Harvard Divinity School declares the papyrus ancient, but the debate rages on
In September 2012, Harvard’s Hollis Chair of Divinity Karen L. King announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that includes the text “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” After an extended silence while the papyrus was subjected to extensive scientific tests, Harvard’s Divinity School announced that “testing indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ papyrus fragment to be ancient,” following the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review’s (HTR) publication of carbon-14, paleographical, spectroscopy and other scientific analyses. Harvard Divinity School’s website includes updated images, Q & A and other resources on the papyrus.
However, the subject is still open for debate. In the second postscript to his forward in the same issue of HTR, Brown University’s Leo Depuydt writes, “All this still leaves me personally 100% convinced that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery.”
When King announced the discovery of the fragment in 2012, she clearly stated that the text implied that some early Christian populations believed that Jesus had a wife—not that Jesus was, in fact, married. Even still, if the papyrus is legitimate, it holds implications for the status of women in early Christianity, as well as the tradition of a celibate priesthood. As soon as the papyrus was announced, the story spread like wildfire in the popular media, and myriad scholarly responses swiftly followed soon after. While King had consulted a small cohort of eminent scholars who defended the fragment’s authenticity, others were quick to declare it a forgery.
Just when the debate regarding the authenticity of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” reached a fevered pitch, it was silenced. The Harvard Theological Review pulled King’s article, and Smithsonian suspended the airing of a documentary about the papyrus. HTR announced that the fragment would undergo testing, though the lack of specific information frustrated interested scholars and journalists.
The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is back in the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review. HTR gives the papyrus fragment considerable treatment beyond Karen L. King’s critical presentation of the papyrus; the issue includes a paleographic analysis by Malcolm Choat, a chemical ink analysis by James T. Yardley and Alexis Hagadorn, microspectroscopy results by Joseph M. Azzarelli, John B. Goods and Timothy M. Swager, spectrometry radiocarbon analyses by Gregory Hodgins and Noreen Tuross, a condemnation as a forgery by Leo Depuydt, and, finally, a response by Karen L. King.
Update: Read new developments in this case in “Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?,” “Owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Unmasked” and “Timeline of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Saga.”
While carbon-14 tests did not provide reliable dates (initial tests placed the fragment before the birth of Jesus, and secondary testing provided dates in the 8th century C.E.), King suggests that the carbon dating, in conjunction with analysis of the carbon “lamp black” pigments, “supports the conclusion that the papyrus and ink of GJW are ancient.” According to paleographer Malcolm Choat, the “handwriting and the manner in which it has been written do not provide definitive grounds for proving” that the fragment is a forgery. The only dissenting view published in the Harvard Theological Review is voiced by Leo Depuydt (though many others have been voiced in other—especially online—publications. See more below.), who sees “grammatical blunders” in the text that suggest that it is “entirely a patchwork of words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas.”
Karen L. King discussed the papyrus fragment, the recent scientific testing and the implications of such a new “gospel” with WGBH News:
Since the publication of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review, many scholars have published their responses online. University of Notre Dame scholar Candida Moss eloquently summarizes the debate, suggesting that while the popular media has been quick to call the papyrus authentic, the debatable date of the ink has left the “scholarly community […] less enthusiastic about the discovery.”
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New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado supplied his initial thoughts and further observations, and highlights from his commentary have been noted by Bob Cargill. Christopher Rollston has discussed the ink, forgery and epigraphy, and James Tabor has provided a series of links contextualizing the backstory. The NT Blog, written by Duke University’s Mark Goodacre, has been my primary source for finding scholarly reactions to the HTR publications, and I recommend that our readers continue to visit Goodacre’s blog for the latest updates on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Within the NT Blog, I want to point out two important dissenting papers regarding the authenticity of the fragment, posted as pdf files: Leo Depuydt’s response to Karen King’s response as well as an additional critical response by Durham’s Francis Watson.
In addition to the wide range of responses by Biblical scholars, I also want to direct readers to an interesting piece of investigative journalism by LiveScience’s Owen Jarus, who delves into the matter of King’s source for the papyrus, raising questions about the fragment’s purchase in East German Potsdam over fifty years ago.
The rapid-fire web publications on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” range from resourceful to fingerpointing, and Paleojudaica’s Jim Davila reminds readers that while he is “still quite skeptical that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is an ancient artifact, King has made a real effort to keep the tone high and the skeptics should do the same.”
There have surely been other online articles written about the papyrus not mentioned in this article. I apologize to any esteemed commentators that I missed in this post, but it is hard to keep up with such a large discussion. In fact, the blog-based scholarly reactions to the HTR publication have been so varied and complex that they themselves have been analyzed as a prime example of new media in academic discussion (see Norwegian School of Theology’s Liv Ingeborg Lied’s post here).
We at Bible History Daily look forward to the continuing discussion online, as well as Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the January/February 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
For more in Bible History Daily, see A “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” on a Coptic Papyrus and Hershel Shanks’s Is the Harvard Theological Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Something Wrong?
What is Coptic? Who were the Copts in ancient Egypt? Leo Depuydt gives a short history in BAR >>
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