Thursday, May 01, 2014

More evidence of forgery in the Jesus' Wife Sister Fragment

Over on Alin Suciu's blog, Joost L. Hagen has a guest post in which he reports on an analysis of the Lycopolitan Gospel of John fragment with the Coptic Reading Group of the DDGLC Project at the University of Leipzig, Germany:

A reading of the text of the Lycopolitan fragment of the Gospel of John, with remarks about suspicious phenomena in the areas of the lacunae and a note about the supposed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Joost L. Hagen

The post is also available as a PDF.  It's all worth reading, but there is one particular piece that is worth highlighting: the scribe writes around a large hole in the fragment that was already present.  As the scribe writes letters around the hole on the recto, his  ⲛ (N), in particular, is almost comically small.  In other words, the papyrus was already damaged before the scribe wrote on it.  This is problematic because the writing on the verso goes into the hole and not around it, as if the damage happened after writing and not before.  It is a scenario that only makes sense if we are dealing with a modern forger writing on an ancient scrap of already damaged papyrus.

Let's take a closer look.  Here is a picture of the recto of the fragment, extracted from the Infrared Microspectroscopy report on the Harvard Divinity School website:

Lycopolitan John, Recto, extracted from the Infrared Microspectroscopy Report
The lacuna in question is in the upper middle part of the fragment.  It's the largest hole you are looking at, and it spans lines 4 and 5 (bear in mind that 1 is illegible).  Hagen writes [font]
 - [ⲛ]ⲉ̣ⲛ̣ⲧⲁⲩ, for us, was the final "smoking gun" of this fragment: I had already noted that there is no place for ⲛⲉ in the lacuna, and that the surviving trace does not present a convincing , when Frederic Krueger drew our attention to the fact that ⲛⲧⲁⲩ clearly seems to have been written under and next to an already existing gap in the papyrus: notice how is only half the height of the other letters of the line, how is already able to get somewhat bigger, and how ⲩ is finally able to stretch to full normal height. According to me, if the damage had occurred after the writing of the text, at the very least the should look different.
Well done to Frederic Krueger for this key observation.  He's quite right -- ⲛ̣ⲧⲁⲩ (NTAU) is clearly written with the hole already present in the papyrus.  Let's take a closer look:

Detail of lacuna in Lycopolitan John 

The ⲛ (N), is very small and is written right underneath the hole; the ⲧ (T) next to it is larger, as proportions of the hole allow, and then the ⲁ (A) is larger and the ⲩ (U) larger still.

Harvard Divinity School have not yet released high definition images of this fragment and we are reliant on the one image that appears on the online PDF of the  Infrared Microspectroscopy report, and this is the best that I can do with them; when we magnify any further, they simply degrade.  Nevertheless, it's worth taking a second look at the detail of what we have just so that we can be sure we are not seeing things:

Another detail of lacuna in Lycopolitan John

It might be argued that the fragment was already damaged in late antiquity and that it is an eighth century scribe rather than a twenty-first century forger who wrote around the hole here.  However, a hypothesis like this would run into problems in the light of the evidence from the verso, where the scribe appears to be writing as if there was no such hole.  It is the curious nature of the scribal behaviour here that is so striking, simultaneously acting as if there is a hole present and as if there is not.

At this point, I can't help thinking of Leo Depuydt's remarks in his article in the latest Harvard Theological Review with respect to the Jesus Wife Fragment.  Like that fragment, it seems clear that this is a forgery, "and not a very good one at that" (HTR 107:2 [2014]: 172–89 [172]).  Of course we await HDS's release of better pictures of this fragment, but on the evidence of what we have I am strongly inclined to agree with Krueger's and Hagen's judgement on Suciu's blog.

It's in the Forgery 101 textbook that you do not write your text around existing lacunas in the papyrus fragment that you are using.  

To borrow a comment from Hugo Lundhaug, we now have enough smoking guns for an entire platoon.

Update (2 May, 7.29am): I have revised the wording of the post above to take more careful account of a useful point raised by Brice Jones in comments, adding an extra sentence or so to paragraph 3 and writing a fresh paragraph just under the last illustration, beginning "It might be argued . . ."

Update (2 May, 6.48pm): four typos corrected, with thanks to Mike Grondin.


James D. Tabor said...

Mark, it seems to me then this hypothetical forger is REALLY stupid. Even you or I, with no skills in such things, when confronted with a hole would not write around it. Makes one wonder if there might be other explanations.

Mark Goodacre said...

