Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jesus Had a Sister-in-Law


[For updated information, cf. The forgery of the Lycopolitan Gospel of John]

recto, Jn 5:26-30
Through Gregg Schwendner and Malcom Choat, I have just become aware of something that I should have seen much earlier.  I read all of the Harvard Theological Review articles about the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, and assumed that the links on the Harvard dedicated GJW webpage essentially linked to the same.  However, the website contains a longer version of the Ink Results which offers the pictures of the associated gospel of John fragment here.

verso, Jn 6:11-14
The shocker here is this.  The fragment contains exactly the same hand, exactly the same ink and has been written with the same writing instrument.  One would assume that it were part of the same writing event, be it modern or ancient.  In some sense, this is not a surprise, as the Ink Results indicated that the ink was very similar.  (The ink on both sides of GJohn was identical or similar to one another; the GJW had slightly different ink on both sides.  All of the inks were highly similar.)

Actually, if you are a Coptic nerd, there apparently is a bigger shocker...  The text is in Lycopolitan and apparently is a(n exact?) reproduction from the famous Cambridge Qau codex, edited by Herbert Thompson.  What is so shocking about that?  Essentially all specialists believe that Lycopolitan and the other minor dialects died out during or before the sixth century.  Indeed, the forger tried to offer two manuscripts both in Lycopolitan, but made two crucial mistakes.  First, the NHC gospel of Thomas is not a pure Lycopolitan text, but the Qau codex is.  That is we have two clearly different subdialects of Lycopolitan, which agree exactly with published texts.  Second, this GJohn fragment has been 14C dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, a period from which Lycopolitan is totally unknown.

These are my initial thoughts, and I will update this blog within the next hours.  My first assessment is that this a major blow to those arguing for the authenticity of GJW.


Alin Suciu has created a reconstruction, demonstrating that the verso follows the line breaks of Herbert Thompson’s edition precisely.  Leo Depuydt came to the same conclusion on his own.  All three of us would conclude that this almost certainly marks this GJW-John fragment as a modern fake.  Alin noted also that the transcription only deviates in altering Lycopolitan ⲁⲃⲁⲗ to Sahidic ⲉⲃⲟⲗ.  Given the surrounding dialectal realities, here, this is nonsense, and further evidence of forgery.  Mark Goodacre’s reconstruction is the best illustration of the forgery.

For the reader who has not closely followed the story so far, I would underscore the importance of this discovery.  The inauthenticity claims against the Gospel of Jesus Wife fragment have been primarily based upon the fact that the GJW is clearly reconstructed from Grondin’s 2002 PDF of the Sahidic (with Lycopolitan influence) Gospel of Thomas, and secondarily based upon the bizarre appearance of the manuscript.  All of us assumed that the Coptic John anchored the GJW with a real group of fragments with a known history, although this history was based upon photocopies of older documents possessed by a mysterious anonymous figure.  These arguments find a perfect parallel with this second fragment.

My prior theory that the GJW was a forgery inserted into an otherwise authentic group of papyri has been shattered.  We must now question whether the anonymous owner is nothing more than a prankster.  I would not be surprised, if said owner vanishes into the aether.  If the owner is not a prankster, he should come forward with the information necessary to reveal the forger (or vindicate the GJW).  I am tempted to think that the forgery has roots in Germany, still, since there is an apparently idiomatically-composed handwritten note in German describing the Gospel of Jesus Wife.  I hope that this will be released by Karen King or the owner.

Mark Goodacre’s synopsis post with better images
Mark Goodacre visually illustrates GJW-GJohn forgery
Leo Depuydt responds

Postscript (07 May 2014)

Several individuals have expressed concerns about the use of the term “ugly” in my title’s metaphor.  The word choice was not intended to be offensive to any particular individual or to perpetuate an established “ugly women/sister” trope.  The term no longer appears in the title, but is still visible in the URL.


  1. Very interesting. I must admit, I've wondered if one of the 4 other alleged fragments (other than GJW & Jn) might have a straight edge similar to the top of GJW...

  2. Well done, Christian. I must admit that I too had not thought to explore fully the links on the Harvard website until our discussion in the other comment thread about the date of the the first radio-carbon test, which is given only in the report there and not in the HTR article.

