Durham University professor calls the “Jesus had a wife” manuscript fragment a forgery

The radically left-wing UK Guardian has the story.


A New Testament scholar claims to have found evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a modern forgery.

Professor Francis Watson, of Durham University, says the papyrus fragment, which caused a worldwide sensation when it appeared earlier this week because it appeared to refer to Jesus’s wife, is a patchwork of texts from the genuine Coptic-language Gospel of Thomas, which have been copied and reassembled out of order to make a suggestive new whole.

In a paper published online, Watson argues that all of the sentence fragments found on the papyrus fragment have been copied, sometimes with small alterations, from printed editions of the Gospel of Thomas.

The discovery has already sparked fierce debate among academics, but Watson believes his new research may prove conclusive.

“I think it is more or less indisputable that I have shown how the thing was composed,” he said. “I would be very surprised if it were not a modern forgery, although it is possible that it was composed in this way in the fourth century.”

His paper claims the work was assembled by someone who was not a native speaker of Coptic, which is a polite way of saying that it is modern.

He does not directly criticise Professor Karen King, of Harvard, who presented the fragment at a conference in Rome this week. He says she has done a very good job of presenting the evidence and images of the disputed fragment. He believes the papyrus itself may well date from the fourth century, but the words, he says, clearly show the influence of modern printed books.

In particular, there is a line break in the middle of one word that appears to have been lifted directly from modern editions of the Gospel of Thomas, a genuine Gnostic or early Christian text.

It is common for words to be broken in the middle in ancient scripts, like Coptic, which were written without hyphens, he says. But it is most uncommon for the same break to appear in the same work in two different manuscripts.

You can read an introduction to the find by Dr. Watson on Mark Goodacre’s web site.


On 18 September, Dr Karen King of Harvard University announced the discovery of a controversial new gospel-fragment at a Vatican-sponsored conference in Rome. Dr King believes that the papyrus fragment comes from a 4th century copy of an unknown gospel that may itself go back to the 2nd century. While only a few incomplete lines have survived, the fragment has become instantly famous on account of line 4, where we read: And Jesus said to them, “My wife…” This gives the text its proposed title: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW). According to Dr King, the reference to Jesus’ marital status is probably not an item of genuine historical information; rather, it takes us into the world of his later followers and their debates about issues of sexuality and gender.

The GJW fragment is written in Coptic, a later form of the language of ancient Egypt. In translation it runs as follows:

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…
5 … she can be my disciple…
6 … Let the evil man swell up…
7 … I am with her, so as to…
8 … an image…”

On the reverse side of the papyrus fragment, only a few individual words and letters have been preserved.

The papyrus fragment itself may well be very old. The question is whether the ink is also old. If chemical tests are carried out to establish the composition of the ink, these might show that a modern ink has been used and so prove the text to be a modern forgery. Whether tests could reliably show that an ink compatible with ancient origin is actually ancient is less certain. Meanwhile, it’s important to look very closely at the text itself – and especially to investigate how it was put together.

In my article, I argue that the GJW fragment may be a modern fake. Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas – the best-known and most complete of the ancient gospel texts that have come to light over the past century or so. The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.

Basically, Dr. Francis Watson is looking at which works the fragment seems to quote from in order to date it and judge its historical reliability. If it quotes from the late Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, then it’s not early, and not reliable. But if it includes line breaking from the modern translations of the Gospel of Thomas, then it’s a fraud. I would say that right now, it looks like a fraud, and we will just have to wait for the dating on the materials (ink and papyrus) to be sure.

In fact, Harvard University is making the publication of the find conditional on this sort of scientific testing.


Harvard University says it hasn’t committed to publishing research that purportedly shows some early Christians believed Jesus had a wife even though its divinity school touted the research during a publicity blitz this week.

The research centers on a fourth-century papyrus fragment containing Coptic text in which Jesus uses the words “my wife.” On Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced at an international conference that the fragment was the only existing ancient text in which Jesus explicitly talks of having a wife.

Harvard also said King’s research was scheduled to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January and noted the journal was peer-reviewed, which implied the research had been fully vetted.

But on Friday, the review’s co-editor Kevin Madigan said he and his co-editor had only “provisionally” committed to a January publication, pending the results of the ongoing studies. In an email, Madigan said the added studies include “scientific dating and further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, The Associated Press raised questions about the fragment’s authenticity and provenance, quoting scholars at the international congress on Coptic studies in Rome, where King delivered the paper. The scholars said the fragment’s grammar, form and content raised several red flags. Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, flatly called it a “forgery.”

Boston University archaeologist Ricardo Elia said Friday that the Harvard Theological Review should delay publication until the fragment’s owner and origins are more clearly documented.

You can also check out this 6-page report by Dr. Watson, featuring a line-by-line analysis of the Coptic phrases. Mark Goodacre is a tenured professor of New Testament at Duke University, which has one of the best New Testament programs, in my opinion. So don’t be put off by the site that is hosting it.

Hoaxes and political agendas

Dr. Watson notes in the 6-page report that this is not the first time that fake manuscripts have surfaced that promote left-wing politics. Morton Smith, a homosexual, passed of a forged gospel called the “Secret Gospel of Mark” which promoted a homosexual view of Jesus. This 20th century hoax was accepted by the gullible mainstream media, until it was disproved as a forgery in the peer-reviewed literature, and in academic books. The debunking of Secret Gospel of Mark is so thorough that it is even accept by Robert M. Price, who is on the far left fringe of New Testament scholarship. It should be noted that Karen King is a member of the liberal naturalistic Jesus Seminar. They presuppose atheism and their politics are hard left – that’s what they assume before they begin doing scholarship. Karen King specializes in “women’s roles in the church” and Gnosticism. I expect that she would be very happy if this Jesus-had-a-wife fragment were used to bash traditional notions of women’s roles in the church.

The mainstream media

Now why isn’t the mainstream media taking a cautious approach to this find? Here’s my answer – they want as many people as possible to avoid Christianity. The more they can get people to avoid acting like Christians and voting like Christians, the fewer moral restrictions there will be on their desires. For example, people on the secular left are particularly fascinated with recreational sex followed by abortion, as well as the undermining of chastity and traditional marriage, and even fiscal policies like the free market and private property. All of this is offensive to them. So whenever they get the chance to bash Christianity with hoaxes, they will do it. Media bias has been well-documented by a number of published studies from top universities. It’s a bad thing to let personal immorality cause you to lie to others so that they miss their chance of knowing God and entering into fellowship with him. But that’s what the mainstream news media does every day.

Further study

J. W. Wartick has linked to a whole bunch of responses on his blog. He’s got Daniel Wallace, Darrell Bock and other well-known New Testament scholars. But I think that the response by Dr. Watson is decisive, and should be your first stop.

5 thoughts on “Durham University professor calls the “Jesus had a wife” manuscript fragment a forgery”

  1. Here’s a post at the ETC blogspot with included video by Christian Askeland (mentioned by Wallace).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s