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May 02, 2014

"Gospel of Jesus' Wife" Turns Out to Be a Fraud

Just a few weeks ago, some scientists declared the fragment of papyrus was not a fake, and of course the media rushed to promote the story.

A team of scientists has concluded that a controversial scrap of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus referring to "my wife," is not a fake, according to the Harvard Theological Review.

"A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, 'Jesus said to them, my wife' is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE," Harvard Divinity School said in a statement.

Scientists tested the papyrus and the carbon ink, and analyzed the handwriting and grammar, according to Harvard.

Radiocarbon tests conducted at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced an origination date for the papyrus of 659-859 CE, according to Harvard. MIT also studied the chemical composition of the papyrus and patterns of oxidation.

Other scholars studied the carbon character of the ink and found that it matched samples of papyri from the first to eight century CE, according to Harvard.

"None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery," the divinity school said.

I almost posted on this story when it was current, three weeks ago. I was curious how the claimed dating of the papyrus to the 6th-9th centuries AD proved it "wasn't a fake."

There have been fake religious texts for so long as there have been religions. After all, any atheist of course considers the whole of the Bible a hoax. Popular books claim that almost the entirety of the Bible is "Forged," as one book title puts it.

Intriguingly, the same CNN Religion Blog which now promotes the idea of antiquity being the equivalent of authenticity also was pretty psyched about the findings of that Forged book.

Kind of a contradictory impulse, when you think about it: When an academic says "basically, everything in the Bible is a forgery," the CNN Religion blog gets engorged and throbby about it.

But then someone comes forward with what is purportedly a papyrus containing Jesus' words and they're very credulous in claiming it's "real."

There are no shortage of acknowledged forged religious texts in the world.

Among Christians, there are dozens of texts which purport to be divinely inspired but which have long been considered Apocrypha, false texts, hoaxes. Some number of apocryphal would-be books of the Bible, for example, are rewrites of Aesop's ancient animal fables.

Thus it was very strange to me that the finding that this fragment could be dated to the 6th to 9th centuries AD (obviously long after Jesus' actual life) established, per these scientists, that it wasn't a "fake."

It could still be fake. Most religious texts are in fact spurious -- even religious people think most "religious texts" are false, apart from the few they acknowledge as real.

There have been multiple "new" books of the Bible "discovered" over the years. People invent such things for political purposes, or for intellectual gamesmanship (a prank), or to get rich.

So, someone writing 600-900 years after the fact... purporting to report on words directly spoken by Jesus noted by no other source in the world?

Maybe a little skepticism here, guys?

Yesterday a scholar wrote that it the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is conclusively a forgery.

In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of a Coptic (ancient Egyptian) gospel text on a papyrus fragment that contained the phrase "Jesus said to them, 'My wife . . .' " The world took notice. The possibility that Jesus was married would prompt a radical reconsideration of the New Testament and biblical scholarship.

Yet now it appears almost certain that the Jesus-was-married story line was divorced from reality. On April 24, Christian Askeland—a Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University and my colleague at the Green Scholars Initiative—revealed that the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," as the fragment is known, was a match for a papyrus fragment that is clearly a forgery.

Almost from the moment Ms. King made her announcement two years ago, critics attacked the Gospel of Jesus' Wife as a forgery. One line of criticism said that the fragment had been sloppily reworked from a 2002 online PDF of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and even repeated a typographical error.

But Ms. King had defenders. The Harvard Theological Review recently published a group of articles that attest to the papyrus's authenticity. Although the scholars involved signed nondisclosure agreements preventing them from sharing the data with the wider scholarly community, the New York Times was given access to the studies ahead of publication. The newspaper summarized the findings last month, saying "the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery." The article prompted a tide of similar pieces, appearing shortly before Easter, asserting that the Gospel of Jesus' Wife was genuine.

Then last week the story began to crumble faster than an ancient papyrus exposed in the windy Sudan. Mr. Askeland found, among the online links that Harvard used as part of its publicity push, images of another fragment, of the Gospel of John, that turned out to share many similarities—including the handwriting, ink and writing instrument used—with the "wife" fragment. The Gospel of John text, he discovered, had been directly copied from a 1924 publication.

"Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery," Mr. Askeland tells me. "First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century." Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and "concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries." In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the "Jesus' wife" fragment was written in a dialect that didn't exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.

Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor and Coptic expert at Duke University, wrote on his NT Blog on April 25 about the Gospel of John discovery: "It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake, and this conclusion means that the Jesus' Wife Fragment is a fake too." Alin Suciu, a research associate at the University of Hamburg and a Coptic manuscript specialist, wrote online on April 26: "Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus' Wife papyrus over."

If you can't follow that, this "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is part of a collection of fragments, including a "Gospel of John." The Gospel of John is itself proven to be a fake, making the Gospel of Jesus' Wife-- written in the same ink, in the same handwriting, on the same sort of papyrus --also almost certainly a fake.

And now even CNN's Religion blog concedes as much.

It turns out that many phrases are copied directly from a gnostic text called "The Gospel of Thomas," which is widely available -- and one of the first texts people read when they study gnosticism.

More specific issues arose in the perceived familiarity of the document.

The text of the Jesus’ wife fragment is remarkably close to published editions, available online, of another Coptic Christian text, called the “Gospel of Thomas.”

So close, in fact, that one of the typographical errors in an online edition of the “Gospel of Thomas” is replicated, uniquely, in the Jesus’ wife fragment.

CNN also mentions something that was always a massive strike against the authenticity of the fragment:

The papyrus, along with a few other ancient papyri of lesser novelty, had been passed to King by an anonymous figure.

Anonymity, in the world of antiquities, is often a bad sign, compounding the inherent uncertainty when dealing with texts that are bought and sold rather than discovered in a firm archaeological setting.

This is huge grounds for intense skepticism, as almost any scholar or treasure-hunter or anyone who had discovered such a thing would certainly wish to have his discovery associated with his name.

Instead, he passes it along... anonymously?

Why? Why would anyone not want the world to know they'd discovered something huge?

The only possible scenario I could imagine here was the Dan Brown Scenario:

An honest priest discovers the Church-destroying fragment in the deepest crypt of the Vatican's "Black Books" library. Shortly before being murdered by an Argentine hunchback with a penchant for poison, he slips the paradigm-shifting scrap into a mundane book at a local lending library in Rome.

Rock-n-Roll archeologist Karen King had no idea she was about to set the world on fire when she slipped the Italian-translation of "50 Shades of Gray" from the shelf at her library...

I mean, as silly as that sounds, that's the only semi-plausible scenario I can see for someone slipping this fragment to King anonymously -- that the fragment is Banned by the Vatican, and he's a priest who wants the Truth About Jesus 'n His Gal to Come Out, but is afraid to do so himself.

But no-- no skepticism. The people who tell us we should be intensely skeptical of our religions seem to be incapable of rousing the slightest bit of doubt about their own.

Incidentally, the whole notion that if something is "written on old papyrus it must be authentic" is staggeringly naive. Forgers routinely use old paper and old materials to execute their modern forgeries.

This is such an obvious thing I'm surprised anyone even has to say it.

If you want to read more about all this, this article from the Harvard Theological Review -- calling the fragment, flat-out, a forgery copied with minor changes from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas -- is pretty interesting.

He notes that the first thing a would-be forger of paintings does is go out and buy and old piece of wood or canvas for the job.

He also notes that he finds it unlikely that in only seven lines of text, this "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is suspiciously action-packed with Dan Brown-style Sacred Feminine agitation. It's not just the "My Wife" line; in just seven lines, the document pushes multiple feminist-oriented heresies (such as agitating for female priests).

I thought this was amusing:

he second fact—which I owe directly to Mark Goodacre, who noticed it independently even if others may have too—is that t = a (my) in the expression t = a-hime (my wife) is written in what looks like bold letters. To be clear, using bold letters for emphasis to my knowledge never occurs in ancient Coptic literary manuscripts; I have never seen it in any documentary texts that have come to my attention. As a student of Coptic convinced that the fragment is a modern creation, I am unable to escape the impression that there is something almost hilarious about the use of bold letters. How could this not have been designed to some extent to convey a certain comic effect? The effect is something like: “ My wife. Get it? MY wife. You heard that right.”

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posted by Ace at 05:49 PM

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