Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The End of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Forgery Debate

Guest post by Andrew Bernhard

[PDF of this blog post available here]

For nearly three years, there has been considerable controversy and confusion about whether a business-card sized papyrus fragment dubbed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is an authentic ancient artifact or not. The current scholarly consensus already holds that the fragment is forgery. In addition, a recent development has confirmed that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a forgery created using a specific internet edition of the Gospel of Thomas. It seems that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife forgery debate has finally come to an end.

The Patchwork Forgery Theory

Shortly after Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School unveiled the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife at an academic conference in September 2012, a scholar named Francis Watson pointed out that the text appeared to be little more than a “patchwork” of words and short phrases culled from the lone surviving manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic (a form of the ancient Egyptian language). Building on the work of Professor Watson and other scholars (including Alin Suciu and Hugo Lundhaug), I soon suggested that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife could have been created by someone with limited knowledge of Coptic using a specific modern edition of the Gospel of Thomas prepared by Michael W. Grondin.

As I researched the textual relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, I began to collect evidence that ultimately convinced me that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was indeed prepared by someone relying directly on the PDF edition of Grondin’s Interlinear Coptic/English Translation of The Gospel of Thomas posted online in November 2002. I discovered that the textual similarities between the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the Gospel of Thomas were overwhelming. Basically, to create the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, all a forger would have had to do was “cut and paste” text from the Gospel of Thomas, switch a few masculine pronouns to feminine (a single letter change in Coptic), and place two key Coptic words (meaning “Mary” and “my wife”) into the “patchwork” text to create its “sensational” content. The only other change that would have been needed was the simple deletion of the two-letter Coptic word meaning “not” in line 5.

The figure below illustrates the relationship between the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the Gospel of Thomas. It presents the Coptic text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment: text that appears to have been copied verbatim from the Gospel of Thomas is underlined (double underlined if it might easily have differed). Parallels to the Gospel of Thomas (with their manuscript page and line numbers in parentheses) are noted beneath the Coptic text. The Coptic pronouns that appear to have been changed from masculine to feminine are printed in green italics. The Coptic words not copied verbatim from the Gospel of Thomas that look like they have been specifically inserted into the “patchwork” text are printed in bold red: “Mary” (line 3) and “my wife” (line 4).

Every single line of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife contains one or more snippet(s) of text found in close proximity to each other in the Gospel of Thomas; indeed, for each individual line, the relevant snippets always appear in a single screen view of the PDF of Grondin’s Interlinear at 100% size on an average-sized laptop. In addition, the Coptic text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife contains at least five suspicious features (denoted by superscript Latin letters in the figure above):

(a)   Line 1 of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife unexpectedly shares a line break with the lone surviving Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas: both split the same word in the same place. This could be explained as a coincidence, or it could be attributed to a forger’s dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear. As a line-by-line edition of the lone surviving manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, Grondin’s Interlinear repeats all of that manuscript’s line breaks.

(b)  Line 1 and the corresponding passage in Grondin’s Interlinear both unexpectedly omit the required direct object marker (ⲙ-) before the final word visible on the line. This Coptic grammatical error might reasonably be compared to writing “She played the dog for me” rather than “She played with the dog for me.” A few other ancient manuscripts do contain an analogous mistake, but the Coptic grammatical error could also be attributed to a forger’s dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear. The 2002 PDF version of Grondin’s Interlinear omitted the direct object marker by accident as the result of a typographical error (unlike any other version of Grondin’s Interlinear).

(c)   Line 4 unexpectedly omits the Coptic word ϫⲉ (je), which would function something like a comma and an opening quotation mark in English. This omission could be explained as non-standard (if not completely unattested) Coptic grammar, or it could be attributed to a forger’s dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear. A forger might well have omitted the Coptic conjugation by accident because it is separated from the (seemingly complete) Coptic phrase meaning, “Jesus said to them” by a line break in Grondin’s Interlinear.

