Did Jesus Have a Wife? What Recent Analysis of “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Really Means

jesus-wife-papyrus

*Update*

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

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.

GnosticismScriptureSecular Theology

14 comments:

  1. After the time of writing of this piece, many of the heavy hitters in so-called “Bibliosphere,” reputable scholars who blog about the Bible and its ancient context, have weighed in and are continuing to do so:

    Francis Watson:
    http://markgoodacre.org/Watson4.pdf

    Christian Askeland:
    http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/introduction-eight-of-eleven-articles.html

    James Davila:
    http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/2014_04_06_archive.html#1777537208873226054
    http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/2014_04_06_archive.html#3844090961963063388

    Larry Hurtado:
    http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/jesus-wife-articles-in-htr-initial-thoughts/
    http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/jesus-wife-fragment-further-observations/

    Also, an earlier piece on carbon-14 dating:
    http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/carbon-14-and-palaeographical-dating-of-papyri/

    Mark Goodacre:
    http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-jesus-wife-fragment-is-back.html

    Christopher Rollston:
    http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=685

    Robert Cargill:
    http://robertcargill.com/2014/04/10/larry-hurtado-provides-an-excellent-summary-of-the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-results-in-harvard-theological-review/

    Several scholars have pointed out the discrepancies in the dates offered by the carbon-14 dating, one in the 4th century BCE and another in the 7th century CE, a space of almost a millennium, and some are pointing to the 4th c. BCE date as a possible indication that the papyrus was selected by a forger, and it turned out to be more ancient than he realized. Goodacre comments that contamination in the dating process is more likely to occur from *newer* contaminants, not older, so an errant dating from the 4th c. BCE is unlikely. That the ink could have been scraped of an ancient ink well or another ancient text is entirely possible. Watson points out that none of these material datings have anything to do with the actual content of the fragment, which is very problematic as have been shown. In short, while the material has been shown to be very old, and no “smoking gun” has been detected in the material or paleography (debatable), neither has anything come to light that precludes forgery.

    Scholars around the world continue to weigh in on the issue, so stay tuned to the above blogs for further analysis and discussion.

  2. Out of curiosity, isn’t 700AD – 800AD a little old for a Gnostic text? I was under the impression that Egyptian Gnosticism was largely extinct by that date due to the pressures of the Islamic conquest and other factors, and that the remaining Gnostics at that time were primarily the Paulicians, the proto-Cathars, the proto-Bogomils, et cetera, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the fast-dwindling Manichees, mainly in Asia (in roughly the same geographic territory as the Assyrian Church prior to the genocide under Tamerlane).

    This is not to say the text is authentic, but rather, on account of the late date, it seems even more bogus to me. Now if I recall, the monk buried with the Gospel of Peter was buried around this time, but the manuscript was far older, and the monk in question was at a Coptic Oriental Orthodox monastery which presumably took a dim view of the Docetic Gospel in question (but not the monk in question, hence their decision to bury it with him). I was also under the impression that the texts at Nag Hammadi were generally from the fourth century. This would suggest at least to a layman than this text, by virtue of its age, is somewhat of an interloper, and thus rather more likely to have been a forgery, made with whatever ancient blank papyri and ink happened to be convenient to the capricious heretic who produced it.

    1. Yes, it is old for a gnostic text. But keep in mind, the date only gives us the time in which the fragment was copied, not composed. Theoretically, a text like this could have been composed during the 4th century and copied in the 8th. What many scholars are saying now is that, because there were two vastly different conclusions about the date, one in the 4th c. BCE and another in the 8th c. CE, that the c-14 dating tests are actually inconclusive.

  3. One might well also ask, even if this isn’t a forgery, how a fragment of a 9th century Egyptian document possibly provides better information than the 1st century Gospels.

    1. No one is saying it does. No one is actually claiming that this text holds authentic information about the historical Jesus. That is a yarn being spun in the popular media. Real scholars know better.

      1. Were there actually any Gnostics left though to write this thing, in the 9th century? In my mind, if it can be dated from the 9th century, then it has to be a fake, because aside from the monk buried with the Gospel of Peter, who was probably not Gnostic, but rather a mere enthusiast of antiquarian texts, to my knowledge, there were no Coptic speaking Gnostics left in that timeframe.

        Which means that this, if it is from that timeframe, must be a forgery; that combined with the irregularities involving the brush strokes and the sentence width seems to me to be conclusive evidence for writing this off. I doubt the crypto-Borborites such as Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg even care that much, because having “proof” of a heterosexual, monogamous Jesus would be sooo lame; especially when one holds as their ideal an arrogant, polyamorous, bisexual Jesus, which is what the Gnostic texts clearly imply (well, on the bisexual aspect, it helps if you count the bogus “Secret Gospel of Mark;” that that was proven a forgery must have been a major blow for these people).

        1. It is the fragment that (possibly) dates to the 7th or 8th CE, not the original from which it (supposedly) was copied. The dating of the fragment says no more about the time when the text was originally composed than an 8th century copy of the Gospel of Mathew could tell us about when it was composed. King emphasizes that it is impossible to tell when the original was written, but she suggest that it might originally have been composed in Greek in the second century.

          And of course it has nowhere near been proven that the Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery. On the contrary, that text shows no clear sign of being forged (although we cannot say for sure).

          1. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that it is a forgery. While it would not be entirely surprising if a Gnostic cult had composed such a text as it, the association with Mark and other aspects of it are peculiar and, together with Morton Smith’s own biases, and the forensic evidence concerned (with many studies indicating it is a forgery, albeit on very ancient media), this to me offers compelling evidence that it is not legitimate.

            Regarding this piece, I would argue that the time in which the fragment was authored is highly relevant. There were, to my knowledge, no Gnostics left in Egypt in the eighth century AD, and the fragment is substantially newer than the Nag Hammadi material. The only heretical text from that period that I can recall is the Gospel of Peter, which was indeed from that time period.

            If a text exists in a given period, that means someone must be using it. If this is authentic, together with the Gospel of Peter, it would carry the somewhat baffling implication that Copts, most likely monastics, routinely preserved texts that according to their own Patriarchate were heretical nature. I am inclined however, in the absence of a compelling scholarly argument as to why it existed, to assume it a sloppily made contemporary forgery, based on the peculiarities already cited by Eric Jobe, together with the late date; it seems to me the likelihood of digging up two heretical texts from that timeframe is rather stretching it given the apparent complete extinction of Gnostics in Egypt. Now if I’m wrong on this; if someone can point me to an eighth century community of Gnostics still alive in the region where this text was found, then that would obviously be a different story.

          2. I am not sure why you keep insisting that the JW-fragment “was authored … in Egypt in the eighth century AD”. It is supposedly written in the eight century or, if you prefer, copied in the eight century from an older text. I find nothing suspicious with a Coptic text being copied in the eight century since Coptic was regularly used at least until the ninth century. So, if a text was authored in Greek in the second century, translated into Coptic in the third, and this in turn copied several times until the copy now found was done, this seems perfectly logic to me.

            You suggest that no Gnostics would have survived until the eight century. But there has always been Gnostics (just look at the Cathars) although they of course had to work in secret.

            And then regarding Secret Mark, you keep saying that “there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that it is a forgery”.

            You refer to peculiar aspects of the letter. May I ask what aspects?
            You refer to “Morton Smith’s own biases”. But his interpretation of the letter has nothing to do with the question of the letter’s authenticity.
            You refer to forensic evidence “with many studies indicating it is a forgery”. May I ask what forensic evidence and what studies you have in mind?

  4. This article has been updated to reflect new data that has recently come to light. Links to the discussion are included.

  5. Like all such “discoveries” there are those who will use anything they can get their hands on to discredit Christian tradition and the testimony of the Apostles as received by the Church.

    I just assume that anything in the mass media on such matters is wrong and since so much of “scholarly” opinion is intent on deconstruction of the faith that it is generally wrong too.

    In any case I see nothing here that is anything but a tertiary argument at best that has little or nothing to do with the Lord Jesus Christ whom we worship as fully God and fully man; who arose from the dead and saves us.

    1. I don’t think is so much a geared at discrediting Christian tradition, as it is someone trying to make a lot of money and create a stir in the academic community. The reality is that heresy will always be more sensational than orthodoxy, and it will sell.

      1. Actually, Fr. John Behr argued the opposite position, that being that the idea that God, as Man, had to sacrifice himself in order to show us what it means to be human, is so hard to swallow, that avoiding that is the root of most heresies, i.e. Gnosticism – God didn’t die; Arianism, it wasn’t really God, Nestorianism, the human and divine Jesus were separate, et cetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

        I would say that what does sell in todays secular culture are hack jobs that seek to undermine traditional Christian dogma, by means of questionable “science” and dubious scholarship. Its not heresy, in so far as being a corruption of the Christian faith, so much as it is a direct, full-on anti-Christian attack, an attack that has, as a primary objective, the causation of apostasy, and as a secondary objective, the propagation of heretical doctrines in the vein of Elaine Pagels, Katherine Jefferts-Schiorri and other contemporary crypto-Borborites.

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