The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, a Coptic papyrus fragment whose authenticity is in dispute. Harvard Theological Review has recently dedicated an entire issue to the issue of the fragment’s authenticity.
Please make note of Dr. Larry Hurtado’s post, entitled, “Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts“, which provides an excellent summary of the recent tests published in Harvard Theological Review.
Do read his post. I’ll provide a few snippets from his post here, specifically those concerning the scientific results, and one summarizing what this all means.
On the scientific tests:
As for the scientific tests, those on the ink produced results consistent with the item being old, not modern. The two radio-carbon tests, however, are both a bit puzzling and interesting. The proposed dates of the two tests are out from each other by several hundred years. The one report (by Hodgins) notes the curious date-result (405-350 BCE and/or 307-209 BCE), about a thousand years earlier than the date from the other carbon-dating test (659-969 CE), and Hodgins suggests some kind of contamination of the sample. But I’d assume that a contamination would come from something later than the ancient setting, and so skew the date later, not earlier.
Note that in Gregory Hodgins‘ report, the AMS radiocarbon results read:
Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination of Papyrus Samples
NSF Arizona AMS Laboratory, University of Arizona
Sample Gospel of John (for comparison purposes)
Fraction of modern carbon: 0.8568±0.0033
Uncalibrated Radiocarbon Age: 1242±31 14C yrs BP
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 681 cal c.e. to 877 cal c.e.
Gospel of Jesus’s Wife
Fraction of modern carbon: 0.7526±0.0035
Uncalibrated Radiocarbon Age: 2283±37 14C yrs BP (before present) 2 sigma,
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 405 cal b.c.e. to 350 cal b.c.e., OR
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 307 cal b.c.e. to 209 cal b.c.e.
Thus, the calibrated AND uncalibrated ranges place the sample to 400-200 yrs BCE.
Note that Dr. Hurtado also points out Dr. King’s note on the later, less ancient dating of the fragment.
To come to Prof. King’s article (the main piece in the issue), I think she takes a careful line, seeking to defend her view that the item on balance seems authentic, but trying to take account of data that require some modification of her earlier judgements, and granting in the end that complete certainty is not possible. Prominent in the modifications of her earlier view is the intriguing statement in the appended note at the end of the article that the carbon-dating (taking the dating by Tuross) now seems to demand a date sometime in the 8th century CE (not the 4th/5th century CE dating in her earlier paper). As she notes, this takes us well into the Islamic period of Egypt, and so raises the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.
And what does this all mean? Hurtado states:
Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studies. Contrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.
I’d also draw your attention to Dr. Leo Depuydt’s rebuttal, which was first outlined at Dr. Mark Goodacre’s blog here.
The fact is, the results of the scientific tests are highly inconclusive, and even if the ink and the papyrus are “ancient”, the dates on the scientific tests range from a period from centuries before the time of Christ, written by a poorly trained scribe with a bad hand, all the way to a period “well into the Islamic period of Egypt”, raising “the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.”
Add this to the possibility that a forger scraped ink from an ancient inkwell (these things exist – see the final paragraphs of Dr. Jim Davila’s post here) and rehydrated the ink, and wrote it on an ancient fragment of papyrus from a different period, copying onto it text from a pdf of the Gospel of Thomas available online, which preserved errors present in the pdf. (See Francis Watson’s article on Dr. Goodacre’s site.)
See also Dr. Chris Rollston’s post about this process, especially where he states:
Also, it is also possible for someone to scrape off (e.g., from a papyrus) ancient ink from the words of some mundane ancient inscription….and then add a little water to the dried ink which had been scrapped off and then resuse the ink. Some people (including some scholars) assume that modern forgers are not all that bright (and thus would not be that clever in forging something). In contrast, I believe that modern forgers (at least from the final quarter of the 20th century and on) are quite sharp…..and for good reason they try to be very clever: after all, there is much money to be made and modern forgers knows this….so, as for this piece, I remain very suspicious of its authenticity. Perhaps it’s ancient….but I doubt it.
So expect to hear those heavily invested in the authenticity of the fragment (e.g., those who really want Jesus to have been married to Mary Mags for various, often financial reasons) to declare victory and that the fragment was proved “authentic”, and those who have no skin in the game to remain highly skeptical about the highly inconclusive results and the persistent problems with the text.
Filed under: ancient near east, christianity, science | Tagged: chris rollston, forgery, Francis Watson, Gospel of Jesus' Wife, Gregory Hodgins, Harvard Theological Review, jim davila, Karen King, Larry Hurtado, Leo Depuydt, mark goodacre, palaeography, papyrus | 15 Comments »