Evangelical Textual Criticism

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Gospel of Jesus's Wife (Updated)

I am typing this post in the midst of a session at the International Association of Coptic Studies in Rome.  Yesterday, a startling new Coptic fragment was presented during a conference session by Karen King, suggesting that Jesus had a wife.  One can find an image and details of the fragment here.  Read the New York Times article here.  King has a preliminary scholarly presentation, here. According to this article, Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk have verified the authenticity of the fragment.  The fragment is said to date to the 4th century.  I hope to post some more reactions to this as my conference schedule allows.

Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a fake?

During the course of the last several hours, I have attempted to understand the reaction of various persons within the coptological community here at the International Association of Coptic studies conference.  My initial perception is that those who specialize in Nag Hammadi and early manuscripts are split with almost two-thirds (earlier four-fifths) being extremely skeptical about the manuscript’s authenticity and one-third (earlier one-fifth) is essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.  I have not met anyone who supports its authenticity, although I do not doubt that there must be some.

If I had to guess, I would have to say that this manuscript is a forgery.  Consider the following points:

First, the 4th century date is speculation.   I say this based on my own familiarity with similar datable texts (Nag Hammadi, Kellis, Melitian Archive) and with the wider issues of dating in general.  King’s argument’s in her article are based upon other speculatively dated manuscripts which additionally are not similar in appearance or format.

Second, this is not a literary codex leaf.  Everyone to whom I have spoken is agreed on this.  Gregor Wurst has publically noted that this fragment resembles the erratic nature of magical texts.

Third, letter formation is not literary, semi-literary or documentary.  I note only the example of Epsilon which is two strokes (not three) and which does not conjoin.  Contra Bagnall, I have a hard time explaining the script via a dull calamus.  It is not that hard to sharpen a calamus.  This text was painted or markered.

Fourth, if an amateur with a basic knowledge of Coptic were to forge a text, it would look like the text under question.  ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ … “Jesus said …”  Two omissions are bizarre and may reflect a weak knowledge of the language (missing ϫⲉ and zero article).  Most other weird gospel-like texts from the early period have non-Sahidic elements.

I mention one feature of the discussion which disconcerts me — the appeal to persons of status.  I am guessing that Shisha-Halevy and Bagnall may be wishing that they were not involved.  What is lacking is convincing evidence which could outweigh the absolute weirdness of the supposed manuscript.  What other manuscripts (esp. literary) actually look like this fragment?  It looks like a fake.

With permission, I reproduce the following email from Roger Bagnall (20/09/2012):
I think [the Wife of Jesus Fragment is] genuine, but I don't know how one could determine this conclusively without destroying the ink for C14 testing.  No one I have talked to has been able to cite a single instance of a fake papyrus that wasn't obviously so--i.e., scribbling that was of no language. So I think the burden of proof is heavy on anyone arguing that it is a fake.


  1. Déjà vu, again. So now we have yet another (Gnostic?) source claiming this. What's new?

  2. Hey Christian,

    Thanks for getting onto this and giving us the links etc. Hope you and the family are well.



  3. I am admittedly *not* an expert on Coptic papyri, but, for what it's worth, my first impression when I saw the writing was that it looked fake. It's fine with me if it becomes proven ancient, though.

  4. Maybe someone here can help me. Which fourth century gnostic text tells a story about (apologies to all here) Jesus engaging in a sex act on a hillside in front of another disciple to demonstrate his freedom from the physical body and oneness with the One?

  5. Alan,
    It's the Greater Questions of MAry (in Epiphanius)>

  6. I'm not completely convinced either way, but I am sympathetic to some of Christian's scepticism. I agree with the point that if one were producing a fake, this is like what you'd make. (1) Jesus said, "My wife" is slap-bang in the middle of page. Also (2) the script is at least fishy. (3) Most of it is paralleled in the Gospel of Thomas, images of which are easily accessible on the web!


  7. Does anyone else think the ink in relation to the papyrus fibers looks odd? (1) except for maybe the first 2 lines, the letters at the ends of lines seem fitted to the fragment (2) what appears to be effacement of the papyrus in a vertical strip about a third of the way across the fragment seems to have affected the surface of the papyrus but not the writing (3) I agree with Christian that it looks like it was written with a brush.

  8. Thanks for the early update... quite a God-Incidence that this is coming out during the conference that you're in at the moment.

    What exactly are these skeptics hoping to gain with such spurious documents?

  9. Thank you for this helpful discussion. I also have concerns how this fragment surfaced on the market and discuss them on Looting Matters.

