A papyrus fragment of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” that was dismissed by the Vatican as a “clumsy forgery” has been dated as having originated in Egypt around 700 C.E.
In an article published Tuesday in Harvard Theological Review, Karen King provides evidence that “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” (GJW) cannot be a modern forgery.
The significance of GJW stems from the fact that it appears to be a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples about the role of women in the church. “The dialogue concerns family and discipleship,” King wrote, and “Jesus speaks of ‘my mother’ and ‘my wife’ in lines 1 and 4, and line 5 refers to a female person who is able to be Jesus’s ‘disciple.’”
The evidence that the work is not a modern forgery is of both the intellectual and scientific sort. The carbon “lamp black” pigments in which it is written “match closely those of several manuscripts from the Columbia [University] collection of papyri dated between 1 B.C.E. and 800 C.E., while they deviate significantly from modern commercial lamp black pigments.” Radiocarbon analysis of the papyrus fragment — conducted at the NSR-Arizona ANS Laboratory — indicated that the papyrus itself originated between 404 and 209 B.C.E.
The discrepancy between the date of the papyrus and the date of the ink on it is not unusual, as paper was a highly valued commodity that was often rewritten upon for hundreds of years. However, King had Noreen Tuross of Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute retest the papyrus, and she generated a mean date of 741 C.E. for GJW.
In either case, King wrote, all scientific “testing thus supports the conclusion that the papyrus and ink of GJW are ancient.”
Paleographic analysis of the orthography — the shape of the letters, which varied both from region to region and from century to century — and of the linguistic construction of the Sahidic sentences strongly suggest that the fragment is of early Coptic origin, and most likely translated from Greek.
Despite this physical evidence of its antiquity, scholars like Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University, still believe the work to be “a modern-day cut-and-paste job with several glaring grammatical blunders that a native speaker of Coptic would never commit.”
Depuydt told the Boston Globe that the forger “wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues,” and “nothing is going to change [his] mind. “As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish…I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”
At this point, King said that she is “basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’”
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Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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