Friday, April 25, 2014

Jesus' Wife Fragment: the Forgery of the Associated Fragment

It's just two weeks since the story of the Jesus' Wife Fragment re-emerged, with -- most importantly -- a full discussion in a peer-reviewed journal, Harvard Theological Review.  I won't dwell on these materials here -- the links can be found through following the Jesus' Wife Fragment tag on this blog.  What I simply want to draw attention to here is Christian Askeland's devastating post on Evangelical Textual Criticism, which discusses the Jesus' wife fragment's "sister" fragment:

Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law

The joke title relates to the fact that since the Jesus' Wife Fragment was released in September 2012, there has been talk of a sister fragment, a Coptic fragment of the Gospel of John.  This fragment, along with the Jesus' Wife Fragment, was alleged to have been part of a cache of six fragments, and many of us wondered whether studying this related fragment might help with establishing the authenticity of the Jesus' Wife Fragment.  The difficulty, however, was that pictures of this fragment had not been released.

It turns out, however, that the Harvard Divinity School's Website on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife in fact features several much fuller versions of the material tests published in the recent Harvard Theological Review, including a couple of pictures of the hitherto unpublished John fragment, one in the Ink Study page, specifically James Yardley's report (PDF), and one in the Infrared Microspectroscopy page, specifically Timothy Swager's report (PDF).

The images of the fragment of John are revealing. I am extracting them here from the PDF of Swager's report, which has the superior pictures:

Those of us who have spent a lot of time staring at the Jesus' Wife Fragment will have found it an eery experience to have laid eyes, finally, on this related fragment today.  It is remarkable just how similar the hand is here, as Christian Askeland points out.  Moreover, the text of the manuscript appears to replicate the text of Herbert Thompson, The Gospel of St. John According to the Earliest Coptic Manuscript (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, University College, 1924), line breaks and all.

Askeland's astute observations are corroborated and echoed by Alin Suciu:

Christian Askeland finds the "Smoking Gun"

Suciu helpfully lays out the parallels between the verso of the fragment (above) and Thompson's edition.  I've checked the recto and the same is true for that too.  (I'll post an illustration tomorrow if anyone is interested).  Leo Depuydt has also been in touch today to say that he has checked up on the parallels and it is clear to him too -- this fragment is copied from Thompson's edition.

Like Grondin's Interlinear Gospel of Thomas on which the Jesus' Wife Fragment appears to depend, Thompson's 1924 edition is also available online.

The point, of course, is that if this fragment of John, in the same hand as the Jesus' Wife fragment, is clearly copied from a modern edition of an ancient manuscript, it makes a mockery of the idea that the Jesus' Wife Fragment could be genuine.  Moreover, as Christian Askeland explains:
Essentially all specialists believe that Lycopolitan and the other minor dialects died out during or before the sixth century.  Indeed, the forger tried to offer two manuscripts both in Lycopolitan, but made two crucial mistakes.  First, the NHC gospel of Thomas is not a pure Lycopolitan text, but the Qau codex is.  That is we have two clearly different subdialects of Lycopolitan, which agree exactly with published texts.  Second, this GJohn fragment has been 14C dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, a period from which Lycopolitan is totally unknown.
I should make clear that unlike Christian Askeland, Alin Suciu and Leo Depuydt, I have no expertise in these manuscripts and dialects.  But not only do I trust their judgement but also I have carefully studied the Thompson edition and this fragment of John and there seems little doubt to me that the one is copied from the other.   Kudos to Askeland, who was suspicious of the Jesus' Wife Fragment from the first, for taking the time to investigate this further and for sharing his expertise.

I am hoping to comment on these developments, and others, in due course, but one quick thought at this point: a great deal of time could have been saved by releasing images of this John fragment back in 2012.  It is material evidence in the case.  Even now, the pictures have only been released inadvertently as part of a study of the ink, not in order for the manuscript and language experts to study them.  I'd like to ask now, again, for a full release of all the other related materials -- the other four manuscripts in this cache as well as the associated back-story materials.

Update (30 April): I have changed the original title of this post, which echoed a joke about Cinderella's "ugly sisters" in describing this "sister" fragment as "ugly".  On reflection, I realized that the joke was in poor taste, and I would like to apologize to those who were offended by it.


The Editor said...

Congratulations to all concerned for exposing this story as the Da Vinci Code fantasy that it is. However, the trouble, as always, is that the truth does not make good box office. Paul Simon's words hit the nail on the head: "Still, a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest."

Erlend said...

Well lets hope all that all those the media oulets that pushed over the past two weeks (including the U.K.'s Independent newspaper that claimed this fragment is as important as the canonical gospels) will be covering.

Stephen Goranson said...

Thank you. "I've checked the verso." Recto?

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, recto; thanks. Adjusted.

Christian Askeland said...

I am grateful for your thorough synopsis, and am glad that you found better images. You have really keep up with the GJW story here... your blog is an excellent resource.

Mark Goodacre said...

You are too kind, Christian.