(d)  Line 6 presents a relative clause (ⲉⲑⲟⲟⲩ) after a non-definite noun (ⲣⲱⲙⲉ) in violation of Coptic grammar. This grammatical construction has only been explained as "a rare attestation of an as yet only partially understood phenomenon" (without any examples from ancient manuscripts provided), but it could also be attributed to a forger’s dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear. In its original context in Grondin’s Interlinear, the relative clause (ⲉⲑⲟⲟⲩ) follows the appropriate kind of noun (ⲡⲉϥⲉϩⲟ) in accordance with standard Coptic grammar.

(e)   Line 6 also contains a verb that has been conjugated twice (that is, the single verb in the line has been modified by two verbal prefixes); * as a result, the line is ungrammatical. The text could be compared to an English statement something like, “Let no wicked man does bring.” When the pertinent words from Grondin’s Interlinear are juxtaposed, the ungrammatical line of Coptic text makes perfect sense . . . in English:

The following table summarizes the different explanations that have been offered to explain the suspicious textual features of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife:

While all five of the suspicious textual features of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife could hypothetically be explained if the papyrus fragment were an ancient artifact, it is startling that so many suspicious textual features appear on a papyrus fragment so small that it contains just seven lines of text with more than a single word. The simplest (and most persuasive) explanation for these suspicious textual features is that they are all the result of a forger’s dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear.

[For my full analysis of the relationship between the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Grondin’s Interlinear, see the July 2015 issue of New Testament Studies (Cambridge University Press).]

"This" in the English translation given to Professor King

In early April 2014, Harvard Theological Review released an issue devoted primarily to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Shortly after, Mark Goodacre and I were reviewing information that had been published about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife soon after it was first unveiled in 2012. Each of us noticed the following passage in the first Gospel of Jesus’ Wife article published by Smithsonian:

[The owner] sent along an electronic file of photographs and an unsigned translation with the bombshell phrase, “Jesus said this to them: My wife…” (King would refine the translation as “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife … ’”) (emphasis added)

The appearance of the word “this” in the translation of the most notable line of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was odd because nothing in the Coptic text of the papyrus fragment corresponds to this word. After discussing the matter, Professor Goodacre and I realized that “this” was apparently a translation of the unexpectedly absent Coptic conjugation ϫⲉ (je) in line 4, and the word was mistranslated as “this” . . . just as in Grondin’s Interlinear.

We concluded that the “translation” of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife that the owner of the papyrus fragment had given Professor King was almost certainly dependent on the English of Grondin’s Interlinear, just as we believed that the papyrus fragment itself was almost certainly dependent on the Coptic text of Grondin’s Interlinear. But we did not have access to the owner’s “translation” at the time, so we had no way to test our theory.

I noted our observation in a PDF on my website and commented on it again in my 2015
New Testament Studies article on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (
abstract; pages 347-348, 355).

Confirming Evidence of Forgery: The Release of the Owner's "Translation"

On August 27, 2015, Professor King generously released the English “translation” that the owner had provided her, and it is dependent on the English of Grondin’s Interlinear (just as we had predicted). The extensive verbal correspondence between the owner’s “translation” and the English of Grondin’s Interlinear cannot reasonably be attributed to anything but direct literary dependence.

The owner’s “translation” of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife displays evidence of dependence on Grondin’s Interlinear in every line with more than one word. It includes repeated English “translations” of Coptic words not even present on the papyrus fragment itself, incorrect translations of Coptic text, and distinctive translations as well – all of which can be traced back to Grondin’s Interlinear.

For example, compare the pertinent passages in Grondin’s Interlinear with the transcription of the first line of the owner’s “translation” of the Gospel of Thomas:

The English words and word order in both Grondin’s Interlinear and the first line of the owner’s “translation” are identical, but they should not be. The word that means “for” appears in the Coptic text of Grondin’s Interlinear, but it does not appear in the owner’s Coptic transcription of line 1 (or on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment). Grondin has placed “ - - - ” beneath the word ⲅⲁⲣ (gar: “for”) and inserted the English word “for” in parentheses before “my mother” in his translation, presumably because he preferred to use English (rather than Coptic) word order. The person responsible for the owner’s “translation” has obviously not translated a Coptic word meaning for from the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife because no such Coptic equivalent is present. Obviously, the word “for” has been copied directly from the English of Grondin’s Interlinear.

