Friday, September 21, 2012

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed, by Francis Watson

I would like to thank Francis Watson, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University for the opportunity to publish the following short article:

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed
Francis Watson

Update (9.49): see now also Watson's Introduction and Summary for non-specialists.

Update (15.24): The story has made The Guardian:

Gospel of Jesus's Wife is fake, claims expert
Scholar says papyrus fragment believed to provide evidence that Jesus was married is a modern forgery
Andrew Brown

(Note: there are three errors in the piece; (1) "Karen King from Harvard university holds the papyrus fragment that has four words written in Coptic, which are believed to prove
Jesus was married".  She does not believe that these prove that Jesus was married.  Rather, she holds that some Christians believe that this was the case in the second half of the second century.  The fragment has a lot more than "four words" too.  (2) In the second half of the article, Francis Watson is called "Martin" by mistake. (3) In Secret Mark, it is not correct that "Jesus spent the night with naked youths"; he spends the night, of the duration of this passage at least, with just one naked youth.)




38 comments:

James D. Tabor said...

I am curious as to how convincing you find Watson's analysis here Mark, given the ways in which these materials, as you know, often repeat themes, lines, and set theological tropes. I found it very weak, and coupled with the slanderous charge against Morton Smith, whom I knew well and highly respected, it falls rather flat for me. The false charges against Morton have been ably refuted by several and it seems to me that Karen and her consultants, judging from her paper, have already considered everything that Watson points out.

Eric said...

Watson mentions Morton's Secret Gospel as a modern parallel to the "collage" composition technique, but I am curious if there are any other examples. Is it possible that a generically composed text from antiquity could contain (when seen in fragmentary form) verbiage imitating other works? As I am not a Coptic or papyrology specialist, I would like to see a discussion about the relative likelihood of such a "collage" forgery versus a truly ancient text composed a generic, imitative manner (if we know of any examples!). As a corollary, are there any examples in the relevant Coptic literature of quotations of GTh or other "synoptic" incorporations of GTh material?

Eric Jobe
Ph.D. Candidate
The University of Chicago

A Simple Wender said...

Eric, off the top of my head, the Gospel of Philip and the Book of Thomas use some GT material, as does the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Hebrews and, depending on how you feel about the use of Jesus materials in the early second century, several of the Apostolic Fathers (some to think of it, all of these texts could just have easily drawn the material from oral teachings or another text--no-one ever says they got it from GT). It seems to have been a very popular text.

James McGrath said...

Thanks for posting this Mark! I've shared some thoughts on my own blog about why I don't think this sort of analysis settles the matter. The short version might reducible to one word at the intersection of our common interests: "Synoptics." :) There was a lot of recycling of material among early Christian Gospels, and so the fact that there are points of intersection and maybe even direct copying is not at all incompatible with this being an ancient text. And so I don't think the matter is at all settled - contrary to what some other bloggers have said since you posted Watson's piece!

James McGrath said...
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Stephen Carlson said...

Hi James,

Have you seen any evidence of Christians recycling line breaks?

James McGrath said...

If I were forging a text, I would avoid having my text start at the beginning of a line of a known text, because it would be suspicious. That one of the lines of this fragment begins where one line of a particular manuscript begins might be a reason to be suspicious, but it is hardly decisive, is it?

matthew christopher davidson said...

If I were forging a text, I would use a line that was idiomatic of the time because everybody knows that every text rips off every other text.

Stephen Carlson said...

So your answer is 'no', right?

As for whether a forger would do such a thing, I was able to identify 2427 as a forgery of the Gospel of Mark (see intro to the latest NA 28th edition) based on line breaks. That turned out to be more conclusive than the chemical analysis showing a modern pigment in the illuminations.

vp said...

What would happen if you applied Watson's technique to a fragment of, say, the Gospel of Mark?

James McGrath said...

But would you make that judgment because a fragment happens to agree with a single line break? Or is that what the scenario was in the case that you mentioned? You said "breaks" which makes me think that there was more than one to base your judgment on - and if there were multiple line breaks matching another text that would seem to me to be a different kettle of fish - or words, or papyrus, or whatever. :)

Stephen Carlson said...

Watson points out two of them, the beginning of GTh 49.36 and the end of GTh 50.1. All in the first line of GJW no less.

Timo S. Paananen said...

vp,

That is my question as well. If Watson's method would turn, say, 10 random passages from the Gospel of Mark into "fakes", then we could only conclude that his technique is not robust enough to distinguish between authentic and fake passages.

Richard Bauckham said...

This is very convincing. If we could pin down a Coptic source for line 6 that would clinch it.

Sadly I don't read Coptic, but might I suggest that Francis check the Coptic of Acts 1:18. Where the Greek has πρηνης ('headlong'), there is evidence of Armenian and Latin versions that presuppose πρησθεις, the word that Papias uses to describe Judas as 'swollen up'. There are very full details, including an argument against some scholars who have argued that πρηνης in Acts 1:18 actually means swollen up, in Kirsopp Lake's essay on the death of Judas in Foakes Jackson and Lake, The Beginning of Christianity, Part I. vol. V.

