Ancient Texts

04.13.14

The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ is Still as Big a Mystery as Ever

Scholars had concluded that a papyrus referring to Jesus’s wife was a clever forgery—until new evidence re-opened the case. Is there any way to figure out the truth?

In September 2012 Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the discovery of a new Coptic manuscript that she titled The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW).

The revelation was met with a firestorm of media attention. The mobile-phone-sized scrap of papyrus contained the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’” before breaking off. In a subsequent line the fragment refers to a “Mary” and says that she “is worthy.” Worthy of what? To be a disciple? And, if so, is this about women priests? Is this Mary Magdalene? Do we finally have independent evidence to confirm the groundbreaking findings of The Da Vinci Code?

In brief: nope. Marital metaphors were used by early Christians to describe the relationship between celibate believers and Christ; nuptial imagery is commonly used to describe salvation and heaven in the New Testament; and later Christian martyrs are sometimes called or portrayed as brides of Christ.

If this is a modern forgery, then it raises lots of interesting questions about how forgeries are made, by whom, and for what purposes.

GJW might be the first text to have Jesus refer to his “wife” in direct speech, but we have no way to put this statement on the lips of Jesus. King herself presented the manuscript as evidence of an early church debate about the role of women as disciples. After consulting with well-respected papyrologists, King concluded that the fragment was a fourth-century copy of a second-century text. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is evidence of a second-century controversy, not a first-century sex life.

Almost immediately the scholarly community began to respond, first with the obvious—“this does not prove that Jesus had a wife”—and then with increasing skepticism about the authenticity of the fragment itself. Esteemed New Testament scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre, together with the renowned manuscript expert Alin Suciu, began to poke holes in the thesis.

The biggest problems were the grammatical errors in the text and the similarities between GJW and another early Christian Coptic text, the Gospel of Thomas. Francis Watson argued that all of the fragmentary sentences preserved on the papyrus are also found in the Gospel of Thomas. He tentatively suggested that the text is a pastiche compiled by a modern forger with an elementary grasp of Coptic.

Even more damning was the argument that one of the typographical errors in the fragment appears to have been copied from an erroneous online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The sixth line of the GJW nonsensically seems to read, “Evil man habitually does not he does habitually bring [sic].” Interestingly, precisely the same error appears in a 2002 online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The chances of two independent texts making the same grammatical error are remarkably small. (You just can’t trust the internet for anything these days.)

It didn’t help that GJW emerged mysteriously, almost out of nowhere. The donor who brought the fragment to King insisted on anonymity. While some details of the origins of the papyrus have been published, others have not, and the reluctance of the donor to come forward only casts more doubt over it.

In some areas of the academy, the debate got dirty. Some accused King of sensationalism for participating in a documentary on the subject and picking such a simplistic, headline-grabbing title for the fragment. In some corners of the internet the critique descended into unnuanced personal attacks. One rhyme posted on Facebook condemned King, and her occasional co-author Elaine Pagels, for sensationalism and suggested that the two should work in the food industry instead.

Given that King announced the discovery at a professional conference and immediately made preliminary test results and high-resolution photographs available to the world, it is difficult to know what she could have done differently.   Certainly a more somber title—something in Latin perhaps—would have conveyed more nuance and garnered less attention, but getting attention for the discovery and the field was King’s aim. It used to be the case that papyrus discoveries were routinely announced on the front pages of the Times of London, but things have changed. It’s tough out there when you’re not a Kardashian, and a catchy title and clear message can go a long way. It’s rare for scholars to pass up the opportunity to reach a broader audience when the opportunity presents itself, even if that means giving up some precision.

In any case, the plagiarism argument appeared conclusive, and within a few weeks of its announcement the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife hypothesis seemed dead in the water. King was waiting for the further test results and the scholarly community had concluded that the papyrus was a crass forgery using ancient paper. Time passed, and periodically a scholarly blog would raise a metaphorical eyebrow about the lack of test results.

But now this week, almost 18 months after its initial announcement, and just in time for Easter, GJW is back from the grave. The Harvard Theological Review has published a special edition containing a revised article by King, a dissenting view by Brown Egyptologist Leo Depuydt, and the results of scientific testing of the date of the manuscript and analyses of the handwriting and ink.

The results? The papyrus should be dated between 650 CE and 870 CE, and the ink is consistent with the ancient materials used on ancient manuscripts. The handwriting analysis—put in typically reserved scholarly language—did not turn up anything suspicious.

Everyone, it seems, was a little wrong. The revised carbon dating tests found that the papyrus is not from the fourth century: it is a much later seventh-century fragment (which could still be a copy of a second-century text). On the other hand, if the text is a forgery, then it is a better forgery than previously thought.

Since Harvard published the results of the scientific studies media outlets have been quick to reassert the manuscript’s authenticity. “The Gospel of Jesus Wife is Real” read The Atlantic; “Not a forgery” proclaimed NPR; and National Geographic led with “No Forgery Evidence.”

Yet, once again, the broader scholarly community has been less enthusiastic about the discovery. The question, for many, is neither the date of the papyrus (forgers often use scraps old manuscripts), nor the composition of the ink (a forger could quite simply make a carbon-based ink using soot). The issue is the date of the ink. Unfortunately, the papyrus was too fragile to allow for carbon testing of the ink. The single test that would definitively prove whether or not GJW is a forgery would also destroy it. Awkward if it turns out to be the real deal. I’ll leave that one to the ethicists.

In the absence of clear evidence, the debate is still where it was over a year ago. On the one hand, tests designed to prove that the text is a forgery failed to establish its inauthenticity. On the other hand, the grammatical errors and similarities to the Gospel of Thomas are still a problem. A modern forger with the right materials could still have made this text.

In some ways GJW is actually more interesting if it is a modern forgery. As an authentic text it offers late evidence of a debate about the role of women in the church. That’s something that scholars already knew about. As tantalizing as the potential reference to Jesus’s wife is, the phrase ‘my wife’ doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus himself.

But if this is a modern forgery, then it raises lots of interesting questions about how forgeries are made, by whom, and for what purposes. Someone would have gone to great lengths to place this shocking manuscript in the hands of one of the foremost scholars of Early Christianity alive today. Did they do it for the money, in the hopes of bringing down established Christianity, or just for fun? Now that’s a conspiracy worth looking into. Dibs on the film rights, you guys.