First of all, it should be clearly stated that, although in the following lines we shall express our doubts concerning the authenticity of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, our suggestions remain hypothetical until the ink of the document has been properly tested. Secondly, our analysis does not refer either to the figure of the historical Jesus, or to his marital status, which are beyond our field of expertise, but only to a literary fragment written in Coptic, whose identity is suspicious.
During the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, which took place September 17-22, 2012 in Rome, the Harvard Professor Karen L. King introduced to us a previously unknown Coptic papyrus fragment.
Her paper was delivered on Tuesday, September 18, from 7.00 o’clock P.M., in one of the rooms of the Patristic Institute ‘Augustinianum.’ We estimate that about 20 colleagues listened to her paper.
The text seems to be a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, its most notable feature being, nevertheless, the fact that Jesus mentions his wife. In her presentation, Karen King already stated that there are some doubts concerning the authenticity of the fragment. In a paper she submitted for publication to the Harvard Theological Review, which she graciously made available on the Harvard Divinity School website, she wrote:
“Although the authenticity is not absolutely settled beyond any question, we are sufficiently confident to offer our results here. We anticipate that publication of the fragment at this stage will facilitate further conversation among scholar regarding the fragment’s authenticity, interpretation, and significance.” (King, p. 5)
We shall not summarize here the whole succession of events, which is quite well-known. Fresh updates can be found HERE, HERE, or HERE. Suffice to say that doubts concerning the document have been raised by several scholars since the very beginning. While some denied the authenticity of the fragment on paleographical grounds, others pointed out the inconsistencies of the text.
- Paleography and dating.
In her paper, Karen L. King mentioned that she asked Roger Bagnall (New York University) for a paleographical examination of the papyrus. After some initial doubts, Bagnall suggested that the fragment could be genuine after all:
“Bagnall, too, when he first observed the script judged it to be an unpracticed, messy hand, perhaps even by a modern forger, but on further observation and reflection concluded that the problem was the pen of the ancient scribe.” (King, p. 7)
A fourth century papyrus? How do we date Coptic literary manuscripts?
Aware that Coptic paleography is still a rudimentary science, King dated only tentatively the papyrus to the second half of the 4th century. Indeed, in the current state of knowledge, it is basically impossible to date most of the surviving Coptic literary manuscripts.
In order to establish the age of a given manuscript it is necessary that this is: A) either dated by colophon (which is rare), B) either to infer its date from archaeological context (dated documents reused to strengthen its bindings, datable artifacts, like coins or pottery, discovered together with the manuscript), or C) by comparison with other manuscripts which have already been dated through one of the two previous methods. Some scholars believe that comparison with similar datable Greek manuscripts can also be rewarding, but this method is quite subjective and not universally-accepted.
Now, the earliest dated Coptic manuscript is the Pierpont Morgan codex M579, which was transcribed in the year 823 A.D. (i.e., the first half of the ninth century). Earlier than that, there are only a few instances in which Coptic manuscripts can be dated with some degree of confidence. One exception is the Nag Hammadi codex VII, in whose covers had been discovered three documentary papyrus fragments dated 341, 346 and 348 respectively. Consequently, these years must constitute the terminus post quem for the manufacture of the Nag Hammadi codex VII, or at least for its covers. Similarly, from the binding of Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502 (= BG 8502), which contains the Coptic version of the well-known Gospel of Mary, had been retrieved some papyrus scraps which some scholars dated to the late third or early fourth century. However, it seems that the binding was cut smaller and reused at a later date for the manufacture of the codex now in Berlin. As to the handwriting of the BG 8502, this was tentatively dated to the early fifth century but, again, without clear evidences. Finally, James Goehring found some resemblances between the lid of the jar in which the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered (today in the Schøyen collection) and a similar bowl from the early Roman period, unearthed in the Pachomian basilica at Pboou. From a typological point of view, such bowls can be dated to the fourth or fifth century A.D. If so, it provides us an approximate terminus post quem for the burial of the Nag Hammadi library. Unfortunately, these are amongst the very few evidences which we possess for dating early Coptic manuscripts on more or less firm grounds. The aforementioned examples make clear how little we know about the age of the Coptic literary manuscripts we possess.
Moreover, to conclude this issue, it is basically impossible to date the new fragment on paleographical grounds not only because Coptic manuscripts are usually hard to date, but also because it does not resemble any of the early Coptic manuscripts which are datable with some degree of confidence.
Is the handwriting ancient?
There is something striking in the script of the papyrus for anyone familiar with ancient Coptic manuscripts. First of all, the overall aspect of the document looks awkward. This is mainly due to the fact that the natural characteristics of writing (ductus) of an ancient scribe are lacking in our fragment. The letters are rough, some of them of an unusual shape, and they do not seem to come from the pen of someone who writes Coptic very often. Secondly, the copyist was very inconsistent in writing. Notable are the different shapes of the letters shai, omega, and epsilon. It has already been suggested in private discussions during the Coptological congress in Rome (by Christian Askeland, Victor Ghica, Alin Suciu and others) that the document was written with a brush instead of an scribal pen (calamus). We find at least one interesting example which supports such a hypothesis: on line 6, there is an epsilon where the marks of a brush seem visible.
(SOURCE OF THE PHOTOGRAPH). The first enlarged letter is supposed to be an epsilon.
The fragment displays at least one interesting feature unknown among authentic Coptic manuscripts. On line 4, just before the words “Jesus told them,” there is an oblique stroke.
Although the function of this sign is unclear, it seems to indicate that a new sentence starts at that point. Its presence is even more unusual given that all other punctuation marks are completely lacking in the preserved portions of the text.
Our tentative conclusion after a first examination of the material is that the papyrus may be ancient but the handwriting possibly not.
2. The Content of the Text
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the Gospel of Thomas
Already during our private conversations in Rome, it became obvious that any future discussion about the new papyrus fragment will be inextricably linked to the relationships between this document and the Gospel of Thomas. Francis Watson at the University of Durham was quick to point out important similarities with the Gospel of Thomas in lines 1-5 and 8 in GosJesWife. The Gos. Thom. parallel with line 7 was to our knowledge first pointed out by Päivi Vähäkangas (in private conversation on Facebook), and more recently by Mark Goodacre.
(The following text was converted to .JPEG format in order to preserve the Coptic fonts)
From the above, it can be seen how closely GosJesWife is based on Gos. Thom. Moreover, as has been argued by Francis Watson, it is difficult to see how the text on the fragment could credibly be bound together as a continuous text using as few characters as would be provided by the presumably missing parts of each line of text, if this fragment were actually to derive from a literary codex.
In addition, the degree to which each line of the fragment gives us a clear sense unit, and nearly all of them carry an important message, both individually and collectively, is remarkable. We can, e.g., draw the following conclusions from each line of the fragment:
- 1. Jesus has received life from his mother.
- 2. Jesus is in a dialogue with his disciples.
- 3. The disciples argue that Mary is not worthy, or Jesus argues that Mary is worthy.
- 4. Jesus is married and has a wife.
- 5. Jesus states that [Mary] can become his disciple.
- 6. There are wicked people opposing Jesus.
- 7. Jesus lives together with his wife and tells his disciples why he does so.
The likelihood of finding a text like this on such a small fragment thus becomes a major question. Indeed, we welcome anyone to try to cut out a piece of this size from any literary codex from late antiquity and get a result that is as easy as this one to make sense of and interpret. Here, yet another feature of the fragment suggests that we might be dealing with a forgery.
In conclusion, both the physical appearance of the fragment, in particular its paleographical features, and its text give reasons for serious doubts concerning its authenticity.