    I would like to suggest that we all could have wasted a lot less time if all the materials, including the back-story documentation and this John fragment had been been made available back in 2012.

  3. What a tremendously interesting post - I hear the sound of a puzzle piece clicking into place!

    Thanks for posting, and will look forward to updates.

  4. Thanks for the post, Christian. The observation about the use of Lycopolitan is particularly interesting.

    Can you clarify the beginning of the second paragraph? It seems to me that this paragraph is saying that GJW and GJohn are written with the same ink, whereas the Columbia report concludes that they're written with similar, but distinct, inks.

  5. Why would a forger duplicate the line breaks from his exemplar?

  6. Cory,
    From the pictures, it looks like the same ink to me. From the spectroscopy, all the ink have the same constituent element ... plain soot (the easiest of the ancient inks to fake). Yes, the Raman tests found that the inks were different, but remember that the inks were deemed different on the different sides of the GJW. Likewise, the tests also acknowledged the similarity of the ink of GJW-GJohn and GJW. Here is the quote from the Yardley-Hagadorn summary concerning the GJW ink (p. 1, bold is mine):
    "‧ The ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from the ink used for the GospJohn manuscript.
    ‧ Within the available accuracy of our measurements, our data are consistent with a single ink composition for each individual side of the GJW manuscript."

  7. David Brakke4/24/2014 11:42 pm

    Good job, Christian!

  8. Great research, Christian.

    I think this again goes to the importance of releasing all the information about the collection and provenance when these documents are published.

  9. Thanks for the post Christian, you’ve made a fascinating link with Codex Gau. As a manuscript nerd, I want to follow up on Cory’s point, and your response to it. It seems to me that the relevant part of the Yardley-Hagadorn report is not the (somewhat ambiguously worded) point: “Within the available accuracy of our measurements, our data are consistent with a single ink composition for each individual side of the GJW manuscript.” Rather, their next point is more precise: “The Raman spectra obtained from the recto side and from the verso side are very similar within experimental error, although the data admit the possibility that the recto and verso sides for this manuscript could be derived from different but similar batches of ink.” This is not the same as their clear assertion that “the ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from, the ink used for the GospJohn manuscript.”

  10. "Second, this GJohn fragment has been 14C dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, a period from which Lycopolitan is totally unknown."

    But how do you get around the C14 dating of the 'sister text' to the 7th - 9th century and would you have done the same if it said the text was modern? Yes it may be peculiar that Lycopolitan from this period, but isn't it more unusual that C14 dating 'needs' to be ignored when it gets in the way of a good argument.

  11. I am not a specialist, and I don't understand how the ink can be both dated back to 6-9th century while it is a modern fabrication? (I understand that you can use a "authentic" blank papyrus, but I just dont understand the ink) Don't these two statements bring forth some contradictions?

  12. "The ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from the ink used for the GospJohn manuscript."

    So the forger created two different different batches of magical ink for two small papyri. Why on earth do you so suppose this was? The GospJohn fragment evidently 'fooled' the C14 test. So what happened with the second forgery? Did the witch he turned to for help making the magical ink run out of salamanders?

    Oh I forgot. The game is to put the pressure on King to 'reveal' more about the anonymous owner of the fragment to divert attention from the C14. Very well continue ...

  13. Paul,
    Thanks. That's helpful.

    A colleague who specializes in spectroscopy is reviewing this now, and I think that we will probably be able to conclude that the scientific data are consistent with these all essentially being the same ink. Actually, to some extent that is already the case; these are all pure soot inks. My understanding is that iron-based inks are more popular after the Roman period.

    Just to be clear, the Raman tests did not date the inks. They only revealed their composition ... soot.

    By no means am I ignoring the 14C dating. Clearly, the forger used a papyrus fragment from the 7th-9thh centuries. Perhap, I am not understanding your argument.

  14. I am sorry Christian. I defer to your expertise but I can only go by what you have said. For instance when you said:

    "Second, this GJohn fragment has been 14C dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, a period from which Lycopolitan is totally unknown."

    Not having paid a lot of attention to this second fragment I found your statement unclear. If they test the ink on this second less valuable fragment and it comes back as 7th - 9th century then case closed right? No more arguments? Or is there more?