I know what you mean, James. I find it flabbergasting. I suppose it underlines the need for the release of proper high-def photos of this fragment. If there are other explanations, I would love to hear them.

Brice C. Jones said...

For what it's worth, there are many examples of scribes avoiding "relaxed" fibers or lacunae, especially in documentary papyri. See my edition of P.CtYBR inv. 1564 (a second century personal letter) in the next issue of BASP, where there is a perfect example of this. I am not making any claims about the authenticity or inauthenticity of the GJW here; I'm only saying that your statement that this is "a scenario that *only* makes sense if we are dealing with a modern forger writing on an ancient scrap of already damaged papyrus" is very inaccurate. This is not, by itself, a good argument at all, since scribes were comfortable with "jumping" lacunae.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Brice. Greatly appreciate your expert comment. I'm curious about the fact here that the scribe writes around the lacuna on the recto but into it on the verso. Are there any parallels to that kind if scenario, which would appear to me to suggest a different procedure on each side, no?

Mark Goodacre said...

Moreover, in the recto itself, a mixture of writing into the hole and around it, no?

Brice C. Jones said...

There is rarely consistency with this sort of thing, but yes, there are cases where a scribe skips over an abrasion, lacuna, or kollêsis and then later writes over or around it.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Brice. I don't recall having seen what we have here, though, where there is the (apparent) appearance of script having been lost through a hole that has arisen after that script at the same time as script written around it. The appearance to me looks to be consistent with forgery rather than ancient practices but I would genuinely love to see an illustration to the contrary.

Mike Grondin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alin Suciu said...

Brice is right, ancient scribes often skipped over holes in the papyrus/parchment, but this principle does not apply here. As you can see in the photo, some letters seem to be partly damaged on the superior edge of the hole, but this does not apply to those on the inferior edge.

Joost has pointed out that some "suspicious phenomena" occur "in the areas of the lacunae" and this inconsistency must be one of them.


Alin Suciu said...

Check also the same area on the verso. There some strings of letters are visible on the inferior edge of the hole, which proves that the forger tried to suggest that the damage occurred after the copying process.

As I have already said, we are losing our time in speculations. These patent forgeries do not deserve our attention anymore.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Alin, which express more eloquently what I was trying to say about the inconsistency between recto and verso here. The scribe appears to be at one moment acting as if the hole is not there and at another moment acting as if it is. This makes far better on sense on the hypothesis that there is a forger at work who is not clear in his own mind which of the two approaches to go for. Thanks again for raising the issue, Brice. I will revise the post to illustrate the point more clearly in the light of your comments.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

What the observation shows is that the papyrus was damaged before written on. To be sure, there are cases of scribes avoiding the imperfections of their writing medium (esp. holes in expensive parchment), but I have to wonder whether such a used piece of papyrus would be used for a literary text like this. Let's not forget that the codex size, given the line length, must have been huge. Who would spend so much money on a massive codex, only to skimp out on the writing material with worn out pieces? (And would used pieces not even be the right size?) So it complicates considerably the scenario for authenticity substantially while, if anything, continuing to lend support for the forgery scenario.

It also complicates other aspects of the text. The carbon dating of the papyrus does not date the writing of the text, only when the papyrus plants were cut to make the writing material. Ordinarily, it is reasonable to suppose that the writing happened rather soon after preparation, but this observation now calls that reasonable assumption in question. We must now suppose that the papyrus was originally prepared in the early Islamic period, lasted long enough to be damaged, and then written upon. And the later the writing becomes, the more anomalous it becomes. The dialect becomes even more out of date; access to earlier exemplars that much more problematic.

In assessing authenticity, it is best not to get hung up on one particular detail but look at the totality of the circumstances. Yeah, one iffy detail can be explained away, but how well does it fit the competing scenarios?

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the factual difference between how this was composed on recto and verso sides also discharge the possibility the hole gradually wore larger over time?

Stephen Goranson said...

"You have to be accountable." It may interest some to reread the end of the Nov. 2012 Smithsonian article (see it for more context). There Ariel Sabar reports on Prof. King's approach to history of Christianity, e.g., integrating "heretical" literature. Concluding words:
“What history can do,” she said, “is show that people have to take responsibility for what they activate out of their tradition. It’s not just a given thing one slavishly follows. You have to be accountable.”

Stephen Goranson said...
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Unknown said...

Wouldn’t it be possible that a 7th century scribe would write on a piece of papyrus used at that time and deteriorated with a hole in it?

Chris Mari said...

Would it be necessary to know if it is possible?