A recently discovered fragment of the Coptic Gospel posed an unexpected question for scholars: Did Jesus have a wife? Experts have been arguing about the authenticity of the found fragment for 8 years. The article tells about who and why would benefit from a text that changes our understanding of the history of Christianity.
Laboratory tests indicate that the fragment of papyrus with the mention of Jesus' wife is genuine. Why do most scientists consider it to be a fake?
For six days in September 2012, approximately 300 specialists took part in the X International Congress of Coptic Studies, which was held at the Sapienza University in Rome. Speakers included Karen L. King. The author of five books, King is a highly respected scholar on early Christianity, focusing her work on a group of Christians known as Gnostics.
Her 2003 monograph What Is Gnosticism? (What is Gnosticism?) Has already become the gold standard in this area of knowledge. King currently teaches at Harvard Divinity School, where she became the first woman to receive a professorship in the Hollis Department of Divinity, the oldest named department in the country. She has long been regarded as one of the finest scholars of religion in the world.
King began her lecture during the last session, on the second day of the convention, at 7 pm, when most of the participants had already sat down to dinner, at least in thought. Before King, scholars gave talks such as "New Branch: Judas in Gnostic Studies" and "The Sorrow of Wisdom in Valentinian Cosmogony," and therefore it seemed that her message would be just as sedate and boring.
The title of King's talk, "A Fragment of a New Coptic Gospel," suggested that it would describe some new, recently found fragment of an already known Christian text, which is nothing more than a modest addition to the solid collection of old Christian texts that appear fairly regularly. on the stage. However, King presented something completely extraordinary: a fragment of a previously unknown gospel.
King believed that the fragment dates from the 4th century AD (later research showed that it was most likely around the 8th century), and that it could be a translation of a Greek text originally written in the 2nd century AD. The snippet is very small, about the size of a credit card, and contains eight incomplete lines of text as follows:
1. Not [for] me. Zhi [know] my mother gave me
2. The disciples told Jesus
3. renounce. Maria is n [e] worth
4. Jesus told them: “My wife
5. she can be my student"
6. Let the wicked people swell
7. As for me, I am with her to
Many aspects of the text itself and of the papyrus turned out to be unusual. At first glance, this was imperceptible, but later it turned out that all this is of great importance. And then there was one extremely important point that attracted attention: the fourth line, where Jesus states that he has a wife. It was a bomb. Earlier in no Christian text there was a direct mention of this kind from the mouth of Jesus.
Although the dialogue recorded on a piece of papyrus has survived only partially, almost everyone can understand its essence. In the first line, Jesus acknowledges the importance of the mother. In the second, his students seem to argue about the merits of Mary. This is most likely the case because the fourth line contains the words "my wife". This is not a reference to the Virgin Mary, but to Mary Magdalene, the often vilified intercessor of the Jesus movement.Jesus says in the fifth line that this Mary can be his disciple, and in the sixth and seventh he severely condemns those who are against it, calling such people "evil", unlike himself, because he is "with her."
When King spoke about her interpretation of the text and its importance for the history of Christian thought, the audience asked her to show a snapshot of the passage. King's computer did not work, so they sent an iPad with a photograph across the hall. Seeing the fragment, some scholars almost immediately began to openly discuss the question of its authenticity.
The next day, on the pages of a blog, Christian Askeland, a specialist in Coptic manuscripts at Indiana Wesleyan University, summarized the overall impression of the fragment. The conference participants who saw the photograph “split,” he wrote, “and almost two-thirds … reacted with great skepticism to the document, doubting its authenticity, and one-third … actually confirmed that the fragment was a forgery.”
While experts voiced their doubts, the media told the public a very different story. When King spoke in Rome, Harvard Divinity School posted photographs of the passage and a draft of her first commentary on it online.
Before leaving Cambridge for Rome, King showed the snippet to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Harvard Magazine, who photographed the scientist in her office with the text encased in glass. Therefore, after King's speech, the New York Times was able to publish the news of its discovery online by doing so in an article titled "Jesus' wife is spoken of on a faded scrap of papyrus."