G.W. Schwendner said...

Lovely Images of the "GJohn" fr.

Michael said...

Yes, please do post the recto image.

Mark Goodacre said...

OK, done.

Unknown said...

The same hand, really ?

Richard Fellows said...

Mark, I think you would agree that there are some important lessons here. It seems to me that the process of peer reviewed journal publication has failed to get to the truth, and that blogs have triumphed again.

Would it be possible for journals to post pre-publication draft versions of their articles on a blog so that people can comment, point out errors, suggest improvements, etc.. The authors and the reviewers could then take account of the comments and the resulting final versions of the papers would then be stronger. The public interest in the GJW fragment will ensure that Askeland's observations are widely disseminated, but in most cases post-publication critiques have much less impact. So how about allowing public scrutiny of papers before publication? As an (occasional) author, I would certainly appreciate more critique of my work while I still have opportunity to make changes and while the subject matter is fresh in my mind. In the internet age I can't help thinking that we should be able to improve upon the old-school way of doing things. Your thoughts?

Spittler said...

Hey Mark,

I hope you won’t mind a longish comment on a now old blog post. Here goes: I was disappointed in your re-use/play on Christian Askeland’s “joke” post title, “Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law.” The “ugly sister” trope is patently sexist; moreover, the usage here, equating a forged text with an ugly woman – equally valueless! – is pretty awful. And then given the content of the text and the fact that gender issues were already in play, this seems like something that really needs to be discussed. I’ve heard that you’ve already commented on this somewhere, but I was hoping you might do so again here.

To give you a little of my own context in thinking about this, I should say that, in planning a Fall course, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Secret Gospel of Mark and Morton Smith. I don’t know whether to call it an underlying assumption or an unintended consequence, but it strikes me that in debates about both the SGM and GJW we find the implication that only straight white men are capable of unbiased analysis. Know what I mean? And that’s regardless of where one comes down on the questions of authenticity.

Some might say that this line of thinking is irrelevant to the “historical critical issue” and off-topic (I’m quoting Christian Askeland’s response to Eva Mroczek and Meredith Warren’s comments on his original blog post here). But, as others have already pointed out, even if the GJW were authentic, it would teach us very little that we didn’t already know about early Christianity. If we as an academic community are going to learn anything from this whole episode, I think it will be about 1) the role of social media in contemporary scholarship, and 2) the role of gender (or, if you’ll excuse me for putting too fine a point on it, the fact that the world of biblical scholarship is still a pretty damned sexist place). And I think the two are related. I dare say (hope?) that a title like “Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law” would not have made it past an editor. A certain hastiness seems to be part of the nature of a blog post. What’s more, a blogger controls the comments on his/her blog – and, no doubt, that’s his/her prerogative. It does, however, mean that potentially fruitful conversations can be quickly and easily shut down. It seems pretty clear from his comments that Christian Askeland doesn’t want to have this conversation. And he doesn’t have to! But I’m hoping you will.

Another blog hazard is how hard it is to hear tone in either a post or the comments. For what it's worth, I'm trying to sound friendly and disarming. If I knew a good fart joke, I'd make one here.

Janet Spittler

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your interesting thoughts, Richard. Of course in this case, it was the fact that Karen King made available the draft of her article beforehand that enabled a lot of the debate to take place. And I praised that at the time -- it made the analysis of the find a great deal more straightforward. There are interesting issues here about the interface between blogs, social media and peer-reviewed pieces that I think are worth exploring further. Broadly speaking, I have been encouraged by the way in which the blogs have enriched the discussion of this issue over the last year and more.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Janet

Many thanks for your comment, which is greatly appreciated. I regretted my use of that trope, and I apologize that it offended you and others. I suspect that the joke makes more sense if one is brought up in the British context, where Cinderella's "ugly sisters" are panto characters played by men in drag, and part of the national psyche (for good or evil -- perhaps evil -- I've never been a fan of panto). The point was, of course, that here the standard metaphor of a "sister" text could be exploited in such a way as to reflect the familiar panto meme. But I realize now clearly that the use of the image can and has caused offense, and I regret not thinking more clearly about using it.

You are right about the more casual, immediate nature of blogs, and the danger for those of us who do blog is that we are more vulnerable than others who (quite reasonably) choose not to make public their sketches and work in progress. But although one does come in for a lot of criticism, I think the majority of readers do realize that the forum is a casual one, the common room rather than the peer-reviewed journal, and they make allowances for the fact that from time to time we might say silly things and things we regret.

Nevertheless, I agree with you that the world of Biblical scholarship can be a "pretty damned sexist place". The only encouragement is that it is slightly less of a "pretty damned sexist place" than it was twenty or thirty years ago, and it's something we should all constantly be fighting, but that's no excuse for my writing something that has clearly caused offense and for that, I sincerely apologize.

Mark Goodacre said...

I realized today that it's a fat lot of good to apologize for something and then leave the offending title unchanged! I have now adjusted the title of this post, and have changed one line in the post. Renewed apologies for having been thoughtless.