Richard Bauckham said...

Following my last comment, I ought to clarify the sense in which I find Watson's argument convincing. It is of course quite possible that an ancient writer could have produced the text by this process of compilation from the Gospel of Thomas (McGrath is right on that). But what Watson's argument shows is how easy it would have been for a modern forger to produce this text. In my mind that combines with the other reasons for thinking this papyrus text is very suspicious, viz., the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true" (see especially Davila). It is just too good to be true that this tiny fragment happens to preserve the words in which Jesus says "my wife" and thereby feeds into all the popular feeling about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that has been swirling around since at least the Da Vinci Code. The massive coverage of this new fragment in the press and on the internet is itself evidence for the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true" criteria for inauthenticity. Of course, we're only dealing in improbabilities. History being what it is, extraordinarily improbable coincidences do happen.

Eric said...

It is also quite "fortunate" that the text contains the proper noun, "Jesus" and not merely a pronoun, "he said, 'my wife.'"

If you think about it, the name there may be more significant than tahime. If it were only a pronoun (or the Coptic equivalent morpheme on the verb), we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Richard Bauckham said...

Very good point, Eric.

James McGrath said...

As I just posted on my blog in more detail, the Coptic versions of Acts 1:18 that I was able to check using BibleWorks as well as online are not the source of the wording of line 6 of "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" in any direct sense, although the possibility of a more general link to that passage seems to me plausible.

Richard Bauckham said...

Thanks for checking that, James. I'm impressed by how easily you did it. (Does that also tell us something about the ease with which someone could forge a Coptic text?) So we might have a modern forger who knew the story of Judas' death ion fragment of Papias, which is not unlikely. It's in all the standard editions of the Apostolic Fathers, and it's quoted, I note, in Simon Gathercole's book on the Gospel of Judas and probably in other accessible sources about Judas which such a forger might well have read. The story of Judas swelling up is so vivid and extraordinary it would stick in anyone's mind. But then (since the Papias fragment is certainly not extant in Coptic), the forger needs to find the rather obscure Coptic word (it seems) for 'swell up.' Bu there is, of course, still the doubt, as Karen King's article makes clear, whether that really is the meaning of the Coptic word.
Should the fragment be genuine, then it is interesting that the Papias account does seem to have infected some versions of Acts 1:18 (though not the Coptic), which suggests it was more widely known than one might otherwise think. But it could also be the case that this form of the death of Judas uses a more widespread folk motif that would have been known independently, though the commentators on the Papias fragment offer no references to other occurrences of the motif.
But finally, I think we need a bit more linguistic study of line 6 from the Coptic experts, since the meaning does seem at issue. Gathercole has now suggested tentatively that line 6 reflects GosThomas 45.3.

Richard Bauckham said...

It occurs to me we've missed something that Watson's argument really does demonstrate: that the text of this fragment (whether ancient or modern) was composed in Coptic, not translated from Greek. The Nag Hammadi Gospels and related texts were translated from Greek. So this is at best a late, not an early 'Gnostic" text, dependent on the Coptic version of Thomas. Not, therefore late 2nd century, as Karen King suggests.

P.J. Williams said...

I think Watson's analysis is weighty - particularly the line break argument. The similarity in spelling between GJW and GTh is also significant. This combines with some other factors to tip the balance, for me today, against authenticity. The probability of modern cutting, the letters which look more painted than written, and the problems of genre. The manuscript is not part of a codex, but also not of one of the genres one finds in one-leaf works.

P.J. Williams said...

And of course we have motives for forgery, both ideological and financial, though I wouldn't want to give the motives much weight as an argument.

A Simple Wender said...

P. J. Williams: "not part of a codex"? But it has writing on recto and verso (though one side has very little that remains readable).

Andrew Criddle said...

Strictly speaking the Guardian article has another inaccuracy. It refers to Secret Mark as a papyrus text whereas it is actually a text written on paper.

Stephen Goranson said...

On pages 11 and 12 of the HTR draft that Prof. King kindly posted, the paper notes instances where it appears--and the authors had a better view of it than I do--that some papryus bits separated off some time after the inking. The article interprets that as probably evidence that the ms is ancient. But damage to the ms could have occurred--accidentally or intentionally after the inking, but in modern times. Surely we all know examples of ancient texts being further damaged in modern times. The article seems to prefer possibilities that the inking was ancient, when other possibilities can account for the evidence.

Stephen Goranson said...
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mtz said...

I have to agree that Watson's comments about Secret Mark seem egregious and factually wrong. If he had suggested that a forger of GJW could have been responding to a common misunderstanding of Secret Mark, that might have been accurate. Instead, his description of the content of Secret Mark is simply false. It is a little alarming that he includes Mar Saba Letter III.13-14 in his citation, since those are the very verses of the text that show Watson's reading of the text is wrong.

Worse, the Guardian article gets it even more wrong, for there is only one man who visits Jesus in Secret Mark, and he is clothed.

