Evangelical Textual Criticism

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Yet another question about the so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife

Let's assume for the sake of the argument that the fragment is genuine. And let's assume that originally it was written somewhere in Egypt before the eighth century. Then we are still faced with a massive issue. Why does the fragment look so neatly rectangular?

The answer given by Roger Bagnall in the NYT is the following:

"The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom — most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit, Dr. Bagnall said."

And in Professor King's draft paper Bagnall is referred to in these words:

"Initially the compact size and regular shape of the fragment led us to consider whether it might have been an amulet, but we excluded this possibility because it shows no folds, and it begins and ends in the middle of sentences that also extend into margins of unknown length on both the right and left [FN discussing the issue of amulets; DJ]. Alternatively, Bagnall suggests that the regularity may have been caused by an antiquities dealer cutting or tearing a larger page into sections in order to have more pieces for sale."

So clearly, Bagnall thinks that current shape of the fragment is modern, and that it was deliberately forced into its current shape 'to maximize profit'.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the lamentable loss of the words immediately following the famed words 'My wife' might not have been accidental, but perhaps made in order 'to maximize profit'?

We all have our own favourite examples of the enticing brochures advertising our perfect holiday homes, which fortuitously manage to miss the oil refinery on the horizon, the overhead power lines, or the motorway at the back of the property. Here we have a fragment which has been deliberately altered, 'most likely' by a modern dealer seeking to maximize profit, who gets rid of 'something'. And this 'something' might well be in the same league as the oil refinery – it might be a spoiler that affected the value of this fragment negatively. The fragment may have been torn in the shape it is now in order to coax the reader into a certain interpretation.

Whatever the reason, that even supporters of authenticity of the fragment such as Bagnall believe that there has been modern interference with this manuscript, should give some reason to pause and think again.

8 comments:

  1. Does tearing a larger genuine papyrus piece "into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom" in fact, in the current market, for a dealer, actually "maximize his profit"?

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  2. Not a good sign for an unprovenanced artifact to have signs of modern tampering.

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  3. Stephen Goranson brings up a good question, for those of us who don't have enough money regularly to deal on the antiquities market. :) Early on in DSS research, scholars used to pay by fragment, so the Bedouin would cut them up to get paid more for the same material. But the scholars quickly wised up and started paying by surface area, so the Bedouin wouldn't damage the manuscripts. Is there a similar dynamic in the market for Coptic manuscripts?

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  4. Is "tearing" the right word for the clean cut on the upper end? The back side looks especially telling http://nearemmaus.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/screen-shot-2012-09-20-at-7-36-52-am.png

    Are we able to find out with what instrument and at what time the supposed cut has been made?

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  5. For conclusive evidence that dealers in recent years have cut up papyrus manuscripts for sale see R. Kraft's essay here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rak/papyri/ebay/report-2007/report-frame.html

    If Bagnall is correct, then if the fragment is authentic we would expect that the other portions of the page would emerge either on the market or in private collections. Indeed, one would have thought with all the news additional pieces might have already been reported.

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  6. In fact it would be interesting to compare the images in Kraft's collection against this fragment.

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