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A Lycopolitan Forgery of John's Gospel*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 June 2015

Christian Askeland*
Indiana Wesleyan University, 4201 S Washington St, Marion, IN 46953, USA. Email:


The internet publication of a Coptic Gospel of John fragment demonstrated that both it and the related Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment were modern creations. The Coptic John fragment was clearly copied from Herbert Thompson's 1924 publication of the Lycopolitan Qau codex, and shared the same hand, ink and writing instrument with the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment. The present discussion will first survey the extant Coptic tradition of John's Gospel, and second outline the evidence for dependence on the Qau codex publication.

Assessing the “Jesus' Wife” Papyrus
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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The author would like to thank Andrew Bernhard and Simon Gathercole for carefully reading the present article, and offering corrections and improvements throughout.


1 King, K. L., ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment’, HTR 107 (2014) 131–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 153–4.

2 Ibid., 154, text and n. 107.

3 Ibid., 135; Yardley, J. T. and Hagadorn, A., ‘Characterization of the Chemical Nature of the Black Ink in the Manuscript of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife through Micro-Raman Spectroscopy’, HTR 107 (2014) 162–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Azzarelli, J. M., Goods, J. B., Swager, T. M., ‘Study of Two Papyrus Fragments with Fourier Transform Infrared Microspectroscopy’, HTR 107 (2014) 165CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hodgins, G., ‘Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination of Papyrus Samples’, HTR 107 (2014) 166–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tuross, N., ‘Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination of Papyrus Samples’, HTR 107 (2014) 170–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Malcolm Choat and Gregg Schwendner first discovered the images; (published 24 April 2014).

6 The reader may consult the contribution of Ira Rabin and Myriam Krutsch in this issue for a discussion of the physical properties of the two papyrus fragments under discussion.

7 Askeland, Christian, ‘The Coptic versions of the New Testament’, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis (ed. Ehrman, B. D. and Holmes, M. W.; Leiden: Brill, 2012 2) 201–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 The present article surveys the dialects relevant to the Johannine tradition, and generally presumes the six-dialect scheme which Paul Kahle outlined in his pivotal work; Kahle, P. E., ed., Bala'izah: Coptic Texts from Deir el-Bala'izah in Upper Egypt (2 vols.; London: OUP, 1954)Google Scholar. The actual complexity of the extant Coptic tradition has led scholars to offer a more sophisticated system with dozens of distinct orthographic systems; Kasser, Rodolphe, ‘KAT'ASPE ASPE: constellations d'idiomes coptes plus ou moins bien connus et scientifiquement reçus, aperçus, pressentis, enregistrés en une terminologie jugée utile, scintillant dans le firmament égyptien à l'aube de notre troisième millénaire’, Coptica – Gnostica – Manichaica : mélanges offerts à Wolf-Peter Funk (Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi-Études 7; Louvain and Paris: L'Université Laval/Peeters, 2006) 389492Google Scholar.

9 For a more complete survey of the Coptic John tradition, one should refer to the present author's published Cambridge PhD dissertation; Askeland, C., John's Gospel: The Coptic Translations of its Greek Text (Arbeiten zur neutestamentlichen Textforschung 44; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Tito Orlandi tentatively estimates that 94 of the 325 manuscripts from the White Monastery contained biblical texts; Orlandi, T., ‘The Library of the Monastery of Saint Shenute at Atripe’, Perspectives on Panopolis: an Egyptian Town from Alexander the Great to the Arab conquest: Acts from an International Symposium Held in Leiden on 16, 17 and 18 December 1998 (ed. Egberts, A., Muhs, B. P., van der Vliet, J.; Papyrologica Lugduno-Batava 31; Leiden: Brill, 2002) 211–31Google Scholar, at 14.

11 Depuydt, L., ed., Catalogue of Coptic Manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Louvain: Peeters, 1993) lxiilxivGoogle Scholar.

12 Emmel, S., ‘Toward (Re-)Constructing a Coptic Reading Experience in Late Antique Egypt’, The Nag Hammadi Codices in the Context of Fourth- and Fifth-Century Christianity in Egypt (ed. Lundhaug, H. and Jenott, L.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming)Google Scholar; Askeland, C., ‘Dating Early Greek and Coptic Literary Hands’, The Nag Hammadi Codices in the Context of Fourth- and Fifth-Century Christianity in Egypt (ed. Lundhaug, H. and Jenott, L.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming)Google Scholar.