    When you cited the source as saying:

    "The ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from the ink used for the GospJohn manuscript."

    I assumed that meant that the inks are different. Is there something I am not seeing or hearing clearly? Isn't it fair to assume that until those other tests are done we are dealing with two different batches of ink? Yes ink was made using the same basic ingredients but they are still different batches of ink.

    So in effect, the forger made two different batches of ink for two different fragments according to your theory or according to new test results. Can we all agree then that if the two fragments are by the same hand then the owner of the second fragment should allow the ink from this less valuable fragment to be used up and tested and if it comes back modern, it's a forgery and if it comes back from a period before the modern age it's not a forgery and we can all move on? Doesn't scientific testing always get the final word?

  15. The last paragraph was phrased awkwardly. What I meant to say was:

    Can we all agree then that if the two fragments are by the same hand then the owner should allow the ink from the less valuable GospJohn fragment to be used up and tested and if it comes back as modern, we can all agree it's a forgery and if it comes back from a period before the modern age it's not a forgery and we can all move on?

  16. Stephan,
    In theory, yes. However, I am not sure if one would be able to get enough ink. Honestly, it would be much easier if no manuscripts were destroyed, and the owner would just come forward with additional information.

  17. Well done, Christian.
    You did an excellent work, once more.

  18. Excellent work Christian, proven beyond all reasonable doubt it is a forgery. However, perhaps you should anticipate an unreasonable response along the lines of
    (1)an ancient (where ancient can be anything up to 9th century or so) scribe wrote both GJW and Gospel of John fragment and deposited them together - hence the reason the writing, ink and dialect matches, and
    (2) that scribe had before him the same manuscript that Thompson later edited, and copied it exactly

    Matthew Hamilton

  19. I've added a graphic of the recto + Thompson p. 7 now, in the spirit of Alin Suciu's graphic of the verso:

  20. Thank you for doing the leg work to uncover the forgery! But the title of the post makes it a little harder for me to appreciate it. "Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law" plays on old tropes that have long alienated and shamed women-- not just scrutinizing them for their appearance, but allegorizing them to make negative points.
    It alienates any actual female scholars that might be involved in this conversation. All of them, I would bet, have faced some kind of scrutiny and judgment based on their appearance. (In fact, when the story of the fragment first broke two years ago, Smithsonian magazine found it necessary to comment on Karen King's appearance - her gray hair and loose clothing - seemingly to show she was a serious scholar.)

    I find it disheartening that jokes about ugly women are still considered acceptable in some corners of scholarship.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Christian, I am interested in your point that the biggest shocker here is your discovery that since Lycopolitan died out during or before the sixth century but the GJohn fragment has been c14 dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, this is proof of forgery.

    Has anyone considered applying your technique to other dubious texts? I am thinking in particular of an even more touted discovery--a supposed "treasure trove" of manuscripts of which a major subset are in a Northwest Semitic variety only epigraphically attested between the late 9th and early 6th centuries BCE--yet these fragments are both paleographically and c14 dated between the 2nd C BCE and the 1st c CE!

    I feel like we may be on the trail of uncovering a much bigger hoax!

    Or could it be that there's an error somewhere in the reasoning :) ?

  23. Meredith Warren4/26/2014 3:04 am

    Eva Mroczek, I have to agree with your thoughtful comment. I am so glad that someone has done a thorough investigation of this text, but I do wish that this scholarly critique was not couched in old-fashioned rhetoric which uses women's appearance in this way.

  24. Eva and Meredith,
    I take your accusation seriously, but you have missed the point here, and your feminist response is unfair. The issue here is that a forger is playing off of hyperfeminist sensibilities, forging a "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" and forging accompanying paperwork describing the fragment as said gospel. To me, it seems highly likely that this was even given intentionally to King, who has specialized in women in apocryphal literature, and who is at Harvard, epicenter of american biblical gender studies.

    I did not bring in the gender issue here, the forger did and King swallowed it whole.
    I am not aware of any trope of "ugly sister-in-laws." If such a trope existed, I would not have used it here. To all those involved in the debate, it will be clear that the tropes here are (1) the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" and (2) the idea of "sister" codices and fragments. I did not generate the first, and there is nothing negative about the second. The concept of "ugly" has to do with paleographic appearance.