This article, accompanied by a photograph of King holding a fragment in his hands, appeared in the print edition of the New York Times the next morning. The Boston Globe hosted a similar story with the misleading headline "Historian Revelation Hints Jesus Was Married."
In fact, with scientific judgment as a historian, King did her best to emphasize that there is no evidence in this passage regarding Jesus' marital status. This text, she stressed, appeared much later than Jesus' death, in order to be considered a reliable historical source.
But in the heat of general excitement, this nuance was very quickly lost. There is no doubt that this was partly due to the sensational title that King gave to the fragment - "The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus." It turned out that she had already talked with the correspondents of the Smithsonian Channel, who were planning to release a special program of the same name. The channel announced that it will be a "biblical proportion" blockbuster.
Today Jesus' celibacy is taken for granted. In the Catholic tradition, his unmarried position provides the basis for the theological argument that priests cannot marry. The people making this argument point to a simple and irrefutable fact: there is not a single mention of Jesus being married in the New Testament.
All this is true - in a sense. But if we look at the Gospel, we see that there is a gaping hole in the biography of Jesus. None of the stories about him from the 1st century AD, which can, with any degree of justification, claim to be accurate, does not contain a word about his adolescence and youth. What was he like at that time - worked, suffered from shyness, was grief-stricken? Was he married or single?
We do not know this and cannot know. It can be assumed that a man of his age living in ancient Palestine should have been married, but neither the Gospel nor the Apostle Paul says anything about this. The earliest Gospel - from Mark - begins with a story about Jesus in the last years of his life, on the banks of the Jordan River, when he was preparing to plunge into its waters to be baptized.
A lot depends on the answer to the question about Jesus' marital status.For centuries and up to the present day, the answer to this question has been decisive in discussions about the celibacy of priests. If Jesus rejected marriage, the proponents of this argument claim, then all priests should do the same. And since Jesus chose only men as his disciples, the church should do the same.
However, commentators fighting with tradition and prejudice insist that the idea of Jesus' celibacy is a later Catholic conspiracy, a product of a male-headed church and its pompous and austere cathedrals from different times. This was done in order to keep the laity, especially women, in obedience. Dan Brown made a fortune by pushing this very idea in his book, The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.
Thanks to the scholarly work of Karen King and others, it is now becoming clear that in the chaotic early church, which, although it claimed order, was rife with chaotic diversity, people actively argued about the role of women as leader. People have also speculated about Jesus' love life since at least the 2nd century AD.
In a non-canonical text from that period known as the "Gospel of Mary," for example, Peter says to Mary Magdalene: "Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women." The Gospel of Philip, dated to the second or third century, is more explicit about this. There, Mary is called the "companion" of Jesus, and it is said that Jesus loved her "more than all the other disciples" and "often kissed her on the mouth."
The New Testament has a very significant focus on women. The story of Jesus' life begins with the Virgin Mary holding a newborn baby in her arms and ends with both Mary sitting at the cross. There are many indications that women followed Jesus and helped finance his mission. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul calls a woman named Junius "glorified among the Apostles," and he describes a woman named Thebes as "a deaconess."
Influential women also appeared in the history of the early church. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla from the 2nd century, a woman named Thecla leaves her fiancé to follow Paul. Some Christians from North Africa in the 3rd century used this as an excuse for women to baptize initiates.
Traditionalists, for their part, have long pointed to the First Epistle to Timothy, written on behalf of Paul, where they substantiate their point of view on the inadmissibility of the presence of women among the clergy. It says: "But I do not allow my wife to teach, nor to rule over her husband, but to be in silence." But we now know that the First Epistle to Timothy was actually written in the second century and is mistakenly attributed to the apostle.
This indicates that in the early years of Christianity, a kind of epistolary struggle was waged to redefine Paul's intentions for women. Today we can see that the question of the marital status of Christ and the related question of the role of women in the church was repeatedly refracted in one light or another in numerous apocryphal sayings and stories, where Jesus and the apostles either condemn, then support, or govern women leaders. …
In general, texts and concepts in support of the concept of women as disciples of Christ go beyond the traditional canon. This is not surprising, since the canonical New Testament was drawn up much later than the death of Jesus, and this was done by the church headed by men. Today, even the very study of non-canonical materials is sometimes associated (in a positive and negative sense) with liberal bias, since in many texts the marginalized and muffled voices of women and laity come to the fore.
