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How a Papyrus Fragment Became a Sensation

  • Gesine Schenke Robinson (a1)
Abstract

When the ‘Jesus’ Wife' fragment was first made public at a conference for Coptic Studies, it generated worldwide media interest but met with increasingly sceptical responses from scholars with expertise in the most directly relevant fields. A summary of the grounds for scepticism, written shortly after the conference, is here published for the first time. Since then the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars have confirmed that the case against an ancient origin is overwhelming.

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1 See the Harvard Magazine report, http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/09/new-gospel, 18 September 2012.

3 K. L. King with contributions by AnneMarie Luijendijk, ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My Wife …’”: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus', http://www.hds.harvard.edu/sites/hds.harvard.edu/files/attachments/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife/29813/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf, or http://www.bethinking.org/Media/PDF/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf. This will be referred to as Draft.

4 One only has to compare the two National Geographic editions to detect the revisions and partial retractions in the second (paperback) edition. See Kasser R., Meyer M., Wurst G., in collaboration with Gaudard F., The Gospel of Judas: From Codex Tchacos (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006, and 20082), with additional commentary by B. Ehrman, C. Evans and G. Schenke Robinson.

5 See A. Suciu, ‘Newly Found Fragments from Codex Tchacos’ (Patristics, Apocrypha, Coptic Literature and Manuscripts), http://alinsuciu.com/2012/10/10/newly-found-fragments-of-codex-tchacos/, October 2012; and G. Schenke Robinson, ‘An Update on the Gospel of Judas after Additional Fragments Resurfaced’, ZNW 102 (2011) 110–29.

6 Pagels E. and King K. L., Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking 2007), esp. 164, where King supports the idea that Judas, instead of Jesus, entered the cloud and rose up to heaven: Judas ‘is now able to enter into the luminous cloud’.

7 Cf. First Q&A and Draft, 1.

8 See First Q&A, answer to Question 3, and Draft, 1, 22, 33, 34, 35, 47, 51.

9 For the bibliographical references, see notes 20–1, 27–9 and 32 below.

10 See e.g. Draft, 3 and the online Harvard Magazine report.

11 K. L. King, ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My Wife’: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment', HTR 107 (2014) 131–59, and online: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0017816014000133. Henceforth it will be referred to as Edition. The Edition defensively takes into account the critical reflections and analyses done by various colleagues since 2012. Also the Draft's commentary is considerably shortened in the Edition, leaving out the most egregious claims.

12 Cf. Edition, 132.

13 See the report by Y. T. Yardley and A. Hagadorn, ‘Ink Study of two Ancient Fragments through Micro-Raman Spectroscopy’, https://s3.amazonaws.com/hds-high-traffic-assets/YardleyHarvardFragmentReportRev07.pdf, May 2014. See also Edition, 132 and 154–5, as well as the 2014 update with King's ‘Introduction, “The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: Scientific Testing and Imaging as of March 2014”,’ http://gospelofjesusswife.hds.harvard.edu/introduction, accompanied by a press release and a revised Q&A to which I will refer as Second Q&A, http://gospelofjesusswife.hds.harvard.edu/QA.

14 King herself now concedes that ‘hypothetically’ a forger could buy papyrus scraps at the antiquities market and acquire ink made with components of and according to ancient practices; cf. Edition, 154.

15 J. Beasley, ‘Testing Indicates “Gospel of Jesus's Wife” Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient’, http://gospelofjesusswife.hds.harvard.edu/testing-indicates-gospel-jesuss-wife-papyrus-fragment-be-ancient, April 2014. A strong condemnation of the pretence is expressed by F. Watson, ‘Jesus’ Wife Attempts a Comeback: Initial Response', http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/jesus-wife-attempts-comeback-initial.html, April 2014.

16 For the previous discussions as well as the ongoing developments, see Mark Goodacre's NTweb blog, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com.

17 This can already be realised by a passing view of the indices of published critical editions of Nag Hammadi texts. The occurrence is so rare that King later could only find three examples, all of them in Codex ii; cf. Layton B., ed., Nag Hammadi Codex ii,2–7, vol. i (Nah Hammadi Studies 20; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 5293. Crum's dictionary does not have an independent entry for ϩⲓⲙⲉ; there and in other dictionaries it is correctly listed under the lemma ϣϩⲓⲙⲉ (Crum, 385A; Lambdin, 277; Westendorf, 211). In editing Codex ii, however, Layton found that ϩⲓⲙⲉ deserves its own index entry since it seems to be an idiolect of this particular codex. See Layton B., ‘The Text and Orthography of the Coptic Hypotasis of the Archons (CG II,4)’, ZPE 11(1973) 173200. Thus far only Richard Smith has followed Layton and lists both forms independently in his dictionary (30 and 49).