This observation and many others like it demonstrate that the owner’s “translation” of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is not an actual translation of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment; it was prepared by someone incapable of translating Coptic who borrowed straight from the English of Grondin’s Interlinear

[For a more detailed discussion of the evidence that the owner’s “translation” borrowed directly from the English of Grondin’s Interlinear, see my recent blog posts here and here.]


We can now be confident not only about the modern origin of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife but also about how the text itself was prepared. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was created simply by “cutting and pasting” text from the Gospel of Thomas, switching a few pronouns, and inserting the key Coptic words meaning “Mary” and “my wife” into the “patchwork” text. In addition, the modern forger has left many “fingerprints” on this purportedly ancient text: detailed analysis of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has revealed that it contains at least five suspicious textual features that are most persuasively explained by a forger’s dependence on the Coptic of Grondin’s Interlinear.

On the basis of the theory that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment was prepared by someone using Grondin’s Interlinear (and the presence of the single word “this” in a seven word excerpt from the owner’s “translation”), we were able to predict that this “translation” would show direct dependence on the English of Grondin’s Interlinear. Our prediction has now been confirmed by the recent release of the owner’s “translation.”

It is not plausible that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment was created independently of the owner’s “translation.” Both must have been prepared after 1997, when Grondin’s Interlinear was first posted online (two years before archive.org recorded its existence). I suspect that they were prepared using the PDF version of Grondin’s Interlinear posted online on November 22, 2002. The first line of the papyrus fragment appears to repeat a typographical error found only in this version of Grondin’s Interlinear; also, using either of the graphical versions (page-by-page or saying-by-saying) would have required flipping back and forth between graphics online in a manner that would have made the forgery more difficult.

I think it is now safe to assert that the legitimate Gospel of Jesus’ Wife forgery debate has come to an end. Ideally, any ongoing research efforts related to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife will be focused on identifying the person(s) responsible for the forgery. The still-unidentified individual who brought the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to Professor King also provided her with at least two more documents suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was examined by a pair of German scholars in Berlin in 1982 (fifteen years before it could have been created), as well as an obviously forged Coptic papyrus fragment containing a part of the Gospel of John. I hope that scholars can work together to prevent the dissemination of additional forged papyrus fragments that could disrupt historical research.

* In technical terminology, the single infinitive in the line has been modified by two conjugation bases.


Mike Grondin said...

A masterful overview of and retrospective on the scholar's case for forgery. The link to Suciu and Lundhaug's blog post of Sept 27, 2012, is particularly pertinent, since it was there that the true nature of line 6 of the fragment was unraveled, first by their accepting my suggestion for the interpretation of the verbal prefix 'mare-', and second by their noticing that 'e' was overwritten over 'i', so that what appeared to be 'ene' was actually intended to be 'eine' ('bring'). Also notable for the late (Oct 9th) comment by Richard Budelberger that the missing direct-object marker on line 1 mirrored the 2002 version of my interlinear, which was I believe the first public statement of that, although you had noticed it earlier and (after a comedy of errors) it became a blockbuster on NT Blog two days later.

Stephen Goranson said...

"Why Scientists and Scholars Can't Get Their Facts Straight" by Joel Baden and Candida Moss in The Atlantic (Sept. 10) makes several good points, gets some of the story wrong (e.g., tests so far published have not shown the ink "as ancient"; also, the divide between text and material research is not as clear-cut as they portray), and, unfortunately, ends with a counsel of despair.

Stephen Goranson said...