Karen King became an authority on the scientific world by researching non-canonical written sources.This explains why she was attracted by the fragment presented in Rome. Unlike the media, she was less interested in the late and unreliable mention of Jesus being married, and much more in the light the papyrus sheds on the position of women in the nascent Christian movement.
This was another evidence that in the first centuries of our era, people were far from being so united in their beliefs and religious practice as generally accepted interpretations represent.
After King's speech in Rome, experts around the world scrutinized the digital photographs of the fragment that appeared on the Harvard Divinity School website (as well as a draft of King's talk and a translation of the text that Harvard Theological Review agreed to publish in its January 2013 issue). Among the scientists who studied the photographs, an almost unanimous opinion began to emerge: the fragment is very similar to a fake.
Professor Francis Watson, a New Testament scholar at Durham University in England, raised cautious but serious doubts on the Internet just two days after King's speech. This passage, he wrote, is "more likely to be attributed to a modern author with a poor command of Coptic than an ancient one."
A week later, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano (admittedly far from impartial) declared the papyrus "inept forgery." Leo Depuydt of Brown University, who was asked by Harvard Theological Review to write a response to King's article on the fragment prior to publication, expressed the prevailing view. “Without a doubt,” he wrote, “the so-called Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, also known as the Fragment of the Wife of Jesus, is by no means an authentic source. The author of this analysis has no doubts that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one”.
All ancient manuscripts have a whole set of specific features and characteristics, each of which (writing instrument, text style, handwriting, grammar, syntax, content) is analyzed. If some feature seems uncharacteristic, if some features deviate from the general idea, then the entire manuscript is considered a fake. Evaluation and analysis of these aspects of the manuscript requires experience gained from many years of scientific activity and based on in-depth knowledge.
There are many problematic inconsistencies in The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus. Almost all ancient texts on papyrus were written with a reed pen, but on this fragment the letters are bold and blunt, and it seems that they were applied with a brush. And not only this. They are written inaccurately (this is how you can write letters if you hold a felt-tip pen upright in your fist and start writing to them), and this suggests that their author wrote, for whom this language is not native.
In addition, there is a series of obvious grammatical errors that arise when a person does not know how to use cases or prepositions (“He threw me a ball”). Such a mistake could have been made by a foreigner or a child, but not by an adult native speaker.
Watson goes on to write in his commentary, published days after King's speech in Rome, the most compelling evidence of falsification. Literally every word and phrase in this passage, with one important exception, can be found in the Coptic text known as the Gospel of Thomas.
This nearly complete 4th century manuscript was discovered in 1945, published in 1956, and posted on the Internet in 1997 with a translation. Watson suspected that the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus consisted of nothing more than assembled pieces of this well-known Coptic apocrypha.
Watson provided additional evidence to support his claim.For example, the first line of the fragment begins with the grammatically incorrect phrase "not [for] me", where, in my opinion, there is no prepositional phrase. Then comes the words "my mother gave me life." It is with the same incorrect phrase “not [for] me” that one of the first lines in the “Gospel of Thomas” begins, followed by a sentence where, as in the fragment, there are the words “my mother”. The next line in the "Gospel of Thomas" ends with words that are not in the "Gospel of the wife of Jesus" (my true mother), but it begins with the same words as in the fragment (life gave me). You can compare the texts:
“The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus”: “Not [for] me. My mother gave me the knowledge"
The Gospel of Thomas: “Not [for] me. My mother … my true [mother] gave me life."
The presence of similar phrases in two different works can hardly be called irrefutable proof. (In fact, King also noted some parallels.) But finding the same words that are placed identically in lines of text is almost unbelievable. To Watson and many other specialists, this document quite naturally appeared to be a forgery.
Some researchers have based their assessments on something intangible and intangible. The text just felt too wrong - or too right. "This piece," wrote Jim Davila of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, "is exactly what I would like to find in the ancient apocrypha the modern zeitgeist of 2012."