  10. In addition to the general appearance of the piece and the script and the convenient positioning of the key idea there are also several problems of procedure: a) two external reviewers expressed doubts about the authenticity of the text (King, draft, p. 3) [these are partly fobbed off on the basis of the low resolution of the photos as if that was decisive, p. 4]; b) they suggest investigation by Coptic papyrologists and scientific investigation of the ink (p. 3); c) neither of these things happen!!!; rather d) a Coptic linguist says the language is OK; e) Bagnall apparently says OK; f) no scientific analysis of the ink takes place.
    This procedure is rather curious to me.

  11. Nicole Winfield (Rome) was at the conference and has written a helpful piece for AP (and now available via Bloomberg).

  12. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I am having a difficult time keeping up with this and the conference -- so my apologies for some sloppiness here.

    My draft post included comments on the ink identical to yours, but I took them out. Supposedly, Bagnall examined these, so I would assume that he would have verified this. That is to say that I would trust Bagnall far more than myself on this matter. However, as you have said, the ink appears wrong in these images. My first reaction is that this is a mix of charcoal and water minus the gum arabic or similar substance used in antiquity make the ink gooey. My colleague Hugo Lundhaug and I both noted that this manuscript does not appear faded per King, but rather as if it was written with a watered-down ink. In this case, perhaps, the picture could be deceiving. I am waiting to hear something specific from Bagnall about this to clarify his opinion after the autopsy.

    David Gill,
    Yes, there is possible funny-business, here. Again, Roger Bagnall is involved. It is against the 2007 ASP resolution that a papyrologist should not add "significantly to the commercial value of [stolen] papyri." This injunction includes papyri taken out of Egypt after 1972. Theoretically, that would include this papyrus.

    I have another post on this in the works with some more details of exacting what went down here which will probably appear next week. It should include a list of the mounting number of prominent Coptologists who are completely convinced that this is a fake.

  13. If this is a genuine c. 4th century papyrus...and these comments on the blog indicate it's a big if...Then I suspect it is not a "Gospel" at all, but rather a romance, a "novel" like the Greek novels, Chariton, Ephesian Story, and Daphnis and Chloe, so popular in the 2nd/3rd century Here is a Gnostic attempt to do the same. But then, I could be wrong, and just have second century novels on the brain.

  14. For argument's sake, let's say it's legit. Has anyone considered "My Wife" to be a referral to Israel or the church? Jesus is God. In Hosea 2:2, God proclaims through His prophet--"Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband." "Mother" and "wife" are in reference to the nation of Israel. Also, Christ is the bridegroom to the church in the New Testament (Matt 25; Rev 19,21,22). I am no scholar, not in the least, but if one admits Jesus to be God and Scripture to be infallible, then He indeed claimed Israel as His "wife" and gave her His faithful love. And after having a body prepared for Him (Heb 10:5) He inherited the name Jesus (Heb 1:4. He came to save the world and to take the church as a figurative bride. Even if this scrap of paper is legit, who's to say the context of it's entirety could not be in referral to these. However, I do not think this paper is legit, and anything to discredit the deity and perfection of our Savior will be keen on minds darkened. "There will be a way that seems right to man, but in the ends it leads to death."

  15. See my comments here:http://theologyarchaeology.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/jesus-wife/

    I do not care if they are a forgery or authentic. The words come from a source not associated with truth or the Bible.

    When in doubt, go to the Bible for help.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.


  17. David Gill referred me to Nicole Winfield's article. Emmel, Suciu and Funk all have doubts about it authenticity. No provenance, no ink testing, unparalleled writing, grammatical errors, suspicious dependence on Thomas, ductus doesn't look right. By day 3 there are significant objections for this little scrap to overcome.


  18. Prof. Bagnall wrote: "No one I have talked to has been able to cite a single instance of a fake papyrus that wasn't obviously so--i.e., scribbling that was of no language."
    How about Constantine Simonides (1820–1867)? Christopher Rollston has expressed doubts about the Marzeah papyrus. If one allows fakes on skin, presumaby cut from larger pieces in modern times, Moses Shapira (1830-1888). My guess is that this new papyrus ms may be fake.

  19. Thank you so much for keeping us informed on this issue. A great gift for the true bride of Christ!

  20. I am beginning to feel that the high profile announcement via the NYT was premature. There are two key issues (at least!):
    a. Is the fragment genuine? This should have been resolved long before submission to a journal.
    b. Did the fragment leave Egypt contrary to national and international agreements on cultural property? If yes, should scholars be involved in the "authentication" (if genuine!)?

  21. Prof. Bagnall wrote: "No one I have talked to has been able to cite a single instance of a fake papyrus that wasn't obviously so--i.e., scribbling that was of no language."

    This is tantamount to saying, "Because such a thing has never happened before, it obviously couldn't have happened this time."