Following publications on ink research, including HTR 2014 by Yardley and Hagadorn, NTS 2015 by Krutzsch and Rabin, and hints of new tests in Boston Globe April 10, 2014 by Wangsness, Live Science August 24, 2015 by Jarus, The Atlantic Sept. 10 2015 by Baden and Moss, etc., might the following online abstract be relevant? It is by Dr. Sarah Goler, a member of the Columbia Nano Institute Ancient Ink Laboratory (Prof. Yardley, head; Prof. Bagnall, member)? Relevant, possibly, that is, for the method, though this April 2015 abstract reports on mss of "known provenance."
In-depth Study of Raman Spectroscopy on Carbon Black Ink as a Potential Method for Non-Destructive Dating of Ancient Manuscripts (Abstract)
Micro-Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive light scattering technique that can be used to distinguish physical and chemical properties of materials. We have performed micro-Raman spectroscopy experiments on the black ink from Egyptian manuscripts of known provenance ranging in date from 300BCE to 1000CE. All the black ink showed the typical spectrum of carbon black ink with broad D and G bands. The D band is a forbidden Raman transition that occurs when the lattice symmetry is broken. The D band at approximately 1350cm-1 is associated with disorder, vacancies crystalline edges, etc. The G band at 1585cm-1 is a Raman allowed transition that arises from the E2g in-plane vibration of sp2 bonded carbon. These features in the Raman spectrum of carbon are assigned to the crystalline and amorphous carbon content. The carbon black spectra observed showed clear changes with the age of the ink. The significance and number of peaks to fit the Raman spectrum of carbon black is not well understood. We selected to fit our data with two, three, and four peak fits to try to extract quantitative and qualitative insight from the spectra. We found that all the parameters from our two peak fits show correlations with the age of the ink that could potentially be used to non-destructively date ink of unknown date.

Stephen Goranson said...

*If* the above abstract is the sort of research proposed--which I do not know--then it would be appropriate to note that the contribution by Ira Rabin 2015 mentioned above has already offered reason to question the potential of such approaches to deliver reliable dating. Further--reportedly--two lectures at the September 1-5, 2015 8th International Congress on the Application of Raman Spectroscopy in Art and Archaeology in Wrocław, Poland may include explanation why such approach to dating would be unreliable.
If one seeks to better understand the ms, the chief avenue remaining might be to research the fake provenance in order to identify the forger(s).

Geoff Hudson said...

How many more fragments without provenance are you going to do 'research' on and then congratulate yourselves on a thorough investigation? Do you think people are really that simple? Are they so gullible and that they must be protected from these fraudsters, who it must be said have been aided academics? I despair.

YWontU said...

Well done! At the very least, it is sure, that there is nothing conclusive about this papyrus. However, surely the identity of the person who owned this script is highly relevant and if this person is credible, they might lend credibility to their argument.

The main reason why someone would go to the lengths they have to compile this forgery would be to negate the divinity of Christ, and reduce him to someone more like Mahomet, the false prophet of arabia, whom enjoyed a prolific sexual lifestyle, as a mortal prophet. The celibacy of Christ, makes him superior to others.

And also to undermine that fact that God, having gone to the trouble of creating a specific bloodline for the Messiah, over many generations, and then omitting sex, a carnal act of lust or desire, in the creation of his Holy body, then went on to get married and have sex, would of course, bring into question his divinity.

Either a Jew or a muslim is behind this, I bet.

Geoff Hudson said...

Rather, the mischief of a certain academic is very implicated.

Stephen Goranson said...

If the letter purportedly by Peter Munro (Professor and former museum director) with a claimed 1892 date were made available, one could check, besides the signature, whether it has indications of British or American spelling and punctuation. Munro was a Scot. If it has British spelling, however, that would not be sufficient to claim that the letter "passed muster."
If all six papyri said to be bought as a lot were made available, one could check if one of the others has a top or bottom cut the same length as the "Wife" fragment, the papyrus surface which has been dated as--not ancient--but medieval, disproving initial claims. Yet, no cut match would be insufficient to "pass muster."
Ink should be compared not only to other, dated, papyri, but to carbon ink of modern manufacture using traditional methods.
Claims (delivered to journalists) that science holds out hope that, materially, all is ok, also ignores in gJohn ms, writing (inking) around a physical, material hole, and also Stephen Emmel's codicological study, which involves both text and physical, material measurements.
Instead of leaking hopes for a future, unproved and already-scientifically-doubted method that might report on shaky basis a putative "early" hypothetical date, what might be the academically responsible next step?
Could that be making the offered documents claiming to establish some provenance available for research? And the owner and Prof. King helping gather all relevant facts?

