Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the July/August 2014 issue of BAR
In mid-2012 we reported that the Harvard Theological Review (HTR) had decided to withdraw from its publication schedule a paper by Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School that reported on an ancient papyrus fragment, the size of a business card, in which Jesus refers to “my wife.”a King, of course, had considered in her paper the possibility that it was a forgery. She had consulted several experts (including her own expertise), but in view of the sensitivity of the subject, HTR decided to reverse itself and withhold publication until additional testing was undertaken, even though in her paper King had emphasized that this text provided no evidence that Jesus was married, only that some early Christians may have thought so.1
Now after more than 18 months, scientists from Columbia, Harvard and MIT have reported that, in the words of the New York Times (the fragment has received much more publicity than it would have if HTR had simply printed the paper when King submitted it), “The ink and papyrus are very likely ancient and not a modern forgery.”
But that’s not the point I want to raise. Even this does not satisfy some scholars—what I’m going to report now is not about some crank without academic credentials, but a distinguished professor at Brown University: Professor Leo Depuydt.
In response to a journalist from the New York Times, Depuydt said that testing the papyrus fragment was “irrelevant … He saw no need to inspect [the fragment]. He said he decided based on the first newspaper photograph that the fragment was forged because it contained ‘gross grammatical errors.’”
In a paper published in the same issue of HTR as Karen King’s article, Leo Depuydt states that he “has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery and not a very good one at that … [He does] not want to belabor something that seems abundantly obvious to [him] … [He] experience[s] a certain incredulity pertaining to how something that is at first sight so patently fake could be so totally blown out of proportion … [He is] 100 percent certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery … [The text is] designed to put a certain spin on delicate modern issues of theology … [I]t cannot be excluded that the presumed modern author of the text thought of his or her effort as some kind of a clever joke … [I]t seems eminently possible to me that the forger wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues … [The] grammar is completely botched.”2
This brings to mind the 15–16-line Hebrew inscription on stone known as the Jehoash Inscription (JI) in English—or Yehoash Inscription in Hebrew (YI)—which was charged as a forgery in the recently concluded five-year “forgery trial of the century.” At the end of the trial, the judge issued his verdict: Not guilty. The state had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the JI was a forgery.
This of course doesn’t mean that it is authentic. As a matter of fact, you can never prove that it is authentic: There is always another test that you may not have tried (or even known about) that theoretically could prove the inscription is a forgery. Recognizing this limitation, however, a team of scientists from Israel, Germany and the United States went about as far as you could go in demonstrating that the JI is very likely authentic.b They concluded, “Our analyses strongly support the authenticity of the Jehoash tablet and its inscription.”3
Nevertheless some language specialists continue to believe that—like Professor Depuydt’s view of the “Jesus Wife” fragment—the JI is a forgery (although other respected scholars contest their analysis).
The JI describes repairs to the Jerusalem Temple and closely tracks the description of the same repairs in the Biblical text (2 Kings 12:1–16; 2 Chronicles 24:4–14). If it is authentic, it would be the first and only royal Israelite inscription!
One aspect of the JI intrigued me: The patina on the JI contains gold globules between 1 and 2 micrometers in diameter. A micrometer is one millionth of a meter. Gold globules this small are not available commercially. If the JI is a forgery, how did the forgers get them or make them?
None of the international team of specialists that had studied the JI and concluded that it was very probably authentic was a gold specialist, so I decided to try to find one. I finally located him—at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen. His name is Ernst Pernicka. He is professor of archaeometry and archaeometallurgy and director of the Curt-Engelhorn-Center for Archaeometry in Mannheim, Germany.
Gold melts at 1,064 degrees centigrade and boils at 2,970 degrees centigrade, Pernicka wrote me. But upon melting, gold tends to coagulate into larger droplets. In a subsequent conversation, Pernicka tried to puzzle it out: He didn’t know how a forger would create globules of this extraordinarily small size—or why. Why would a forger go to all the trouble to create an almost invisible gold content that could not be seen? Not only has no one suggested how a forger could have created gold globules a millionth of a meter in diameter, but it remains a mystery as to why, since globules of this size would be—for all practical purposes—invisible.
On the other hand, how did these gold globules get in the patina? From the outset the question arose as to whether the source of the gold was decoration in the Temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
The problem is not only that they are so small but that they are round globules. The supposition is that the original molten gold in the ground somehow formed these globules when it interacted with the other substances of the patina. (At least seven other substances were found in the patina.)
In the course of his consideration of the question, Pernicka was able to tell me that he agreed with the international team of scholars, whose analyses “strongly support” the authenticity of the JI inscription.
This interesting scientific analysis fits nicely with some less scientific, but possibly accurate, speculation. The talk on the street is that the JI was discovered near the eastern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where there is an old Muslim cemetery. The JI would originally have been displayed on or near the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, the JI fell to the ground and was consumed in the flames. In this intense conflagration, the golden decorations of the Temple were turned molten. In this form, they combined with the other substances that make up the patina, creating the infinitesimal globules that survived. In recent years, several Palestinian “martyrs,” people who had been killed in suicide attacks on Israelis, were buried in this cemetery. In preparing the burials, the JI was discovered.
There are a number of other reasons to conclude that the JI is authentic. For example, it had a deep crack in it when it was inscribed. Even assuming a forger could successfully inscribe across the crack, would any forger take the chance of cracking the tablet and destroying his work when he could start with an easily available tablet without a crack?
In fact, when in the possession of the police, the tablet broke in two along the crack, revealing a patina deep in the crack—proving the inscription preceded the creation of the patina.
While it can never be proved with absolute certainty that the JI is authentic, the case is certainly highly likely. We should treasure the JI as very probably an authentic inscription of an Israelite (or rather Judahite) king.
a. See Hershel Shanks, “Is the Harvard Theological Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Something Wrong? Publication of Scholar’s Article on ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Postponed,” Bible History Daily (blog), October 16, 2012 (www.biblicalarchaeology.org/karen-king); Strata: In Their Own Words: “Stop the Presses: Report on ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Due Out Mid-Summer,” BAR, July/August 2013; Hershel Shanks, First Person: “Why Did Judas Identify Jesus with a Kiss?” BAR, January/February 2014; Strata: “‘Jesus Wife’ Update,” BAR, January/February 2014; Strata: “‘Jesus Married Mary Magdalene’—Gospel of Philip,” BAR, May/June 2014.
b. “Strata: New Study Supports Authenticity of Yehoash Inscription,” BAR, May/June 2009.
1. Karen L. King, “‘Jesus said to them, “My wife …”’: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment,” Harvard Theological Review 107 (April 2014), pp. 131–159.
2. Leo Depuydt, “The Alleged Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity,” Harvard Theological Review 107 (April 2014), pp. 172–189; see also Karen L. King, “Response to Leo Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity,’” Harvard Theological Review 107 (April 2014), pp. 190–193.
3. S. Ilani, A. Rosenfeld, H.R. Feldman, W.E. Krumbein and J. Kronfeld, “Archaeometric Analysis of the ‘Jehoash Inscription’ Tablet,” Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008), p. 2972.
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