As for Watson's argument that the GJW author "compositional procedure" was inspired by Secret Mark, there are any number of forged gospels that draw upon biblical sources both canonical and apocryphal, so Watson's suggestion seems to be of little help here.

I have little opinion on the authenticity of the GJW fragment, though the remainder of Watson's analysis seems reasonably sound, at least on first impression. But then, so does McGrath's.

mtz said...
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Mike Grondin said...

Richard Bauckham writes above that "Gathercole has now suggested tentatively that line 6 reflects GosThomas 45.3." I've been unable to confirm that bit of Gathercolian speculation, but it's surely too flimsy to be seriously considered. The only connection with Th45.3 is the phrase 'evil men', which isn't uniquely Thomasine. Furthermore, what follows ('swell up') isn't in GTh at all, let alone in 45.3.

Oli Homron said...

I don't know about you, but this clinches it for me (re line 6).

link

I don't think this is comparable to genuine ancient works that utilize GThom material; it's the density of paralleled language in such a short text. Other books had plenty of material that does not parallel language in GThom.

Oli Homron said...

Also Watson says re line 7,"the first three Coptic words derive not from GTh but from Matthew 28.20b, with an adjustment of the pronominal suffix from 'with you' to 'with her' ". But there is no need to resort to Matthew; the relevant phrase occurs in logion 30 (39.4-5), where one just needs to adjust the suffix from 'with him' to 'with her'.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Oli. I think you are right about Line 6 -- well spotted (and nicely illustrated)!

On line 7, I agree -- see my post last night.

So we now have the entirety of GJW culled from the Gospel of Thomas.

J Reuben Silverbird said...

I believe Professor Francis Watson, of Durham University is just like all the fanatic Bishops that got together at Nicaea Council with Constantin and faked the whole religious myth we live under.

Oli Homron said...

It would be nice to hear from Coptic scholars on shaf.ine as an orthographic variant of shaf.eine. I don't know Coptic, but this looks like a major goof. If the word *is* shaf.eine but spelled without the yota, does the passage make any grammatical or conceptual sense? (It seems like "Let the man who is wicked brings etc." or "Let the man who is wicked does bring etc.") And would this then be a mispelling? On the other hand, if the word *isn't* shaf.eine but means something like "swell up" as King and others have suggested, then we still have a major problem: we have an unlikely chance resemblance to an unrelated word very orthographically similar in a passage that also contains similar verbiage to line 6. Either way, it looks like a major problem.

Mike Grondin said...

Oli - Thanks for your analysis (and for the use of my interlinear in your linked image.) I was initially inclined to entirely agree with you until I recalled that the prefix 'mare', which occurs at the beginning of GTW6, is sometimes used to express negation, as in Th31.2 ('no physician'), 33.2 ('no one'), 47.3 ('no man'), and 76.3 ('no moth ... no worms'). So if it was 'shaf.eine' that was intended, we have to read the line as 'no wicked man brings ...' which is grammatically fine, but differs from the King interpretation. I'm not aware of 'ine' as a variant of 'eine', but the missing iota can certainly be plausbily explained as an error in copying.

Mike Grondin said...

Sorry, Oli, you and I both goofed. The spelling in GTW6 is 'shafene', not 'shafine'. So I should have said that I was unaware of ene (not ine) being a variant of 'eine'. I notice that I also misspelt 'plausibly'. There was so much red underscoring of non-words in the composition window that I didn't check for actual misspellings.

Richard Budelberger said...

Si vous me permettez d’intervenir ici en français, et non dans mon très mauvais anglais…

Il y a un point concernant la division en lignes de l’Évangile de Thomas que Francis Watson n’évoque pas dans son analyse de GJS 3-4 – Karen L. King traite précisément de cette “anomalie” : →4 p. 17-18, en se référant aussi à Thomas pour la justifier ! – : l’absence de ϫⲉ après ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅. Ce point n’est peut-être pas très marquant, mais on peut noter que si GJS →2 …ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲛ̅ⲙⲁⲑⲏⲧⲏⲥ ⲏ̅ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ϫⲉ… est le calque de GTh 51:18-19 …ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲥⲓⲙⲱⲛ ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ / ⲛⲁⲩ ϫⲉ…, GJS →4 …ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅… est aussi un calque de GTh 51:20 …ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅, en remarquant que le ϫⲉ y est rejeté au début de la ligne 51:21, ce qui peut expliquer son omission par un éventuel faussaire.

Richard Budelberger said...

There is a contradiction between two Watson’s statements :
— « Line 1 of the new gospel fragment opens with the letters ⲉⲓ ⲁⲛ, and King plausibly suggests that ⲉⲓ represents the last two letters of ⲛⲁⲉⲓ, “to me”, which recurs later in the same line. The letters ⲛⲁ will therefore have been found at the end of the preceding line. » ;
— « GJW 3-4 (…) While the gap preceding ⲁⲣⲛⲁ in GJW 3 might be filled with the injunctive and pronominal prefixes (ⲙⲁⲣⲉϥ- or ⲙⲁⲣⲉⲥ-) (…) ».

A gap on the left side of the fragment, or not ?…