    But there's a first time for everything.

  22. Talking of forgeries, perhaps I could point readers to the instructive article available via JSTOR.

  23. Here is a comment by Gregg Schwender which apparently keeps disappearing. I don't know why, but I try to post it for him:

    I think a little un-charitable (bizarrely so) to suggest Bagnall is motivated by anything but his particular professional opinion. He was the one who put together the AIP's statement on illegally trafficked antiquities, no small feat of diplomacy. Further, what he says about known forgeries is quite correct, that is they are nonsense resembling writing (every collection has some of these, but few ever see them). The only other instance i know is anecdotical from the antiquities market before 1970. Seeing something that looked like Coptic, but made no sense in Coptic, (although they were not the sort of scribbling Bagnall refers to) the buyer balked 9so he told me), thinking the pieces faked. Only years later did it transpire that they were in Old Nubian, and were genuine.

    The lack of provenance is not unusual. To advance this as an argument against authenticity is ridiculous, about as ridiculous as leveling accusations of (possible) impropriety against Prof. Bagnall.

    The writing is weird. The writer controls his pen poorly, the scrap on which it is written is reused, and these things make one think of leaner. It might be a good idea to compare the texts in Hasitzka, Neue Texte und Dokumentation zum Koptisch-Unterricht (MPER XVIII 1990). I doubt there is anything similar there, but at least it would be a positive step towards resolving the question.

    The Artemidorus papyrus is quite a different matter. Peter Parsons described its writing as "unexceptionable" (TLS 2/22/08); were there a Coptic palaeography expert of a similar stature willing to say the same thing for the papyrus in question, this discussion would have an entirely different tone.

  24. Dear Gregg,
    Thanks. I have a high regard for Bagnall's professional opinion, and would not want to suggest that he has acted unprofessionally here. I can generally agree with your comments on the ductus and material, although I think that you are being generous. The problem is that this piece has been presented as a literary codex by King and, indeed, seems to contain a literary text. So, looking for a parallel in MH's synopsis of writing exercises is an act of desperation. We can do this and perhaps find similar hands, but we would still lack evidence for literary codices with this sort of writing. Actually, I think you would have a hard time finding a real equivalent for this in her edition. When I return to Münster, I will be checking a few editions to see what I can turn up.

    I work on manuscripts from institutional collections whose provenance is uncertain, almost every day, and this is indeed very normal. However, if someone asks me to identify a text for them, I will only help them if I can be reasonably sure that everything is in order. In this case, as mentioned, I am assuming that Bagnall would not have verified the papyrus without due diligence. However, having said that, I can not verify what the history is. I am suspicious that interesting information is being kept secret by the owner.

  25. thanks for sharing.

  26. Here is a bit more from Gregg Schwender:

    "There are ways to examine the ink without destroying the papyrus. A Multispectral image would be the first thing to try. Bagnall's incite that the pen is the problem with the script's appearance should be supportable by comparanda. This surely can't be the only papyrus written with an improperly sharpened pen. Probably he means the pen was not produced quite right: if the inside of the barrel by the tip is not properly cleaned (sorry i don't know the technical term) stuff that grows in the middle of a reed, which one has to cut out with a knife, and then sand somehow, or if the nib is has a stray fibers around the point, is can speared the ink around as one sees in this text. But this observation does not mean much if no comparanda can be produced.

    The other point Bagnall makes about known papyrus forgeries is right as far as it goes; but there are cases of forged antiquities involving comprehensible writing that have come to light recently. Maybe I'm wrong, but i thought the Greek on that metal codex from Jordan was directly copied from somewhere else; There is also the famous Praenste Fibula, that looked like our earliest Latin writing, until it was studied in depth and exposed in the 80's. This is the sort of detail i find lacking in the argumentation on the blog. Just saying "There's a first time for everything", as someone did, is no argument.

    A multispectral image or images might reveal what is lost on the back, or whether there is writing beneath the interesting part of the front where the ink is different than on the rest.

    The most troubling thing is that Bagnall's first reaction was the same as anyone with experience with papyri: it looks fake. This is not an argument exactly, but given that, what is probably needed is a seminar like the one held at Oxford to discuss the Artemidorus papyrus (to be published as Images and Texts of the Artmeidorus papyrus: Working Papers, ST John's College, Oxford, 2088)."

  27. Dear friends, a few minutes ago my colleague informed me that your articles. I am very interested! I also published a Paleographical preliminary report on it (in Spanish) a couple of days... I hope it can be of interest to you. A second review will include (with your permission) the arguments considered relevant.

    Here I leave the link to my article, if you also find something of interest that deserves to be referred to by you in an upcoming update of your article: