How Harvard scholars may have been duped by a forged ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’


Scientists who examined a controversial papyrus fragment written in Egyptian Coptic in which Jesus speaks of his wife concluded that the papyrus and ink are probably not a modern forgery. (Karen L King/Harvard Divinity School via Reuters)

Two years after the academic world first learned of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” and less than one month after the note card-sized document was seemingly proved authentic, a Smithsonian documentary trumpeting the artifact will air tonight. “Damaged and fragile, a fragment of ancient papyrus has unleashed a new interpretation of a religious story we thought we knew,” Smithsonian says of the documentary. “In one of the most startling discoveries in recent memory, scholars confirm that a codex written in the ancient Coptic language refers to the wife of Jesus.”

Karen King, the distinguished Harvard professor who first presented the papyrus fragment, intones into the cameras: “This new fragment actually has Jesus saying, ‘My wife.’”

The documentary, which had been on hold for two years, got the green light after King published a blockbuster study in the Harvard Theological Review in April. “I’m hoping now that we can turn away from the question of forgery and talk much, much more about the historical significance of the fragment and precisely how it fit into the history of Christianity and questions about family and marriage and sexuality and Jesus,” King explained.

She stated in the study: “I concluded this article by stating it would not be that last word on the subject.”

Indeed, it would not be. Last week, an American researcher named Christian Askeland published findings that scholars say represent the most convincing evidence yet that the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ is a forgery. The conclusion hinges on two elements. First, an additional fragment provided to Harvard by its anonymous source was not only likely a forgery — but written by the same hand that had authored the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Second, it was inked in a dialect that academics say didn’t exist at the time it was supposedly written.


The “Jesus’s wife” fragment, left, next to another fragment, likely a forgery, given to King. (LEFT: Reuters. RIGHT: Courtesy of Christian Askeland)

“To me, the odds that I’m going to be hit by lightning twice in the same day means [this fragment] is moving into the realm of the absurd,” Askeland, an assistant professor at Germany’s Protestant University Wuppertal, told The Washington Post. “And it goes on and it gets worse and worse from there.”

King was quiet last week. On Sunday, however, she granted her first interview to the New York Times, agreeing that Askeland’s work is legitimate. “This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery. This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.”

But to many, it is. And to others, it always has been.

Whispers and rumors have trailed the document from the moment King presented it at a 2012 conference. The fragment was stunning, and contained three words that sent the biblical world spinning. “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” It was written on authentic papyrus and in Egyptian Coptic script, but had significant problems.

For starters, there were grammatical issues, which Brown University theologian Leo Depuydt called “fatal blunders.” Plus there was the curious fact that the fragment’s author used bold letters when referring to Jesus’s wife. Depuydt described this as “almost hilarious.”

“How could this not have been designed to some extent to convey a certain comic effect?” Depuydt asked in one dissenting article, also published in the Harvard Theological Review. He said he’d never seen bold used in any other Coptic text. “The effect is something like: ‘My wife. Get it? MY wife. You heard that right.’ The papyrus fragment seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch…. If the forger had used italics in addition, one might be in danger of losing one’s composure.”

The document struck others as strange because its timing seemed too convenient. Whenever an apparently ancient relic emerges that seems to address a modern debate exactly — such as women’s role in the church and whether priests should marry — it’s usually “too good to be true.”

But then, after King’s fragment and its implications had simmered for two years, she came out with her study. It said the fragment was in fact an ancient document dating between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D., and that its contents had been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries. “None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery,” the press release said.

The media was in love. For several days afterward, headlines touted the findings. Researcher Askeland, however, wasn’t convinced. “The writing was not comparable to any ancient manuscript which I had seen,” said the professor, who also works for Indiana Wesleyan University.

His suspicion crystallized into belief when he saw that tucked into King’s study was another fragment purporting to belong to the Gospel of John. It had also been given to King by the anonymous source and its handwriting was strikingly similar to the Jesus fragment. Askeland, who did his PhD thesis on the Coptic versions of John’s Gospel, scrutinized the fragment. What he found, he says, “defied coincidence.”

He compared it to an authentic relic and discovered that, incredibly, for 17 lines the breaks in the text were identical. He deduced that a modern-day forger, perhaps even someone from the past decade, had copied that document from the Internet onto genuine papyrus. He then theorized that if this document was forged, it’s likely the Jesus fragment is fake as well. It appears to have been written by the same hand using the same utensil with the same ink, he said.

“Having evaluated the evidence, many specialists in ancient manuscripts and Christian origins think Karen King and the Harvard Divinity School were the victims of an elaborate ruse,” one scholar connected to Askeland wrote late last week in the Wall Street Journal.

Another added: “Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus over.”

Still, King and her work are not without defenders. One Coptic expert at Macquarie University in Australia told the New York Times the new findings were “persuasive,” but “we’re not completely there yet.”

Either way, Askeland has catapulted into a moment of academic celebrity, something he finds “bittersweet. It’s always exciting to find something new, but I take no joy in messing things up for Karen King. I’m very frustrated at whoever did this hoax, but I’m convinced it is a hoax.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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