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Jesus's 'wife' found dead!

Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, follows through on a recent claim about Christ

On September 18, the news broke of a small fragment of papyrus purporting to record words of Jesus. It contained the striking phrase, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife …”‘ and then the text breaks off at the right hand margin.

The scholar making the announcement decided that this credit-card-sized scrap was a ‘gospel’ and gave it the bold title ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’. The announcement was made simultaneously at an academic conference in Rome and through pre-arranged media channels by Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School and holder of the oldest endowed chair in the USA. Dr. King said she was not at liberty to identify the owner and that the papyrus was of unknown geographical origin, but had spent time recently in Germany.

King claimed that the papyrus was from the fourth century, but that its content came from the second century. She was careful to state that this had nothing to do with the Jesus of history. Naturally, the media went into a frenzy and began to link it with debates about the ordination of women (BBC), or claimed it was ‘one of the most significant discoveries of all time’ (Smithsonian Channel, subsequently deleted), while Yahoo News led with the headline ‘Jesus had a wife, newly discovered gospel suggests’. The blogosphere and social media were wild with excitement, though some of the most sceptical realised that they were not at liberty to believe in the marriage of Jesus when they doubted his existence.

Doubts begin

Of course, when no one knows the origin of a papyrus, it could be a fake. However, there are many old manuscripts originally from Egypt which circulate on the antiquities market, and they almost all appear to be genuine.

My initial reaction, therefore, was that the handwriting appeared unusual, but that, on balance of probability, it was genuine. If so, it would have been a writing of one of those rather weird heretical groups such as the Valentinians, and would been speaking not of Jesus on earth and a real historical wife, but of Jesus and his wife in a more symbolic way. Writings of such groups have very little interest in history, but use the characters of the canonical gospels creatively to present their philosophies.

Probably a fake

However, after nearly a month of scrutiny by scholars on the blogosphere, it appears that the fragment is almost certainly a fake. Here’s how that came to light.

Right from the beginning some things just did not add up. The handwriting was without parallel, and yet Karen King wanted to place the handwriting in the fourth century on the basis of its similarity to the handwriting of other manuscripts which also lack dates. There were some grammatical problems, too, in the Coptic (Coptic is a form of late Egyptian written in an extended Greek alphabet). The papyrus appeared to have been cut across the top in a way which suggested modern tampering.

Francis Watson, professor at the University of Durham, was the first to show a profound cause for concern. From the moment the fragment was seen it was noted that it had phrases from the Gospel of Thomas, a work probably from the middle of the second century. Watson noted that the text in fact appeared to be a collage of phrases from the Gospel of Thomas. Here is Watson’s translation of the fragment with his underlining of words dependent on the Gospel of Thomas (sayings 18, 30, 45, 101, 114):

1. ‘... [can]not be my [disciple]. My mother gave me life...’
2. ... The disciples said to Jesus, ‘...
3. ... deny. Mary is not worthy of it...
4. ...’ Jesus said to them, ‘My wife [or woman]...
5. ... she can be my disciple ...
6. ... Let [the] wicked man bring [forth ...
7. ... I am with her, so as to...
8. ... an image ...’

Watson also pointed out that the fragment begins its first line midway through a sentence, but at the same point as the one surviving complete manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas begins a line. In other words the writer has copied a line break from the Gospel of Thomas.

Then Andrew Bernhard pointed out that some of the phrases could be explained if a modern forger were working from Michael Grondin’s online version of the Gospel of Thomas and Mark Goodacre added the coup de grace by pointing out that the fragment shared a typo with the PDF version of this interlinear. The story and links are all at http://ntweblog.blogspot.co.uk

What now?

The story is not finished. At this point, it is unclear whether the Harvard Theological Review, the scholarly journal which was originally supposed to publish the fragment, will in fact do so. There are still tests on the ink to be completed.

Nevertheless, even if the non-invasive tests on the ink turn out compatible with an ancient origin of the script, such tests would only tip the balance of arguments slightly in favour of authenticity. The very serious objections, of which only a selection have been given here, would remain.

Of course, even in the unlikely scenario that these objections were overcome and the scrap deemed ‘authentic’, all we would be left with would be an undated fragment representing the thoughts of an unknown writer some stage before the ninth century when papyrus went out of use. In such a case, even King herself admits that the manuscript would tell us nothing historical about Jesus.

Christians have been quick to point out that, in the Book of Revelation, Christ does have a bride — the church. So it looks like the orthodox rather than the heretics were the first to attribute romance to Jesus, but of a different kind from that for which our culture itches.

What do we learn from all this?

First, we see a number of layers of spin in this tale. Dr. King’s original decision to call the media and to label the fragment a ‘Gospel’ just set the ball rolling. Soon media reports copied each other, and started to suggest that this was a discovery to revolutionise or challenge Christian teaching. By the time this arrived at popular perception, the transformation was complete: a piece of historical evidence suggested that Jesus actually had a wife. The majority impression given by the media was that this was an authentic piece, and the message that, even if genuine, the fragment was of little historical consequence was not heard. Public attitude will have been affected for the worse.

So we are reminded that the secular media appear incredibly powerful at getting false messages across which it is hard for us to redress.

Secondly, it could have been worse. To her credit, from the beginning Dr. King released high resolution photos and the technical information she had. This enabled quick scrutiny. Had the person responsible for the fake been better at his or her job the story could have had yet more negative impact. As it was, it’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown of The Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.

It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.

It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.

Peter Williams