This suspicion should be clarified by saying this: if an ancient Christian text describing that Jesus had a wife and extolling the status of a woman appeared in 2004 immediately after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, it would simply be ridiculed.
Christian Askeland notes another reason why the fragment seemed to him inauthentic. While this is only a tiny fraction of a much larger work, preserved by sheer luck, it is incredibly easy to read and understand. Despite the missing words at the end of each line, we easily understand that we are reading a dialogue.
At each stage, we understand who is talking and generally learn what they are talking about. It is also surprising that the most provocative statement from the text (Jesus told them: "My wife") is right in the middle of the fragment. Mark Goodacre of Duke University even noted that the letters in the word "mine" are darker than the others, as if they were written in bold, so that the reader would understand the full significance of this possessive pronoun. And, perhaps, the last straw: the words “my wife” are almost the only important words from the fragment that have no parallels in the “Gospel of Thomas”.
It all seems too good to be true.
Ancient manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: with a source of origin and without a source of origin.
A manuscript with a source of origin - one that appears in a reliable archaeological setting or context; say, if it was found during excavations or otherwise, and this find was documented by professional scientists. Manuscripts without a source of origin are everything else: manuscripts from private collections without documentary evidence, from antiques stores, or simply those that were "discovered" somewhere in the attic or in the closet.
Due to the influence of weather and time, it is extremely rare to find a truly ancient papyrus in an archaeological context - after all, unlike stone or clay, on which they also wrote in ancient times, papyrus decomposes over time. Thus, in order for papyrus to survive millennia, the conditions for preserving even the smallest pieces must be almost perfect, and this is almost impossible. (This is why the only ancient papyri with a source of origin, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been found in remote areas in the desert.)
The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus is, sadly, a manuscript with no source of origin.According to King, in July 2010, she was approached by a person who asked to look at the papyrus he had acquired. The man chose to remain anonymous, she said, so that he was "not harassed by people looking to buy the piece."
The same man gave King five more ancient texts from his collection. According to him, he acquired these papyri from another collector, a German named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. In the contract for the sale of papyri, the anonymous author indicated that Laucamp bought them in East Germany in the early 1960s. Traces led only to this point, and there was no additional indication of the origin of the fragment.
Naturally, an additional check was needed to certify the authenticity. Due to doubts arose, the Smithsonian Channel decided to postpone the broadcast of the segment. Harvard Theological Review also delayed the publication of King's article. King organized a range of checks and analyzes - microscope imaging, ink analysis, carbon analysis, multispectral imaging, infrared microspectroscopy, and another series of radiocarbon analyzes to determine the date of writing. This work took almost a year and a half.
It's hard to prove denial - that's what they say. But in the case of possible forgeries, everything is just the opposite: it is difficult to prove authenticity there. If radiocarbon analysis shows that the ancient papyrus was allegedly made half a century ago, it is clearly a forgery. But if analysis shows that the original date estimate is correct, then this by no means removes the doubt.
Forgers of documents can get hold of very ancient papyri, for the antiques market sells blank sheets or sheets of unremarkable text that can be removed. Ink has the same problem. Even if their chemical composition appears to be correct, this proves nothing.
At best, the science of debunking goes hand in hand with the science of deception; the same is true for athletes using unauthorized doping. Now that we have an idea of the composition of ancient ink, as well as instruments for its determination, we no longer have special reasons to check ink on a questionable document. Any decent forger knows how ink can be aged.
Realizing all this, the skeptics only shrugged their shoulders when, in April 2014, they learned that the fragment had passed all laboratory tests and checks. But their results were quite satisfactory to the popular press, which has been silent on the papyrus since early fall 2012. In one edition after another, analyzes that could only exclude authenticity came to be called analyzes that could rule out forgery. The headline in the New York Times read: "The Papyrus of Jesus' Wife is Ancient rather than Fake."