13 Ariel Shisha-Halevy, ‘Sahidic’, in Coptic Encyclopaedia (1991), 194–202, at 194–5.

14 Hans Förster is currently editing the Sahidic John version for the International Greek New Testament Project, and has kindly shared this estimate (personal correspondence, 14 Nov 2014).

15 P. Palau Ribes 183, CBL Copt. 813 and 814, M 569, CM 3820, Polish Mission N.02.030; Askeland, John's Gospel, 83–94.

16 Sheridan, J. M., ‘The Mystery of Bohairic: The Role of the Monasteries in Adaptation and Change’, Coping with Religious Change in the Late-Antique Eastern Mediterranean (ed. Kotsifou, C. and Iricinschi, E.; Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015)Google Scholar.

17 The primary exception may be a ninth-century gospels catena; de Lagarde, P., ed., Catenae in Evangelia Aegyptiacae quae supersunt (Göttingen: Arnold Hoyer, 1886)Google Scholar.

18 Askeland, John's Gospel, 168.

19 Two distinct finds emerged from the area of Nag Hammadi. The Dishna papers, most of which were collected by Martin Bodmer, consisted of a variety of Greek and Coptic manuscripts, some of which preserve unique Coptic dialects. The Dishna papers constitute the largest collection of early witnesses to the biblical tradition in Greek and Coptic. A second library of twelve and a half codices, which is often referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library, preserves a number of texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Apocryphon of John, and has been a key source of information in modern discussions concerning early Christian theological diversity; Robinson, J. M., The Story of the Bodmer Papyri: From the First Monastery's Library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011)Google Scholar. Although certain Nag Hammadi texts preserve a distinct variety of Lycopolitan, the majority of the texts reflect an irregular Sahidic dialect which has been termed Crypto-Subachmimic; Funk, W.-P., ‘Toward a Classification of the “Sahidic” Nag Hammadi Texts’, Acts of the Fifth International Congress of Coptic Studies, Washington, 12–15 August 1992, vol. ii (ed. Johnson, D. W.; Rome: CIM, 1993) 163–77Google Scholar.

20 Horner, G., ed., The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Northern Dialect, Otherwise Called Memphitic and Bohairic (4 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1898–1905)Google Scholar.

21 G. Horner, ed., Memphitic and Bohairic; Vaschalde, A. A., ‘Ce qui à été publié des versions coptes de la Bible: deuxième groupe, textes bohaïriques’, Le Muséon 45 (1932) 117–56Google Scholar, at 122–3.

22 Askeland, John's Gospel, 174–6.

23 Ibid., 21–2.

24 Daniel Sharpe is preparing a new edition of P.Bodm. 3. For an overview of the peculiarities of the Early Bohairic sub-dialect and translation, cf. Askeland, John's Gospel, 167–73. Kasser, R., ed., Papyrus Bodmer iii: évangile de Jean et Genèse iiv, 2 en bohaïrique (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 178; Louvain: Secrétariat du CSCO, 1958)Google Scholar.

25 Depuydt, Catalogue of Coptic Manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, lxv.

26 Kraemer, B., ‘The Meandering Identity of a Fayum Canal: The Henet of Moeris / Dioryx Kleonos / Bahr Wardan / Abdul Wahbi’, Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth International Congress of Papyrology, Ann Arbor 2007 (ed. Gagos, T.; American Studies in Papyrology; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2010) 365–76Google Scholar.

27 UC 71048; Askeland, John's Gospel, 148–55.

28 Husselman, E. M., ed., The Gospel of John in Fayumic Coptic (P.Mich. Inv. 3521) (Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum, 1962)Google Scholar.

29 P.Strasb.Copt. 371, 372, 375–85; Rösch, F., ed., Bruchstücke des ersten Clemensbriefes nach dem achmimischen Papyrus der Strassburger Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, mit biblischen Texten derselben Handschrift (Strasbourg: Schlesier and Schweikhardt, 1910)Google Scholar.

30 Kasser, R., ‘A Standard System of Sigla for Referring to the Dialects of Coptic’, J. Copt. Stud. 1 (1990) 141–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 144.

31 Funk, W.-P. and Smith, R., ‘John 10:7–13:38 in Subachmimic’, The Chester Beatty Codex Ac. 1390: Mathematical School Exercises in Greek and John 10:7–13:38 in Subachmimic (ed. Brashear, W. and Robinson, J. M.; Chester Beatty Monographs 13; Louvain: Peeters, 1990) 59133Google Scholar.

