Thursday 10 April 2014

Debate on Authenticity of the So-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife"

There has been a delicate silence for over a year about the so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife (otherwise known as "Papyrus Dodge") revealed at a Rome conference by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012. This was broken on Thursday by its publication in a long-delayed, online peer-reviewed paper in the Harvard Theological Review, by Karen L. King. The discussion was accompanied by a report that it had been "tested by scientists who conclude [...] that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery" (Laurie Goldstein, 'Papyrus Referring to Jesus’s Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say

t M.I.T.’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering:
Timothy M. Swager, a chemistry professor, and two students used infrared spectroscopy to determine whether the ink showed any variations or inconsistencies.“The main thing was to see, did somebody doctor this up?” Dr. Swager said in an interview. “And there is absolutely no evidence for that. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
The problem with this is that, as far as I know, nobody had suggested that the object owned by an anonymous collector and studied by Dr King had been "doctored" by adding a few words to an authentic papyrus. The nubby handwriting of the whole fragment is suspect. 

The final test was (I would say) equally inconclusive. In it the fragment was compared with another manuscript, a fragment of the Gospel of John of unstated provenance. The conclusions of the report are in fact based only on a direct comparison of those two samples:
The “Jesus’s Wife” papyrus was analyzed at Columbia University using micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of the ink. James T. Yardley, a professor of electrical engineering, said in an interview that the carbon black ink on this fragment was “perfectly consistent with another 35 or 40 manuscripts that we’ve looked at,” that date from 400 B.C. to A.D. 700 or 800.
Basically they found that the ink used was carbon black, consistent with that from burning oil in a lamp. Surely if a forger was wanting to make a forged document which would be expected to be analysed, that is exactly what he or she would use to write it with. Nothing is said about any analysis of the medium within which the carbon black was suspended. So far the two analyses have produced results which are not inconsistent with the object being an authentic antuiquity, but that is not the same as saying that they have proven its authenticity, the tests have hardly been exhaustive. Like where is the microphotography showing the relationship between the ink and any corrosion of the papyrus surface, was the inscriptioon placed over a surface that had already been in the ground for any length of time. What about the microflora?

The HTR also published a rebuttal by Egyptologist Leo Depuydt, who declares the fragment so patently fake that it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”
He said he decided based on the first newspaper photograph that the fragment was forged because it contained “gross grammatical errors,” and each word in it matched writing in the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. “It couldn’t possibly be coincidence,” he said.
Dr. King is quoted as saying that "her big disappointment is that so far, the story of the fragment has focused on forgery, not on history", but of course if the object had some history, some collecting history, none of the suspicions of when and where it was written would not exist.

For the record, for reasons I set out earlier, I think it is a fake.

UPDATE 13.4.13
Candida Moss wonders ('The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ is Still as Big as Mystery as Ever', The Daily Beast, 13 April 2014), is there any way to figure out the truth?
Esteemed New Testament scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre, together with the renowned manuscript expert Alin Suciu, began to poke holes in the thesis.  The biggest problems were the grammatical errors in the text and the similarities between GJW and another early Christian Coptic text, the Gospel of Thomas. Francis Watson argued that all of the fragmentary sentences preserved on the papyrus are also found in the Gospel of Thomas. He tentatively suggested that the text is a pastiche compiled by a modern forger with an elementary grasp of Coptic. Even more damning was the argument that one of the typographical errors in the fragment appears to have been copied from an erroneous online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The sixth line of the GJW nonsensically seems to read, “Evil man habitually does not he does habitually bring [sic].” Interestingly, precisely the same error appears in a 2002 online edition of the Gospel of Thomas. The chances of two independent texts making the same grammatical error are remarkably small.
The new test results have opened the debate again but the grammatical errors and similarities to the Gospel of Thomas "are still a problem. A modern forger with the right materials could still have made this text". Moss concludes controversially:
In some ways GJW is actually more interesting if it is a modern forgery. As an authentic text it offers late evidence of a debate about the role of women in the church. That’s something that scholars already knew about. As tantalizing as the potential reference to Jesus’s wife is, the phrase ‘my wife’ doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus himself. But if this is a modern forgery, then it raises lots of interesting questions about how forgeries are made, by whom, and for what purposes. Someone would have gone to great lengths to place this shocking manuscript in the hands of one of the foremost scholars of Early Christianity alive today. Did they do it for the money, in the hopes of bringing down established Christianity, or just for fun? 

Vignette: Mr and Mrs Jesus.

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