18 National Geographic (NG) had obligated the team selected to work on the manuscript to complete silence until the discovery of the Codex Tchacos was broadcasted on NG's own channel. With his answer to Robinson's inquiry regarding the status of the manuscript Meyer completely complied with the obligation.

19 F. Watson, ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a Fake Gospel-Fragment was Composed', http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf, September 2012.

20 F. Watson, ‘Addendum: End of the Line?’, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/francis-watson-addendum-end-of-line.html, September 2012. Watson later added the article ‘Inventing Jesus’ Wife' that summarises the results of his analysis for the broader public, http://bibleinterp.com/articles/wat368023.shtml, September 2012.

21 Cf. e.g. Layton, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex II,2–7.

22 Watson, ‘Fake Gospel’, 6.

23 Edition, 157.

24 Edition, 156.

25 See n. 33 below.

26 M. Goodacre, Gospel of Jesus' Wife: the last line is also from Thomas, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/gospel-of-jesus-wife-last-line-is-also.html.

27 A. Bernhard, ‘Could the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Be a “Collage” of Words and Phrases Culled Exclusively From the Coptic Gospel of Thomas?', on Goodacre's website, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-latest-news.html, September 2012.

28 A. Bernhard, ‘How the Gospel of Jesus's Wife Might Have Been Forged: A Tentative Proposal’, http://www.gospels.net/gjw/mighthavebeenforged.pdf, October 2012.

29 M. W. Grondin, ‘Interlinear Coptic–English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas’, http://gospel-thomas.net/gtbypage_112702.pdf, November 2002.

31 Depuydt L., ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity’, HTR 107 (2014) 172–89, esp. 184–9. It is also published online, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9226259, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0017816014000194.

32 King K. L., ‘Response to Leo Depuydt, “The Alleged Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity”,HTR 107 (2014) 190–3.

33 L. Depuydt, ‘The Papyrus Fragment and the Crocodile: When Discerning a Blunder Is Itself …’, http://markgoodacre.org/Depuydt.pdf, April 2014.

34 One cannot avoid the impression that the forger did not want to leave anything to chances since the usual form ⲧϣϩⲓⲙⲉ could have resulted in a much less sensational interpretation; cf. note 17.

35 The forging copyist appeared to have realised that he/she forgot the iota and tried to change the epsilon into a iota since ⲓⲛⲉ would just be a common spelling variant of the verb ⲉⲓⲛⲉ ‘to bring (forth)’. The correction attempt was not very successful, but good fortune had it that ϣⲁϥⲉ is an existing, though rather rare, verb.

36 Cf. especially Edition, 139–42, with nn. 49–52; cf. also King, ‘Response’, 191.

37 See First Q&A; Draft, 4.

38 As part of her answer to the second question of First Q&A.

39 See Yardley and Hagadorn, ‘Ink Study’, 24 and 26.

40 See Edition, 135 and 137.

41 A. Bernhard, ‘On the Possible Relationship between The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and The Gospel of Thomas', http://www.gospels.net/gjw/GJW-GThRelationship.pdf, September 2012.

42 Edition, 134 and n. 11.

43 See King's answer to her second question in Second Q&A; Draft, 4; Edition, 156 n. 113.

44 Cf. Second Q&A; Edition, 137.

45 Cf. e.g. King's answer to her third question in Second Q&A.

46 Cf. Draft, 3.

47 Watson, ‘Addendum’.

48 Watson talks about three letters on either side, or six altogether. He allows twelve to fifteen letters for a larger codex; cf. ‘Addendum’.

49 See the efforts made by Hans-Martin Schenke and myself in reconstructing the so-called Berlin Coptic Book: G. Schenke Robinson, in collaboration with H.-M. Schenke und U.-K. Plisch, Das Berliner Koptische Buch: Eine wiederhergestellte frühchristlich-theologische Abhandlung, CSCO 611 (SCT 50, Leuven: Peeters, 2004).

50 See Edition, 138.

51 Though King herself already dismissed the notion because of the fragment's dimension; cf. Edition, 138 with n. 35.

52 Repeated in Edition, 143.

53 Watson, ‘Addendum’.

54 With some variations from her first posting on HSD and Draft, 13, up until now (e.g. Edition, 139 and 158), and subsequently repeated by blogs and media ad nauseam. When discussing the crude and unpractised script, King offers magic texts, private use or even school exercise (Edition, 137) as parallels, but she then turns around and talks about a wider circulation in Christian communities (Edition, 158).

55 E.g. Draft, 13. In her answer to her tenth question in Second Q&A, King states, ‘It could date as early as the second half of the second century, because it shows close connections to other gospels which were written during that time, in particular the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.’

