Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The "Scribe with the Nubby Pen" and the Jesus Bloodline

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This is Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School. She's very happy because she reckons she's made a great discovery which just so happens to support some of her earlier research on Mary Magdalene and the position of women in the early Church. It is a neatly cut and ripped piece of papyrus [3.8 by 7.6 cm] with some scratchy old writing on it. This is owned by an unnamed private collector, apparently in the US, and it has come (as David Gill rehearses in his post on the topic: The Gospel of Jesus' Wife from an old German collection) - Yeah yeah. See also Larry Rothfield's "The Provenance of the Jesus' Wife Papyrus Doesn't Pass the Smell Test". How it left Germany is not stated. According to the theology college website: "The earliest documentation about the fragment is a letter from the early 1980s [from the Late] Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin"  another news piece on the fragment tells us that the current owner: "acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German" and that it came with "a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment “the sole example” of a text in which Jesus claims a wife". Another text in the Smithsonian Magazine says that the collector had "purchased it in 1997 from a German-American collector who acquired it in the 1960s in Communist East Germany" and later names the dealer who sold it as "part of a batch of Greek and Coptic papyri that he said he had purchased in the late 1990s from one H. U. Laukamp, of Berlin". There was correspondence about the material dated 1982, but the note about the Fecht comments was undated and unsigned. 
For legal purposes, however, the 1982 date of the correspondence was crucial, though it — along with the fact that Laukamp, Fecht and Munro were all dead — may well strike critics as suspiciously convenient. The next year, Egypt would revise its antiquities law to declare that all discoveries after 1983 were the unequivocal property of the Egyptian government.
It is suggested that the fragment was originally dug up in Egypt. So, the suggested history is: dug up in Egypt (when, where, how?) and removed from the country (where, when, how and by whom?) apparently in a [German?] private collection "in the early 1980s" where it was seen by Fecht, and then sold in 1997 by a dealer supported by a citation from Fecht's letter (does the original survive?). At some stage the papyrus was neatly cut across at the top edge. 

I cannot help thinking that 1982 was the year of the publication by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln of the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, on the Jesus Bloodline theory (Pierre Plantard, Priory of Sion, Rennes-le-Château and all that nonsense). The reason why it arouses such associations in my mind is that although the sentences preserved on the fragment are incomplete (as it has apparently been ripped out of the middle of a larger document) but right slap-bang in the middle is this segment of text:  

 
...]" Jesus said to them, 'my wife[..

Right, so somebody turns up with a fragment of old papyrus with writing on it which reopens that old story going back (in its modern incarnation) to France of the 13th century suggesting that the Jesus Bloodline may exist. But there is no evidence that this was found in a proper archaeological context. So why is it "not a fake"? Karen King says its not a fake, some folks she showed it to thinks its not a fake The authenticity is supposedly supported by a "close study of the handwriting" and grammar. But of course both can be recreated artificially in our times, the letters of the text are not exactly stunning in the complexity of the penwork. Apparently the clincher was:
how the ink was chemically absorbed by the papyrus, especially in the faded and damaged areas, since it is almost impossible to reduplicate these kinds of patterns of interaction between ink and papyrus at such a very fine level. [...] on the basis of the age of the papyrus, the placement and absorption of the ink on the page, the type of the handwriting, and the Coptic grammar and spelling, it was concluded that it is highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text.  
And its in America (Dan Brown land). Is it highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text? Ink on papyrus behaves like ink on papyrus. I do not see how one can say that ink on papyrus which has been artificially aged and  faded by unknown means and then torn up can be distinguished with 100% certainty from an old papyrus which has aged, faded and been torn up.
I'd draw attention to the handwriting too. There are a whole series of genuine Coptic documents online from which fragments of sentences can be copied onto the papyrus which is then carefully ripped so none of them make any continuous text. Prof. King suggests that the handwriting looks like it does because written with a "nubby pen". A scribe with a nubby pen? This is presumably (looking at it) a reed pen. If his pen was making such a mess, why did the scribe not just cut another reed? Is it not just as likely that somebody here was using a reed pen who'd not actually much practice in their use (like for example he was more used to using a biro)? Why do the lines of letters go up and down (as if somebody was paying more attention to getting their shape and proportions right rather than their spacing)? A scribe that cannot write a straight line of text? Why do the lines finish more or less neatly at the margins of the fragment? Or more cogently why in a fragment has been ripped up randomly to make more "bits" for the market does the tear not run through the word "wife"? Chance or design?

But then look at line four, as I said, right in the middle of the fragment. On the left there is some curious damage, looking like an attempt has been made to scratch the text here out. Why? Why just this portion of the text on this fragment? The 'forgery' explanation would suggest that after the document had been made somebody noticed a mistake in the form of one of the letters, or, that the creator was not sure what should come before the words "Jesus said". Then look on the right, how two lines have much darker ink, almost as if an artificial fading mechanism was used, but the user was not clear how strong the effect was, so it was kept off the all-important words "my wife". Also since the rest of the text is so washed-out, anyone wanting to do tests on the ink is forced to take them from precisely the most important part of the text. Why is the verso of the document in a totally different state of preservation from the front? Was it preserved in a different burial environment, or was the document's creator only interested in giving the surroundings of the all -important words the appearance of verisimilitude and realised he'd be pushing his luck to create another seven-and-a-half lines of 'correct-looking' text on the back too, so just fudged a few words there?

In my opinion, there is every possibility that this unprovenanced "document" is a forgery (possibly of the 1980s connected with or trying to cash in, in some way, from the nutty "Jesus bloodline" fallout from the pseudohistorical books on the topic that were so popular then). This has now "surfaced" with a hearsay collecting history on the market and the person who owns it "just happens" to have selected a sympathetic scholar to publish it, and - despite the problems of the origin of this item - she has agreed.

The problem is, the publication, and extensive press coverage of this item serves mainly to raise its commercial value. Apparently the owner is looking to sell it to Harvard. That some scribe with a nubby pen, even if it WAS in the fourth century AD wrote something about his belief that Jesus had been married actually means very little to science especially as the item which is being discussed is fragmentary and of totally unknown, if not to say dubious, origin.


Why, anyway, is this being called grandly "the GOSPEL of Jesus's Wife"? Its a scrap of something. It should be named after the present owner - "The **** Fragment" or maybe the "Da Vinci Code fragment"? The circus would be made all the more complete were now the Coptic community of Egypt press the government to get the US government to "return" this to Egypt, so tourists will come to see the object in the land where Prof King is suggesting it was created.

 Photo: Prof. King, the document.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Was it ripped up by somebody intending to make a profit by selling more bits, and if so, does the fact that "wife" is not shorn in two indicate that the tearer could read the text? I think not as it is clear that the text above line four makes no reference to a "wife" (though it does mention a "Mary") and it is questionable whether the word "wife" would occur a second time under the mention in line four the resultant other fragments would contain gibberish, rather than anything that could be separately saleable.

 
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