Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Is a Fake

The papyrus fragment that is now known as 'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife.' (click for credit)

The papyrus fragment that is now known as ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.’ (click for credit)

I am in China right now, and I have been here for almost two weeks. However, internet access is sporadic (at best), which is why I haven’t added any articles recently. Things are a bit better today, though, so I thought I would share my thoughts on a story I recently ran across.

On September 18th, 2012 at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, Dr. Karen L. King announced the existence of an astounding 4-cm by 8-cm papyrus fragment. It contained what she thought was a 4th-century Coptic translation of a gospel that she suggested had probably been written in the late second century AD. While the discovery of any ancient papyrus that has writing on it is interesting, this particular fragment was especially interesting because it contained the following phrase:

Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”

As a result, this papyrus fragment came to be known as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”

In a peer-reviewed paper that was later published in the Harvard Theological Review, Dr. King presented the results of several tests that had been done on the papyrus fragment. Those tests led her to conclude that it was from the 8th century AD and was not a forgery. In the same issue of the journal, however, another scholar wrote an article concluding that the papyrus was a forgery. The Vatican weighed in as well, dismissing the fragment as a “clumsy forgery.”

Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about the papyrus fragment, and a website was set up to provide all of the latest information about it. Based on subsequent tests done on the fragment and its ink, Dr. King became so convinced that the fragment is authentic that she told Time:

I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’

Fortunately, however, there were those who were unwilling to move past the issue of the fragment’s authenticity. One of those was a journalist, Ariel Sabar. Since he is not qualified to assess the fragment based on its physical characteristics or the writing that appears on it, he decided to investigate its record of ownership. He wanted to see if the facts line up with what Dr. King had been told about where it actually came from.

His investigation led to a string of lies and secrets that seemed to make it quite clear that the fragment isn’t authentic. Based on what he found, even Dr. King has admitted:

It tips the balance towards forgery.

Now, of course, it doesn’t surprise me at all that a papyrus fragment referring to Jesus’ wife is a forgery. What I find interesting is the way the issue was resolved. Experts had weighed in on both sides – some saying it was a forgery, some saying it was genuine, and some saying that they didn’t know. However, it wasn’t an expert who gave us the definitive evidence. It was a journalist.

There are times when a non-expert is best suited to resolve an academic debate, and the supposed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife provides us with an excellent example. Experts deserve respect, and their opinions should carry a lot of weight. However, sometimes, non-experts can do what the experts cannot.

3 Comments

  1. Jason Pratt says:

    It was (and is) of course typical of Dr. King (and her supporters at the Smithsonian and at Harvard Divinity School who helped propagate this), to position criticism against the fragment’s authenticity as a “reaction” to the idea of Jesus having a wife when the criticisms came from a broad ideological spectrum and never cared about that idea at all; and to try to position the fragment at all as having significance for the history of Christianity when even in the best case scenario it could only have minor significance for the history of Coptic paleography.

    They knew both things, but just had to try to make it seem significant anyway. In effect they aided and abetted in the hoax, even though not in forging the fragment.

    Altar & Throne picked up an article I wrote for the Christian Cadre Journal on the “axis of shockery” involved by the conspirators in this whole mess. http://www.altarandthrone.com/the-jesus-wife-fragment-and-the-axis-of-shockery/ You might enjoy the fireworks!

  2. cjl says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have found that each field has its own culture and societal norms. Experts in a particular field become well versed in what are the accepted norms and what aren’t, and that fact can cloud their judgment. For lack of a better way of putting it, experts are invested in their field and they desire to look “cool” the others within their field. When that happens it may be best, as you point out, to find someone with no “skin in the game” to bring a fresh perspective on the issue.

    1. Jason Pratt says:

      Actually, Arial Sabar did have “skin in the game” — he had been instrumental in helping the Smithsonian sell the original marketing push for the fragment back in 2012. He wasn’t a random interested journalist; and in fact he continues to shill for the fragment (in a way) even in his famous article, because he keeps insisting it could have been historically important if real. The whole controversy, that he helped create (as the Smithsonian’s chosen journalist and the only one allowed to attend Dr. King’s original presentation), couldn’t have been about nothing from the beginning after all!

      A neutral journalist would have suspected fraud from the beginning due to the ludicrously suspicious provenance.

      This isn’t to take away his investigative successes (once he finally got down to doing the job he should have done from the beginning had he been a neutral reporter); but he was no outside observer. He was a key component of the propaganda machine — one who would have been well advised to find a way to salvage his own professional reputation while there was still a little time to do so.

      JRP