Wall Street Journal: how the “Jesus wife” hoax fell apart

The Christian Apologetics Alliance tweeted this story from the Wall Street Journal.

Excerpt:

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.

[…]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.”

Tim McGrew linked to this interview featuring one of the scholars who provided the “smoking gun”.

Excerpt:

Why do you consider it to be a forgery?

Askeland: Essentially all specialists in ancient Egyptian material culture concluded that the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ was a forgery back in 2012.  Francis Watson, Alin Suciu, Hugo Lundhaug and Andrew Bernhard all contributed to a web-based discussion, which explained a string of grammatical anomalies in the fragment, appealing to an internet-based PDF of the Gospel of Thomas (the only surviving version of the Gospel of Thomas is in the Coptic language).  With The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife the forger had cut and pasted sections from the Gospel of Thomas, and in doing so created several grammatically impossible phrases.  In particular, the forger unwittingly included a typo, which marked the particular source. The idea that both texts could include the exact same typographical error (and this kind of typographical error) is statistically highly improbable.  Although the peculiarities of the scribal hand, which had no parallel among other ancient manuscripts, were damning enough, the textual source theory essentially settled the issue.

And:

What is your key insight? Why have you been credited with finding ‘the smoking gun’?

Askeland: I remember sitting at my desk in Tyndale House one day in 2010, finishing my dissertation on the Coptic versions of John, and encountering an old note concerning Codex Qau, the main Lycopolitan witness to John’s gospel; Lycopolitan is a dialect of Coptic. This manuscript was kept down the street at the Cambridge University Library, to which I went immediately. Fast-forward to the present.  Remember, The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was one of several fragments which were announced by Karen King.  There was also in this group of fragments a fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. Just recently, when I gazed upon Karen King’s Coptic John fragment, what I saw was immediately clear.  Not only were the writing tool, ink and hand exactly the same as those of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment, but also the method of composition was the same. As I looked at Karen King’s Gospel of John fragment, I finally saw that it was clearly copied (by the forger) from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of Codex Qau.  Indeed, the Gospel of John fragment had exactly the same line breaks as Codex Qau – a statistical improbability if it were genuine.

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 Secret Gospel of Mark is so debunked that even Robert M. Price, who is on the far left fringe of New Testament scholarship, rejects it.

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. And so would her allies in the secular leftist media.

5 thoughts on “Wall Street Journal: how the “Jesus wife” hoax fell apart”

  1. I liked what Neil, Eternity Matters, pointed out on Facebook, since there were so many who were willing to believe this small fragment, perhaps now they are willing to believe in the massive accumulation of evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Christ that we actually have in the Bible. Not Neil’s words, but you get the idea.

    Like

  2. Thanks for summing up this evidence. Though, to be fair, not all who are interested in “women’s roles in the church” will buy into this kind of stuff. I, as you know, am egalitarian and I don’t just hop on every bandwagon. Moreover, complementarians would certainly be interested in “women’s roles in the church.”

    Anyway, as I said, thanks for summing up all the evidence for the forgery here. I will link to it on my survey of responses: http://jwwartick.com/2014/04/18/jesus-wife-rrp/

    Like

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