Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Forger and the “Translator”

Guest post by Andrew Bernhard

Since the recent release of the “translation” that the owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife gave Karen King and the revelation that it is directly dependent on the English of Grondin’s Interlinear, a few questions have been asked about whether someone might have used Grondin’s Interlinear to translate an authentic ancient papyrus fragment. The answer is, quite simply, “No.” The person responsible for the owner’s “translation” must have been involved in forging the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment (either as the actual forger or by working very closely with the person who was).

There are two basic reasons that I can make this assertion with confidence. First, the “translator” made some remarkable – even incredible – observations about the Coptic text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife for someone who had extremely limited knowledge of Coptic. Second, nobody would attempt to translate a papyrus fragment of unknown content using an interlinear translation of another text.


Remarkable Observations by the “Translator” about the Coptic Text

The owner’s “translation” of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is actually an interlinear translation – that is, it presents a transcription of each line of Coptic text on the papyrus fragment with English translations in between the lines.


Examining the transcribed lines of Coptic text reveals that the person responsible for the owner’s “translation” was not well-acquainted with this ancient language. This person did not even know the language well enough to be able to distinguish between similar-looking letters of the Coptic alphabet: the letter delta is repeatedly used in place of the letter janja in the transcription (twice in line 2 and once in line 4). Yet, this person still managed to make some remarkable observations about the text.

For example, in line 6, there is a scribal error: it appears that the copyist made a mistake that could not be satisfactorily corrected in attempting to write epsilon-iota. Roger Bagnall, AnneMarie Luijendijk, Karen King, and everybody else who viewed images of the papyrus fragment for nine days after they were available online apparently failed to recognize this error, until the trained eyes of Coptic papyrologists Alin Suciu and Hugo Lundaug called attention to it. I argued at length on pages 341–42 of my New Testament Studies article (on the basis of comparative measurements of practically every epsilon and iota on the papyrus fragment) that the third-from-last character in line 6 is some kind of epsilon-iota hybrid (an attempted correction of a mistake), and Coptic papyrologist Malcolm Choat affirmed that the identity of this character should indeed be regarded as uncertain.

Meanwhile, the person responsible for the owner’s “translation” had already noted the scribal error by writing “(Sic!)” at the end of the Coptic transcription of line 6. Someone who had not yet mastered the Coptic alphabet could have not realistically recognized a scribal error that scholars initially failed to observe . . . unless this person was directly responsible for the error (or informed by the person who was).


Translating a Text of Unknown Content with an Interlinear of another Text

Realistically, nobody would ever attempt to translate a papyrus fragment of unknown content using an interlinear translation of another text. First of all, anybody with the ability to decipher and translate a Coptic papyrus fragment would use a dictionary to look up unknown words; a translator would want to determine the precise meanings of the words on the papyrus fragment in their actual context, not in the context of another text. Second, if the content of the papyrus fragment were unknown, it would be impossible to know whether all the words and phrases needed for translation could even be located in the interlinear; and, if they could, it would still be very difficult to find them (especially the phrases, which could not simply be looked up in an index). *

Professor King, who has studied Coptic and whose research focuses on early Christian literature not included in the New Testament, initially failed to recognize that the text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was almost entirely derived from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Francis Watson, who actually suspected that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was dependent on the Gospel of Thomas, did not even succeed initially in identifying all the pertinent parallels between the two texts. It took the efforts of scholars trained in Coptic collaborating internationally to determine that the text of every line of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife could be traced back to the Gospel of Thomas. Ultimately, it took years of analysis with an electronic, searchable text of the Gospel of Thomas to identify precisely which passages in the Gospel of Thomas had been used to create the Coptic text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.

For someone who knew barely any Coptic to translate the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife using Grondin’s Interlinear, it would have been necessary to locate the approximately 30 Coptic words in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife found in different passages scattered throughout the more than 3000 words of the Gospel of Thomas. Locating the pertinent text needed to translate the papyrus fragment using Grondin’s Interlinear would have been complicated by the fact that three of the Coptic words are only partially preserved on the papyrus (at the start and end of line 1 and at the end of line 3) and two (meaning “Mary” and “my wife”) do not appear verbatim in Grondin’s Interlinear at all.

Further, the person preparing the “translation” would not only have needed just to locate individual Coptic words but also phrases consisting of two, three, and four words; and not all of the phrases in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife appear in identical form in Grondin’s Interlinear. Some have been modified by a letter or two. In three of the phrases, third-person singular masculine pronouns have been altered; in one, the two-letter Coptic word meaning “not” has been deleted in the middle of the phrase. It is simply unimaginable that a person with only minimal knowledge of Coptic could have identified the pertinent passages in Grondin’s Interlinear that could be used to “translate” a papyrus fragment of unknown content.

[To give the reader a sense of how difficult it would have been for someone with minimal knowledge of Coptic to use Grondin’s Interlinear to translate the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, I have prepared my own edition of Grondin’s Interlinear (with Michael Grondin’s permission). In this edition of Grondin’s Interlinear, I have highlighted all the pertinent passages in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. I suspect that anybody who glances at this annotated edition of Grondin’s Interlinear will be able to see the essentially insurmountable challenge that a person would have faced in locating all the pertinent passages in Grondin’s Interlinear that could be used to create a “translation” of a papyrus fragment of unknown content.]


Conclusion

There can be little doubt that the person responsible for the owner’s “translation” was involved in forging the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment (either as the actual forger or by working very closely with the person who was). The “translator” made observations about the Coptic text of the papyrus fragment that someone who did not know Coptic well could not realistically have made without being a participant in the forgery. In addition, it seems undeniable that the “translator” could only have used Grondin’s Interlinear to prepare a “translation” of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife if this person already knew precisely which passages had been used to forge the papyrus fragment. The “translator” was clearly involved in forging the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment (either as the actual forger or by working very closely with the person who was).

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 *  The owner’s “translation” is obviously not based on an understanding of individual Coptic words: it “translates” words not even found on the papyrus fragment as a result of misunderstanding phrases as they are translated in Grondin’s Interlinear.