) got hold of an old piece of papyrus and confected a text out of bits and pieces from the well-known Gnostic text. Other scholars found even more word-for-word correspondences between Thomas and the “Jesus’ wife” fragment, until it appeared that the only original word in the fragment was tahime, the Coptic word for “my wife.”

And so, while the “Jesus’ wife” story lived on for weeks in the news, with people wondering whether Dan Brown had been on to something when he hitched Jesus and Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, or speculating whether a married Jesus could still be one’s lord and savior, it seemed to die a quiet death at Harvard. Some Coptic scholars continued to defend the fragment’s authenticity, but the Harvard Theological Review announced that it would delay publication of King’s article until both the papyrus and the ink had undergone scientific testing, and the Smithsonian canceled the airing of its television documentary. Complete silence followed, for more than a year and a half, during which some scholars wondered whether Harvard was quietly hoping that everyone would forget about Karen King’s Coptic scrap.

But the story of Jesus’ wife is a Christian story, in a sense, and so it contains a resurrection. Two weeks ago, on April 10, in a manner reminiscent of King’s carefully controlled original unveiling of the fragment, the Harvard Divinity School issued a press release declaring that a “wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words ‘Jesus said to them my wife’ is an ancient document” and that “its contents may have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.” Harvard had given an advance viewing of the test results and an interview with King to reporters for just three newspapers—the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Harvard student newspaper, the Crimson—on condition that they embargo their stories until April 10, the date of the press release and also the release, at last, of King’s article, this time in the April issue of the Harvard Theological Review (the Smithsonian documentary will finally air on May 5). The press release and a packet of scientific studies appended to King’s article also stated that tests conducted at Columbia University indicated that the chemical composition of the ink, a carbon-based substance made from lampblack, matched that of the ink on other ancient papyrus writings. The Globe’s online headline duly declared: “No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’ wife.’ ” 

Nonetheless, the scientific results have raised more questions than they’ve answered, especially within the cohort of scholars who were already convinced that the fragment was a modern forgery. For one thing, the papyrus scrap qualifies as “ancient” only if you count the Middle Ages as “ancient.” The scrap’s fibers were carbon-dated twice. An analysis conducted at the University of Arizona during the summer of 2013 yielded a date range for the papyrus of between 405 and 209 b.c. That would have automatically meant that the document was a forgery. The papyrus was retested by Harvard biologist Noreen Tuross just a few months ago, in January and February 2014. Tuross found that the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus dated from between 681 a.d. and 877 a.d., with a median, or most probable, date of 741 a.d. 

To put the 740s into a historical context, that was the decade in which Charlemagne was born. Egypt, hitherto part of the Roman and later the Byzantine empire, had been invaded and conquered by Muslims in 639. By the 700s, the official language of Egypt was Arabic, not Coptic or Greek. It was a very different world from the Egyptian world of the fourth century, much less the second century, and it is hard to imagine Gnostic intellectuals debating marriage and sexuality at a time when the Copts were engaging in a series of unsuccessful rebellions against Egypt’s Islamic rulers.

Furthermore, those skeptical of the authenticity of the “Jesus’ wife” text have never rested their case on the age of the papyrus itself. “Anyone can get hold of old papyrus,” Janet Timbie, a Coptologist teaching in the Semitic and Egyptian languages department at the Catholic University of America, told me in a telephone interview (Timbie was at the Rome conference where King delivered her paper). She added: “We have some right here in our department.”

The results of the ink testing are similarly problematic. The ink could not be carbon-dated using current technology without destroying the tiny piece of papyrus, so the Columbia test results merely confirmed the ink’s ancient-style composition, very different from that of modern lampblack, not the ink’s age. An amateur forger probably wouldn’t be able to replicate ancient ink, but a skilled professional might be able to do so, possibly by scraping off and then rehydrating ink from existing papyri.

A second paleographic analysis (after Bagnall’s) of the handwriting on the fragment, by Malcolm Choat, an expert on fourth-century Coptic scripts at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, yielded equivocal results. In a brief article, Choat declared that he had been unable to find a “smoking gun” indicating that the text wasn’t written “in antiquity,” but he added, “nor can such a .  .  . [paleographic] examination prove that it is genuine.” Choat did say that the scrawled handwriting on the fragment was too “informal” for a literary text—such as a gospel—but it could have been used to write a nonliterary magical or school text.