CNN's website posted a piece entitled "Research evidence: Jesus' wife snippet is not fake." And the Boston Globe, contrary to the numerous and solid arguments of scientists that have accumulated over the previous year and a half, announced: "In the ancient text mentioning the wife of Jesus, there is no evidence of modern forgery." The Smithsonian Channel accelerated the production of its snippet broadcast, and the Harvard Theological Review published King's article, which now featured analytical results.
Among the other papyri that King provided from the Laucamp collection was a smaller fragment containing part of the Coptic translation of the Gospel of John. Scientists first saw this fragment when the article appeared in the Harvard Theological Review, because the experts who conducted the laboratory tests of the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus used it for comparative analysis.
And when scientists finally got a glimpse of this second snippet featured on the Harvard Divinity School's website, the walls came crashing down.Even for non-experts, the visual similarities between The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus and the Gospel of John were striking. For example, both had strangely shaped letters, presumably written with the same blunt instrument. Askeland and other experts had only one explanation: both fragments were made with the same hand.
A few days after the publication of the fragment of the Gospel of John, most scholars agreed that this is an even more obvious forgery than the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus. Although the fragment was dated to the 7th-8th century AD, it was written in a Coptic dialect known as Lycopolitan, which disappeared until the 6th century.
If the fragment is genuine, then a strange anomaly appears: the only example of a text in Lykopolitan dialect from the 7th century or later. Of course, it is quite possible that some scribe in the 7th century simply copied an older Coptic text written in an already dead dialect, in which no one spoke or wrote. We still make copies of Chaucer, although no one has spoken or written in Middle English for centuries. But there is no evidence that Coptic scribes ever did this.
However, there is the Gospel of John in Lycopolitan dialect from the third or fourth century CE, which is the most famous of all surviving Coptic manuscripts of John. It was found in 1923, published in 1924, and posted on the Internet in 2005. The passage from Karen King's Gospel of John has the same words in exactly the same order as in the 1924 edition. This is possible - after all, both manuscripts are translations of the same Gospel. But scientists who studied the two texts soon stumbled upon similarities bordering on the impossible.
Papyrusologist and coptologist Alin Suciu noted that all the lines on one side of the fragment exactly match every other line in the 1924 edition. Mark Goodacre later showed that the same one-to-two ratio was true for the other side of the fragment: every line of papyrus perfectly matches every other line of the 1924 edition.
If so, we have to assume that the original page to which this fragment belonged was exactly twice as wide as the pages of the 1924 edition. That is, the width of each word written by both scribes was the same, and it was only by some coincidence that this fragment corresponded to the best-preserved, most famous and accessible Coptic manuscript from John.
It was suspected that the entire collection of Laucamp's papyri could be fake. People began to ask questions about the few documents in the collection that were clearly of modern origin, especially the purchase agreement between the German collector Laukamp and the anonymous new owner of his collection.
Owen Jarus, writing for the LiveScience website, began researching Laukamp's insights and found someone with the same name and, it seems, with the same background. He spoke to one of Laukamp's business associates and his real estate agent. But none of them had heard of any papyri that belonged to him, or even of the "Gospel of the Wife of Jesus." Laukamp, Jeras wrote, was not a collector of antiquities at all: he was a toolmaker and “had no interest in old things,” the real estate agent said.
He died very successfully in 2002, leaving behind no children or relatives. In fact, all the people mentioned in these modern documents are now dead, at least everyone King mentions in his article on the pages of the Harvard Theological Review. (All we know about these documents is what King chose to report.) The most recent death occurred in 2009, just a year before the anonymous new owner contacted King.
After examining Laukamp's history, Jeras was almost certain he had found the right person.“It was clear,” he told us, “that something was clearly missing here.”
King takes doubts about the fragment's authenticity quite seriously. “This is important,” she told The New York Times in May. "This should be taken seriously and could indicate a fake." King did not tell us that she was no longer working on the fragment, but said that she was willing to "listen to and study new evidence and arguments regarding the dating and interpretation of the fragments."
However, many media outlets continue to tell the story they want to tell. Before the Smithsonian Channel aired on May 5, 2014, the channel added just one minute at the end to bring viewers up to date. During this minute, not a single objection to the authenticity of the document was sounded, but only a mention that the fragment had passed laboratory tests. At the end, the presenter stated: "There are many new proofs of its authenticity, and not a single proof that it is a modern fake."
