In 2012, when Harvard Divinity School historian Karen King introduced a three-inch piece of papyrus that contained the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…,” it was immediately questioned. Grammatical errors pockmarked the text, theologians said. It bore resemblance to other gospels, and there appeared to be inconsistencies with traditional Egyptian Coptic script.
On Thursday, King pushed back, saying that the text was both ancient and legit. While stressing that it didn’t show that Jesus had a wife — a hotly-contested issue — she said the document is dated between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. Here’s the Post’s story.
“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.
Many accepted this. NBC news headlined its report, “Scientific tests show ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ wasn’t faked.” “Ancient texts of ‘Jesus’s wife’ deemed authentic,” proclaimed Science World Report. Next up was the International Science Times: “‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ shows no sign of forgery.”
Not so fast, says Brown University professor Leo Depuydt, who wrote this dissenting opinion in April’s Harvard Theological Review. He maintains that the text is “hilarious” and “patently fake.”
“It is out of the question that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source,” he seethes in his 19-page study, which will be published alongside King’s work. There is “not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”
Calling the fragment a “modern creation,” he says the text’s use of bold letters are “almost hilarious.” There’s general consensus among theologians, says Religion News Service, that if a relic surfaces that appears to address a modern debate exactly — like women’s role in Christianity — it’s “too good to be true.”
The Jesus’s wife fragment doesn’t just address the issue of Christ’s marital status, Depuydt says, but puts the matter in bold.
“How could this not have been designed to some extent to convey a certain comic effect?” he asks, saying he’s 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.”
He continues: The text “brings one to the surreal. I personally — and I am not sure whether I share this feeling with anyone — experience a certain incredulity pertaining to how something that is at first so patently fake could be so blown out of proportion. If this sounds too strong, please understand that I am just trying to find words to express my heartfelt opinion.”
Critics say the fallacy of the document hinges on several difficult-to-reconcile issues.
The dates don’t add up. King’s testing, according to Religion News Service, indicates that the text was constructed as recently as the year 859. That would make it at least 400 years younger than King first thought, and substantially later than when the New Testament was written.
“Fatal grammatical errors.” Depuydt characterizes a blunder as “something done inadvertently by someone who wants to avoid detection by devious dissimulation.” In his analysis of the text, Depuydt says he found two such blunders that “cannot be condoned.”
It’s too similar to another Gospel. “Every single one of the handful of phrases (and almost every single word) in the text is found almost exactly in the Gospel of Thomas. … It is clear that the text is not an independent literary composition at all.”
The ink. Here, Depuydt speculates. The “analysis of the ink of the text is being awaited,” he said. Still, Depuydt does not put out of the realm of possibility that “a dealer touched up ancient faded ink with modern ink to make the artifact more attractive to potential buyers.”
Conclusion. “The text is almost entirely a patchwork of words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas … The fully inadequate knowledge of Coptic evidence when the author tries to strike out on his or her own only confirms the spurious nature of the text.”