56 See Edition, 135 and 154.

57 In Edition, 155, King solely states, ‘A later date is indicated by the age of the papyrus.’ Tellingly, she also changed the subtitle of her essay: the ‘Gospel Papyrus’ (Draft) became a ‘Papyrus Fragment’ (Edition). Nonetheless, the reasoning for viewing the fragment as part of a gospel is retained, but in much softer form compared to the sensational overtones in the Draft.

58 See e.g. King's answer to her tenth question in Second Q&A.

59 Edition, 155.

60 King tries to defend her miscalculation by simply stating that ‘his method has significant limitations given the current state of the field’. See Edition, 155.

61 Accordingly, the palaeographical description that was presented in great detail as evidence for an earlier date (Draft, 5–7) is rendered much shorter in Edition (136–7) and mainly refers to the testimony of AnneMarie Luijendijk.

62 Edition, 154 n. 107.

63 Cf. Edition, 135.

64 The report states, ‘ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from, the ink used for the GosJohn manuscript’. See Yardley/Hagadorn, ‘Ink Study’, 26. It is suggested that the ink could have come from different batches.

65 Already since November 2012; cf. Edition, 154 n. 107. It would have saved a lot of time and effort were this fragment disclosed right away, as should have been the case.

66 C. Askeland, ‘Jesus Had a Sister-in-Law’, http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.de/2014/04/jesus-had-ugly-sister-in-law.html, April 2014; and id., ‘The Forgery of the Lycopolitan Gospel of John’, http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.de/2014/04/the-forgery-of-lycopolitan-gospel-of.html, April 2014.

67 A. Suciu, ‘Christian Askeland Finds the “Smoking Gun”’, http://alinsuciu.com/2014/04/24/christian-askeland-finds-the-smoking-gun/, April 2014; and id., ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus: Final Considerations', http://alinsuciu.com/2014/04/26/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-papyrus-final-considerations/, April 2014.

68 M. Goodacre, ‘Illustrating the Forgery of Jesus's Wife's Sister Fragment’ http://ntweblog.blogspot.de/2014/04/illustrating-forgery-of-jesus-wifes.html, April 2014.

69 Sir Thompson H., The Gospel of John according to the Earliest Coptic Manuscript (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1924).

70 See Christian Askeland's contribution to this issue for the explanation of these curious omissions.

71 G. W. Schwendner, ‘Chart Comparing the Letter Forms of GJW and the Simulated John’, http://www.academia.edu/6893096/Chart_comparing_the_letter_forms_in_GJW_and_the_Simulated_GJohn.

72 Cf. e.g. Edition, 153 and n. 103.

73 King explicitly quotes a letter as stating that the current owner bought ‘6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel’ (Edition, 153), whereas before she talked about ‘a batch of six Coptic and Greek papyri’ (Draft, 2).

74 Edition, 154 n. 107. Of course, if that is true, Fecht could have referred to a completely different Gospel of John fragment than the JnFragm in question.

75 Laukamp died in 2002, Fecht in 2006, and Munro in 2009.

76 See the Live Science report by O. Jarus, ‘“Gospel of Jesus's Wife”: Doubts Raised about Ancient Text’, http://www.livescience.com/45020-gospel-of-jesus-wife-questioned.html, April 2014.

77 Cf. the Life Science investigation, as well as Jarus, ‘“Gospel of Jesus's Wife” Looks more and more like a fake’, http://www.livescience.com/45328-gospel-of-jesus-wife-may-be-fake.html , April 2014.

78 Edition, 156. Assuming there is some truth in all of this—although we do not know yet where it lies—my educated guess would be that the typed letter signed by Munro, in which he reports Fecht's identification of a small fragment as containing text from the Gospel of John, might be the only real document. Whatever the reason may have been for addressing it to Laukamp and however the letter may have been procured, it could have given the forger the idea of a contract between Laukamp as seller and an as yet unidentified buyer. The handwritten note with Fecht's alleged remarks about GJW, on the other hand, can hardly be taken seriously.

79 See n. 49 above.

80 According to the archives of the Egyptian Museum, which I researched while working on my book, such tin boxes were brought to Berlin from major digs in Egypt, executed at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a time when archaeologists cared more for pharaonic artefacts, or at best for classical literature, not for Coptic remnants. The boxes often were just labelled ‘Greek and Coptic Fragments’, and the like.

81 Indeed, on one occasion the so-called Gospel of the Savior was discovered, almost accidentally. During one summer month, Paul Mirecki was given the task of unrolling, flattening and putting between glass sheets some papyrus scraps from one of the tin boxes. When he came across a larger parchment fragment, he showed it to Charles Hedrick, who then realised its importance. Both subsequently published the text: C. W. Hedrick and Mirecki P., Gospel of the Savior: A New Ancient Gospel (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 1999).

82 In an email from 4 May 2014.

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