New data has recently come to light within the academic community that may conclusively prove that the GJW fragment is indeed a fake. A summary of this data can be found here. The original discussion of these new data can be found here and here. In short, the GJW fragment was sold along with several other Coptic manuscripts, notably a fragment of the Gospel of John (GJ), which also has been published by Harvard in the ink study. The GJ fragment appears to be a “smoking gun” that reveals both fragments to be forgeries. GJ was written with the same hand and likely the same ink (both made from soot) as the GJW fragment, linking the two together. The GJ fragment has been revealed to contain a text copied from a modern edition of the Coptic Gospel of John edited by Herbert Thomas, including the same line breaks of the modern edition. If the GJ fragment is fake, then the GJW fragment is too, since it is almost assuredly copied by the same hand. This new evidence fits in well with the evidence presented below regarding the text of the GJW and the material used to make it. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
After a seemingly interminable delay, the results are finally in! According to many news outlets, the Coptic fragment named “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (GJW) has been shown to be a genuine text. Or has it? Of course the devil is in the details, and there are many of them that nuance the purported authentication of the GJW fragment. I will give a brief examination some of these details in this post in order to disabuse the sensationalism that has followed this text since it came into public knowledge in September 2012.
The Text of the Fragment
Francis Watson of Durham University published a paper not long after the fragment was unveiled that brought to light some curious features of the text of GJW. Specifically, the fragment appears to be a collection of phrases pieced together from the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas (GTh), specifically sayings 30, 45, 101 and 114. Watson examined these places in detail alongside the GJW fragment and concluded that there is a direct dependence of GJW upon GTh. In some cases, grammatical irregularities are found in the GJW fragment, which lends credence to the idea that whoever wrote the fragment was not well versed in Coptic. (Note pg. 5 of the paper linked above. Click here for a summary for non-specialists.)
In a third paper, Watson brought up another problem in the text of GJW concerning the ability of the fragment to present a coherent, running narrative. Given the typical size of 4th century Coptic papyri, the length of a given piece would allow for anywhere between 16 and 28 letters across. The GJW fragment contains a range from 17 to 20 letters, which would leave little room for the narrative to continue on either side of the broken fragment. In other words, if we assume this papyrus to have been originally the same size as other papyri we have from the same time, there is not enough room for the fragment to contain a running narrative with full sentences, which, in my opinion, is the most damning evidence of all against the idea of an ancient origin. (Watson suggests that this may be evidence that GJW could postdate the 1956 publication of the Coptic GTh.)
While my own knowledge of Coptic is limited, I have worked through the fragment’s text and have compared it to Watson’s comparison with the Gospel of Thomas, and I feel very comfortable with his assessment.
The Material of the Fragment
The papyri and ink used in the fragment has now been dated to roughly AD 700-800, much later than the 4th century date when many of the extant gnostic manuscripts were copied. It will take some time for scholars of this time period, notably scholars of medieval Islam, to determine the proper context, whether gnostic or otherwise, wherein its provenance is to be understood.
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that a modern forger could use very old material. There are many such forgeries that use old material, even Phoenician inscriptions dating back some 3,000 years, which carry the caveat that they may or may not be forgeries. It is often very difficult to determine with certainty that a particular text is a forgery, though there may be enough significant doubt in the mind of the academic community that a text will not gain wide acceptance as a legitimate artifact. Regardless of the 8th or 9th century date provided by the tests, there are enough lingering doubts that full acceptance of the fragment is unlikely.
Christian Askeland, a researcher in Coptic at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, published a video presentation on several more curious features of the GJW fragment. He specifically points out the odd nature of the ductus, the handwriting style of GJW as compared to other Coptic texts. He also mentions the abnormal features of the ink and concludes that the fragment was not produced with the two known writing implements of the time, the Roman stylus or the reed pen, but perhaps a paintbrush or a marker. At some points, the ink appears diluted and carelessly applied to the papyrus, which is very unlikely for the copying or composition of a literary text.
The Implications of the Fragment
Even if, for the sake of argument, we ignore the textual and material evidence against the authenticity of the GJW fragment and grant that it is a real text composed sometime in late antiquity, we must then be clear about the implications of such a text. Since the text is composed almost entirely from pieces of the Gospel of Thomas, regardless of what it says about Jesus’s wife, its gnostic context is fairly well assured. As Karen King, the Harvard scholar who published the text, has herself noted, “The fragment does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married…” Indeed, there is nothing about the historical Jesus that is to be gained from this text, even if it is authentic. At best, the fragment reflects beliefs or even the imaginative musings of certain people on the fringes of Christianity, people who had no real contact with Jesus or any of the people who followed him in his earthly ministry.
In this very brief analysis of the details surrounding the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment, I hope I have demonstrated that the recent dating of the manuscript to AD 700-800 does not close the case regarding its authenticity. There are still many questions about it that have not been answered to the satisfaction of the academic community. Nevertheless, as we approach Holy Week and face what is now almost an annual event of sensational claims that appear to cast doubt on the Biblical account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, we can be comforted that the tradition of Orthodox Christianity has been transmitted and guaranteed by the Apostles of Jesus, who were eye-witnesses of him, as well as by the faithful men who succeeded them in their ministry even until the present day.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4, RSV