The odds are against any important ancient document being genuine. But the investigation is a thrill.
Was Jesus married? Trust me when I say I have no dog in the fight. But yesterday, when I read an academic article by a Harvard Divinity School professor arguing for the authentic antiquity of a papyrus fragment that includes the phrase “Jesus said, my wife,” I was filled with awe and wonder. How, exactly, could a respected scholar, Karen King, who holds my university’s oldest endowed professorship, be so confident that the Coptic fragment, first publicized two years ago, is indeed ancient? Almost everything we know about the nature of historical evidence points to a forgery. So what in the name of Jesus’s wife is going on here?
Professional students of artifacts like to start with provenance, the origin and trajectory of an item traced back as far as possible. That would be a great place to begin a discussion of the fragment in question. Except that there is none. Astonishingly, the academic articles on the index-card — size fragment provide no evidence — you heard that right — on where it came from or who owns it.
The absence of provenance is a reason for suspicion, though not because it implies any sort of theft. Rather, one of the most important questions in determining the authenticity of an ancient artifact that possesses potentially enormous religious or theological significance is why that artifact in particular survived. In antiquity, there were millions of papyri, and the odds that one particular fragment to have survived would be so important are stunningly small. If the fragment came from some large cache of similarly aged yet utterly boring and unimportant documents, that would be some reason to consider it possibly authentic. If it didn’t, that would be prima facie evidence that it was forged.
Consider two parallel biblical “discoveries” that turned out to be forgeries. One, an ossuary bearing the inscription “James, brother of Jesus,” turned out to be a genuinely ancient box for interring the bones of the deceased. The bones of someone named James were once held there — but modern hands added “brother of Jesus.” Before the microscopic evidence revealed this, it was already wildly improbable that an ossuary connected to Jesus should have survived, except of course by miraculous means.
To prove that forgeries aren’t aimed only at faithful Christians, another well-documented forgery, a tiny pomegranate carved of bone bearing the words “Holy to the House of the Priest of God,” was acquired by the Israel Museum as a relic of the Temple of Solomon. The artifact itself is almost certainly ancient, dating back to the 13th or 14th century B.C. — but the inscription is a fake.
Again, the threshold question was about the probability of such an important relic surfacing, again without provenance or context.
In both these cases, forgers added new words to ancient artifacts. The physical papyrus on which the Jesus’s wife writing appears is also old. Two different carbon-dating tests produced radically different results — one dating it to several hundred years B.C. and the other to 741 A.D., plus or minus a few hundred years. The fact that the papyrus is old does not, however, prove antiquity of the ink, whose age has not yet been ascertained. The overwhelmingly most likely explanation is that a forger wrote on an old piece of papyrus.
Then there is the content of the Jesus’s wife document. I will omit the conflicting analyses of the Sahidic Coptic grammar produced by the Harvard scholar and the leading skeptic, himself a highly respected scholar of Coptic at Brown University (you’re welcome). I will pass quickly over the argument by the Brown scholar, Leo Depuydt, that the entirety of the text is cut and pasted from the authentic Coptic Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and widely discussed and analyzed (the Harvard professor disputes this). I’ll do no more than allude to the claim of yet another scholar that the text includes an orthographic error that matches a typographic error found in an online version of the Gospel of Thomas.
What’s really remarkable is that the text is so densely focused on matters of enormous theological interest and importance. In just six lines, it manages to refer to Jesus’s wife, to imply that the disciples challenge the possibility of a woman counting as an apostle, and to hint that Jesus’s answer is that he was born of Mary, a woman. More — much more — could be read between the lines.
As a student, I pored over the Dead Sea Scrolls under another great Harvard Divinity School professor, now deceased. In those documents, which together form a corpus of scores of fragments and scrolls, some of them extremely long, one must read far and wide and deep to find material of comparable contemporary interest.
Of course, ancient documents have things to say to us — as the Dead Sea Scrolls manifestly prove. But the odds of finding so much relevance and importance in a single, tiny fragment, consisting of only parts of six lines of text, is so improbable as to approach the impossible.
So why does a serious scholar want so much for the fragment to be real? The answer is not pernicious, but inspiring. Ancient documents do sometimes improbably surface, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the so-called Gospel of Mary, on which the Harvard scholar has written. Part of being a successful academic is to grasp exciting new ideas and possibilities and to run with them as far as they will go. Without the will to believe, it would be hard to spend a lifetime delving into Coptic papyrology.
It would be wonderfully exciting if this fragment were real. But don’t bet on it. Jesus’s marital status will have to wait for another tax year before it can be filed with the scholarly IRS.
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