Stephen Goranson said...

Typo above: "1892 date" should read "1982 date."

Scott said...

Fantastic detective work. I shudder to think what forgers will learn from this debacle. Don't take all your text from the same source. Don't copy line breaks. Etc.

Stephen Goranson said...

"The brave man who may have risked his life in 1963 Germany for the Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is the headline in Deseret News of an imaginative scenario (by Herb Scribner, Oct. 11).


Would it be fair to consider that scenario improbable and perhaps confirmation-bias influenced?

Rather, as many have suggested, the ms was likely inked after the Nov. 22, 2002 version posting of Mike Grondin's Interlinear of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. And likely after the Dec. 6, 2002 death of H.-U. Laukamp (thanks to O. Jarus for that date). And likely after the 2003 publication of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala by Prof. King. And perhaps (if someone involved liked symbology) after Prof. King moved to Harvard (1997) and perhaps after taking a named chair (July, 2009). After all, the ms fragment is largely a combination of Gospel of Thomas snippets and a scenario borrowed from the Gospel of Mary--Berlin ms.

A step that could help: not misleading science reporting, but making available the claimed provenance documents.

Stephen Goranson said...

"Gospel of Jesus' Wife": an Opportunity to Check its Provenance and a Note on the Science

1) The manuscript owner, who asked to remain anonymous, reportedly provided Prof. Karen King with scans of a bill of sale dated Nov. 12, 1999; a handwritten, unsigned, undated note mentioning a Prof. Fecht; and a letter dated July 15, 1982 and signed by Peter Munro, as she described in Harvard Theological Review 107.2 (April, 2014) 131-159, especially 153-4.

Peter Munro taught at the Free University, Berlin, starting in 1981. Gerhard Fecht also taught there. See "Tentative Chronology on 'Jesus Wife' Fragment" here:
Corrections are welcome; there may soon be a need for additions.

Dr. Christian E. Loeben studied with both Munro and Fecht in Berlin and also dug with Munro in Egypt. Peter Munro had previously been Director of the Museum August Kestner in Hannover, Germany. Now, Dr. Loeben is curator of the Egyptian and Islamic collections at that museum, where Peter Munro's papers are archived. Dr. Loeben wrote an obituary of Munro, available here:


Dr. Loeben has very kindly offered to compare contemporary (including 1980s) archived documents of Munro, whose signature he knows well, with the content and signature of the offered provenance documents. I sent Dr. Loeben's contact information to Prof. King, in hope that the owner's provenance claims be researched.

2) Without attempting to review all the voluminous, sometimes helpful, sometimes unreliable, reporting about this Coptic fragment, it may be worth noting that some reporters have apparently not read the article on the science involved by Myriam Krutzsch and Ira Rabin, "Material Criteria and their Clues for Dating," New Testament Studies 61.3 (July 2015) 356-67. The main scientific finding so far is the C14 dating of the papyrus to several centuries later than Prof. King had proposed; the papyrus material, accordingly, is medieval, not ancient. Contrary to some unreliable reports, tests so far published on the ink have not dated the ink, though they found no evidence of compounds available only in modern times. But, without comparing oil lamp soot carbon ink recently made--using traditional methods--such tests are of limited value. Surely this is not a case of ancient ink on a medieval papyrus surface.

Richard McQuillen said...

I followed up the 1963 Potsdam link. IF the document is authentic AND it originated in Potsdam in 1963, then it is an Oxyrhynchus Papyrus owned by Otto Rubensohn, who lived in Berlin and Potsdam, and purchased it in 1905; he died in 1964.