32 Cambridge University Library, BFBS Mss 137; Thompson, H., The Gospel of St John according to the Earliest Coptic Manuscript (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1924)Google Scholar.

33 ‘“We put it up on the screen, and we all sort of said, ‘Eeew’”, said Bagnall, one of the world's leading papyrologists. “We thought it was ugly. And it is — ugly. The handwriting is not nice — thick, badly controlled strokes made by somebody who didn't have a very good pen.”' Lisa Wangsness, ‘Historian's Finding Hints that Jesus Was Married: Discovery May Bear on Modern Christianity’, The Boston Globe, 18 September 2012,

34 Only a handful of verses have survived from the Middle Egyptian tradition (14.26–28, 14.31–15.3). The reconstruction above has been produced from a dialectally similar manuscript (Matt 3.15); Schenke, H.-M., ed., Coptic Papyri i: Das Matthäus- Evangelium im mittelägyptischen Dialekt des Koptischen (Codex Schøyen) (Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection 2; Oslo: Hermes, 2001)Google Scholar.

35 Choat, M., ‘The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A Preliminary Paleographical Assessment’, HTR 107 (2014) 160–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 161.

36 According to Roger Bagnall, ‘[a]s the two are very similar and are likely to have been produced close in time, the overlap zone is what one should concentrate on … As to the handwriting, it is not possible to date with confidence a very rudimentary hand of the kind in use in both of these fragments (which are if not in the same hand at least extremely close).’ C. Allen, ‘The Deepening Mystery of the “Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus', The Weekly Standard, 28 April 2014, I know of no specialist in Coptic or Greek scripts currently inclined to dispute this argument. For a more extensive survey of the similarities of the two hands, a discussion of the reactions to the Lycopolitan John fragment and an exhaustive comparison of the extant letters in the two papyri, see Askeland, C., ‘A Fake Coptic John and its Implications for the “Gospel of Jesus's Wife”’, Tyndale Bull. 65 (2014) 110Google Scholar.

37 K. L. King, ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus', HTR (rejected) (2012) 1–52, at 2. The 2014 version did not mention the language of the fragment.

38 This public domain image is here reproduced from Brunton, G., ed., Qau and Badari (4 vols.; Egyptian Research Account 50; London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1927) iii.xliiGoogle Scholar.

39 The jar and linen cloth have recently been rediscovered in Cambridge; Askeland, John's Gospel, 141–3.

40 Thompson, Gospel of St John, ix.

41 The PDF's creation date is 21 Feb 2005, and it was modified on 5 February 2005. Currently, the document is available via: ETANA: Electronic Tools and Ancient Near East Archives,

42 Funk and Smith, The Chester Beatty Codex Ac. 1390.

43 This explanation was first suggested by Ulrich Schmid.

44 The dates above are the two sigma ranges. Hodgins, ‘Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination’; Tuross, ‘Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination’.

45 Barns†, J. W. B., Browne, G. M., Shelton, J. C., eds., Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri from the Cartonnage of the Covers (Nag Hammadi Studies 16; Leiden: Brill, 1981) 53–8Google Scholar.

46 Lundhaug, H., ‘Shenoute of Atripe and Nag Hammadi Codex II’, Zugänge zur Gnosis: Symposium of the Patristische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (PAG) (ed. Markschies, Christoph; Patristic Studies 12; Leuven: Peeters, 2013) 201226Google Scholar, at 209.

47 Bell, H. I., ed., Jews and Christians in Egypt: The Jewish Troubles in Alexandria and the Athanasian Controversy, Illustrated by Texts from Greek Papyri in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1924) 91–9Google Scholar.

48 Debuhn, J., ‘The Date of the Manichaean Codices from Medinet Madi and its Significance’, Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of the International Association of Manichaean Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, 9–13 September 2013 (ed. Hunter, E., Lieu, S., Morano, E.; Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming)Google Scholar.

49 The coins came from section AC (486) near some native houses in the city of Ezbet Ulad El Hagg Aḥmed, while the Qau codex lay to the north in CE (1500) close to a wadi. Both objects lay in the eastern portion of the South Cemetery, separated from each other by no more than 30 meters. Cf. Brunton, Qau and Badari, 26, 29–30, Pls. v–vi.