    So, IMO, you have baselessly criticized me, here, accusing me of misogyny. In the future, you might better share such accusations in more personal formats.

    Just to be clear, I support historic feminism, and have two daughters.

  25. I have just deleted three unhelpful comments discussing the issues raised by Eva and Meredith. The present discussion is dedicated to the relevant historical critical issues. Readers with a genuine and non-combative interest in my commitment to the historic feminist movement can contact me privately. I am an evangelical Christian with faculty status at an institution whose denomination was intimately involved with early feminism and the abolition of slavery.

  26. Thanks for your commitment to open dialogue, Christian. But you haven't responded to my philological critique either :)

  27. Seth,
    I am not familiar with the trove which you are referencing, and it is, I think, outside of my areas of specialization (NTTC and Coptic). Thanks for your comment, and sorry that I can not say anything constructive!

  28. Christian--I'm surprised you've never heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls! They're remarkable--and by the criterion you're using for the dialect of the Gospel of John fragment, probably fake.

  29. Seth,
    As a NT scholar, I am only vaguely familiar with Hebrew epigraphy, and misinterpreted the related comments... and I also missed your sarcasm.

    Are you disputing the disappearance of Lycopolitan from the Coptic dialectal family? This is fairly well-established. Coptic enters a kind of golden age in the 6th to 8th centuries, emerging as the prestige language (replacing Greek). Three dialects can be documented from the documentary tradition in this time period. Bohairic (from Kellia and from later tradition), Fayumic and Sahidic. Almost everything is in Sahidic with regard to literary texts. The so-called minor dialects disappeared (Achmimic, Lycopolitan, Middle Egyptian).

  30. David W. Kim4/29/2014 3:02 pm

    It looks a great approach with challenge, but this GJW debate should not be about being a Christian or not. I believe it should be rather a scholarly evaluation for the potential existence of a marginal culture we never knew if there was. It seems we do not have enough evidence yet, even with this news.

  31. Christian, your post's title really was unfortunate. The metaphor equates a valueless forgery with an ugly woman. Surely you can see that. It struck me as a misogynistic jab, and apparently it had the same effect on others. Whether you intended it as such is beside the point. I take you seriously when you say you are committed to feminism -- that's why I'm commenting here. I would think you would want to know when a poor choice of metaphor was giving offense.

  32. Janet Spittler4/30/2014 1:42 am

    Christian, I tried leaving this comment earlier today, but don't see it -- so here it is again.

    Your post's title really was unfortunate. The metaphor equates a valueless forgery with an ugly woman. Surely you can see that. It immediately struck me as a misogynistic jab, and apparently had the same effect on others. I take you seriously when you say you are committed to feminism -- that's why I'm commenting here. I would think you would want to know if something you wrote we're giving offense."

  33. Janet,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. In deference to suggestions similar to yours, I have already foregone my pattern of using blog post titles which play off the concept of Jesus having a wife (cf. The forgery of the Lycopolitan gospel of John). I will not further discuss the title in the present context, but would be pleased to discuss it further by email. Constructive, well-written and non-combative comments like yours (and the two others above) will not be (and have not been) deleted from the present comments section.

  34. I am preserving the comments above for historical purposes, but recognize that my response to Eva was poorly worded and unnecessarily aggressive. I changed the title when first requested about two weeks ago, and will be pleased to discuss my current thoughts on the matter through email.

  35. I'll add my voice to the kudos-callers.

    When the news of the GJW broke, my first reaction was that it was probably a forgery. Why? It came so hard on the heels of Dan Brown's _DaVinci Code_, which is a novel written in a breathless style about how an intrepid American academic uncovers how the Vatican (interpose some melodramatic music) has conspired to hide the fact that Jesus had a wife and a bloodline behind theological gobbledygook. Brown's novel is itself based on a highly speculative [imaginative?], purportedly non-fiction book entitled _Holy Blood, Holy Grail_ by Lincoln, Baignet, and someone else.

    Hence, I am heartened that some professionals in the field of textual criticism have taken a good, hard look at the latest piece of headline news. But what bothers me is that Karen King, a professor at Harvard, supposedly the flagship institution of American learning, should be so quick to accept as genuine a product that seems to transparently "made to order" for our times.