This conclusion contradicts the unanimous opinion of the scientific community. Although King herself refused to declare the case closed, the substantive judgment regarding The Gospel of Jesus' Wife is that it is a forgery.
But one fundamental question remains unanswered. Why would anyone forge a document of this kind? Until King agrees to reveal the name of the owner of the papyrus - and she today does not give any signals about her intention to do so - all the answers to this question will inevitably be speculative. But we are still able to name some possibilities.
Of course, the main candidate is money. A text that changes our ideas about the history of Christianity, as well as about the biography of Christ himself, should be very expensive. In this scenario, the anonymous owner of the fragment is the victim of the scam, not King. But the authenticity of the fragment by the respected scholar King, and the attention she has drawn to the story, add immeasurably to its value and value. (The owner stated that he does not want to be harassed by buyers who want to buy the fragment, but this does not mean that he does not want to sell it.) It is also possible that the owner has a financial interest in the content of the document, and this explains his unwillingness to give his name in the background forgery allegations.
The person who forged the fragment could also have ideological motives. For those denominations that allow their priests to marry, and this is primarily the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the very mention of Jesus' marriage could become a powerful basis for strengthening modern faith.
One can also imagine that the counterfeiting is the work of activists of the feminist movement or those who oppose Catholic clericalism. Or maybe it's a combination of both. On the other hand, it is possible that the forger of the fragment tried to undermine the liberal positions of scholars such as King, showing that they are naive and can be easily fooled. Some commentators have taken this position.
For example, in early May, the Stand Firm website, which, along with sections on the Church of England, Catholics and Muslims, has a section entirely devoted to abortion, posted a short article titled "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife Fragment is a Carefully Planned Fraud." "It's hard to believe," writes the author of the article, "that being an expert you can fall for such a trick." King responds rather softly to all these attacks; she told us that she was “frustrated” by the accusations because they interfered with the “open discussion of arguments”.
However, this latter possibility - an attempt to shame as a way of expressing discontent - has a history of its own in academia.In October 2013, more than 150 open access scientific journals were embarrassed when it was revealed that they had accepted for publication a false article on the treatment of cancer with lichen. It was written specifically to expose the low standards of scientific journals and publishers.
Perhaps the forger of the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus hoped that exposing the text as a fake would likewise tarnish the reputation of a feminist New Testament investigation. Whether the falsifier had such a goal or not, in the opinion of many, feminists have long been asking for this. According to Askeland, this whole scandal arose due to the increased interest of feminists in early Christianity.
Perhaps the forger was simply intent on playing an exquisite cruelty to scientists. There are precedents of this kind. In the early twentieth century, the German church historian Hans Lietzmann inserted lines into a Byzantine text and invited his colleagues to define them. (They did not identify.) Similar motives are attributed to Columbia University historian Morton Smith, who in 1958 "discovered" a passage from a supposedly ancient text known as the Secret Gospel of Mark. There was a scene in which a naked youth, wrapped in a veil, spent the night with Jesus.
At first, such a statement created a sensation (Jesus was gay!). But numerous factors, not least the fact that the manuscript was somehow lost when Smith published the photographs of it, led most scholars to conclude that it was a fake. In his book about this strange episode, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Peter Jeffery states that Smith played the game mainly to “rejoice in his brilliant ingenuity. ". In academia, such things are not unimaginable.
In fact, in the scientific world of ancient history and ancient texts, anything is possible - because very little is known for certain in this area. Despite the mountains of evidence that the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is a fake, there is still a small but real possibility that it is genuine. Thus, the question arises: how many historical reconstructions are scientists willing to put at stake, using such flimsy justifications?
Or another question: even if this fragment turns out to be without a doubt genuine, could one small scrap of papyrus be so important as to radically change our understanding of the past? The problem with reconstructing the distant past is that with so little credible evidence, the discovery of even the smallest evidence threatens with exaggerated consequences. In such a situation, abuse is quite possible. And the more sensationally the media write about these discoveries, the more such abuse we can expect.