50 Brunton, Qau and Badari, 30.

51 Thompson, Gospel of St John, xiii.

52 Personal correspondence, 24 April 2014. The Lycopolitan ‘dialect’ was in no way monolithic, but rather a constellation of sub-dialects which were related to Achmimic; Funk, W.-P., ‘How Closely Related Are the Subakhmimic Dialects?’, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache Altertumskunde 112 (1985) 124–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Layton, B., ed., Nag Hammadi Codex ii, 2–7, vol. i (Nag Hammadi Studies 20; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 67Google Scholar; Funk, ‘Toward a Classification of the “Sahidic” Nag Hammadi Texts’, 163–77.

54 Layton, Nag Hammadi Codex ii, 2–7, 8–14.

55 Attridge, H. W. and Pagels, E., eds., ‘The Tripartate Tractate’, Nag Hammadi Codex i (the Jung Codex) (Nag Hammadi Studies 22; Leiden: Brill, 1985), 159337Google Scholar, at 162–63. Other tractates in the same codex are also in Lycopolitan but do not have such strong Sahidic influence.

56 J. L. Hagen, ‘Possible Further Proof of Forgery: A Reading of the Text of the Lycopolitan Fragment of the Gospel of John, with Remarks about Suspicious Phenomena in the Areas of the Lacunae and a Note about the Supposed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife', 3–4, on Alin Suciu: Patristics, Apocrypha, Coptic Literature and Manuscripts, 1 May 2014:

57 S. Emmel, ‘The Codicology of the New Coptic (Lycopolitan) Gospel of John Fragment (and its Relevance for Assessing the Genuineness of the Recently Published Coptic “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Fragment)’, on Alin Suciu: Patristics, Apocrypha, Coptic Literature and Manuscripts, 22 June 2014:

58 Ibid., 1 and 6.

59 ‘Omission of the definite articles ⲡ- and ⲧ- before words in initial /p/ and /t/. Known in S but especially common in A².’ Layton, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2–7, 9. For another example of the same form, cf. John 3.20, where the Lycopolitan reads ⲙ̄ⲡⲉⲑⲁⲩ for Sahidic ⲛ̄ⲙ̄ⲡⲉⲑⲟⲟⲩ and Greek (ὁ) φαῦλα (πράσσων). John 18.23 offers an imperfect, but relevant, parallel: Greek πµρὶ τοῦ κακοῦ, Sahidic ϩⲁ ⲡⲁⲡⲉⲑⲟⲟⲩ, Lycopolitan ϩⲁ ⲡⲡⲉⲑⲁⲩ, demonstrating that the scribe has not consistently omitted the article ⲡ.

60 Just as the Sahidic translated the same Greek construction with plural articles, one would expect the Lycopolitan to render both constructions in tandem with singular articles; John 5.29 οἱ τὰ ἀγαθὰ ποιήσαντµς … οἱ δὲ τὰ φαῦλα πράξαντµς. This deviation between the Lycopolitan and the Sahidic is an exception to the rule that the Lycopolitan preserves the same translation as the Sahidic version; Askeland, John's Gospel, 195–208.

61 Emmel, ‘The Codicology of the New Coptic (Lycopolitan) Gospel of John Fragment’, 24.

62 From the limited photographic evidence, the Harvard John fragment may have been broken by folding (not cleanly cut) from the bottom of the GJW fragment, with the GJW cleanly cut from a probably inscribed piece of papyrus. The top of the Harvard John and the bottom of the GJW fragments are the same width, and the fragmentary nature of the edges is a rough fit. The GJW has a section protruding downward on the recto which corresponds to a gap on the John fragment, and the John fragment has fibres rising on the verso side which would relate to the entire side of the GJW which is effaced on the verso. One must note from the photographs that the GJW fragment appears significantly more worn than the John fragment, with large creases for which no parallel can be located. Perhaps, the artist created these creases when he tore the top half of the GJW fragment from the bottom.

63 Herbert Thompson was not modest in titling his Codex Qau edition ‘The Gospel of John according to the Earliest Coptic Manuscript’. As a result, a Bing, Google or Yahoo search will no doubt produce this PDF as a result for an ‘earliest Coptic manuscript’ search.

64 For a more extensive discussion of the accompanying documentation, cf. Askeland, ‘A Fake Coptic John and its Implications for the “Gospel of Jesus's Wife”’, 7–9.

65 The American Society of Papyrologists has a statement forbidding members from direct or indirect involvement with papyri illegally exported from their source country after 24 April 1972; ‘ASP Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri’, American Society of Papyrologists homepage, June 2007:

66 Stephen Emmel has reproduced the pattern as a yellow ‘smiley face’; Emmel, ‘The Codicology of the New Coptic (Lycopolitan) Gospel of John Fragment’, 25.