For these reasons, neither Askeland nor Watson has retracted his position that the fragment is a forgery, and both have blogged scathingly to that effect. Watson has been especially critical of the Harvard Divinity School’s overhyping press release, which failed to mention Choat’s extreme ambivalence about the fragment’s authenticity. In an email to me Watson wrote: “It’s to be expected that a forger would work with an old piece of papyrus, so even a reliable dating to say the 4th century a.d. would tell us absolutely nothing about the date of the writing. The same is true of analysis of the composition of the ink. So as far as I can see, there’s nothing new here.”

The most acrid denunciation came from Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University who wrote a 19-page article in the Harvard Theological Review, a kind of rejoinder to King’s article, in which he declared that he was “personally 100% convinced that the Wife of Jesus fragment is a forgery” cribbed from the Gospel of Thomas. Depuydt speculated that the alleged forger had been motivated by a desire to “make points of a theological kind” about Jesus’ celibacy and other traditional Christian beliefs about him. Unlike the careful-with-the-press Karen King, who did not respond to my emailed request for an interview, Depuydt neither hoards nor minces words. In an hour-long telephone conversation with me, he pronounced the choppy, seemingly non sequitur clauses of the fragment “mumbo-jumbo.” He explained: “I’m a grammarian—I’ve written a grammar of Middle Egyptian. I did my doctorate in Coptic manuscripts at Yale. This is unlike anything you see in a Coptic literary text. The people who wrote Coptic literary texts wrote fully grammatically. Reading one of those texts is like reading the New York Times.” Depuydt characterized King’s lengthy interpretive analysis of the context of the fragment and its supposed place in early Christian thought as “overkill.”

And indeed King herself might have decided that she had indulged in some overkill, at least the first time around. The 28-page version of her article in the April 2014 issue of the Harvard Theological Review bears only a passing, severely downsized resemblance to the version that had been scheduled for publication in January 2013. Even the subtitle is different: “A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment” instead of “A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Gone is any claim that the fragment is a portion of a larger “gospel” or other formal literary codex. King now speculates, probably taking a hint from Choat, that the papyrus scrap might have been an “amulet,” a charm against demons, an “aide-mémoire or even a practice text.” Gone is any definitive effort to identify the “Mary” mentioned in the fragment with Mary Magdalene (although she could have been, King maintains). And most significantly, gone is the assertion that there was likely an early Christian “tradition” that Jesus was actually married—a linchpin of King’s earlier draft. Instead, King modestly maintains that “the main point of the GJW fragment is simply to affirm that women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’ disciples.”

Speaking of mothers, the entire “Jesus’ wife” episode calls to mind another ancient text: Aesop’s fable about the mountain that goes into rumbling labor but disgorges only a mouse. If accurate scientific dating of the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was central to its publication—as it certainly should have been, given the scrap’s shadowy provenance—why were no carbon and chemical tests run on the papyrus until after King had presented her paper at a major scholarly conference and it was about to go to press as an article in a major theological journal? Why was the entire publication process carried out in near-secrecy and then stage-managed in a way that made it look like a publicity stunt for the benefit of a Smithsonian television special? What does this say about the careful standards of scholarship that are supposed to characterize a premier research university with unlimited resources such as Harvard? 

I emailed Roger Bagnall at NYU, the only expert whom King consulted between December 2011 and September 2012 for the purpose of determining the fragment’s authenticity—and that solely on the basis of its handwriting. My question had to do with what Bagnall made of the carbon-dating of the papyrus to the eighth century and not the fourth as he had earlier concluded. He emailed this reply:

As to the handwriting, it is not possible date [sic] with confidence a very rudimentary hand. .  .  . It is the sort of handwriting acquired at a very early stage of education, and it does not change much over the centuries. The closest analogues that I have been able to discover have been dated to the late fourth or early fifth century. .  .  . It is indeed interesting to find this type of hand turning up in something from 2-3 centuries later; it raises questions that at present I can’t see a way of answering.

In other words, no one connected to the “Jesus’ wife” fragment can account for the presence of fourth-century Gnostic or Gnostic-derived material on an eighth-century papyrus sheet manufactured long after much of Egypt had become Islamic—as even Karen King concedes in an afterword to her published article.

“For my dissertation I catalogued all the Coptic manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library,” Leo Depuydt said in our phone conversation. “I’ve never seen a Gnostic text later than the fifth century. Gnosticism must have vanished after the fifth century. The fourth century was the great century of Christianization. In the year 300 in Egypt everyone lived side by side: pagans and Christians and Gnostics. By the end of the fourth century Christians were persecuting pagans and Manicheans and Gnostics. By 425, it was like medieval France, where everybody’s a Catholic. I’ve never seen any evidence of any Gnostic sects surviving past then.”

Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the
Historical Jesus.

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