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The Deepening Mystery Of the 'Jesus' Wife' Papyrus

8:00 AM, Apr 28, 2014 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Guess what—Jesus not only has a wife; he’s got a sister-in-law as well.

Jesus' Wife

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”?

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