Monday, August 24, 2015

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: A Call for Closure

Guest post by Andrew Bernhard

[Note: A PDF of this post is available here.]


That’s the big question that remains unanswered about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and I must confess that I’m a bit confused as to why. It seems clear to me that the person who originally brought forward this tiny papyrus fragment could probably shed quite a bit of light on its mysterious origins. Yet, the identity of this individual remains shrouded in secrecy.

While Karen King granted anonymity to the self-identified manuscript collector who brought her the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (and has honorably kept her commitment), I would suggest that the situation has now changed materially. At this point, it seems very likely that the still unidentified owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife provided Professor King with at least six fake documents (both ancient and modern) . . .  and lied about where he or she obtained the papyrus fragment.

The Documents in Question

The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife appears to have provided the following documents that are fake (that is, not what they were purported to be):

1. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment.
This was purportedly a papyrus fragment copied in antiquity, but it appears to be a recent forgery prepared by someone who “cut and pasted” words and short phrases from a unique PDF edition of the only surviving Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas posted online in November 2002 (“Grondin’s Interlinear”). Basically, to create the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife using material from the Gospel of Thomas, the forger only had to switch third person masculine singular pronouns to their feminine equivalents (a single letter change in Coptic) and place two key Coptic words (meaning “Mary” and “my wife”) into the “patchwork” text.[1] There are also at least five tell-tale signs of forgery – including the apparent repetition of a typographical error from “Grondin’s Interlinear” – in the text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (see my article in the July 2015 issue of New Testament Studies, especially pages 351-355, for more details).

2. The Gospel of John papyrus fragment. 
This was purportedly a papyrus fragment copied in antiquity, but it appears to be a recent forgery prepared by someone who copied from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau codex (online since approximately 2005). Christian Askeland has provided a number of reasons for believing this fragment is a forgery, notably observing, “The forger skipped every other line of Thompson’s text when copying it onto his papyrus fragment … [but] failed to skip a line when he had to turn two pages of Thompson’s edition.” The two fragments share SEVENTEEN line breaks. As Stephen Patterson commented, “The John MS is clearly a forgery. The line breaks make this impossible to avoid . . . the John MS must be a modern forgery.” Michael Peppard has indicated that he believes scholars “have definitively shown that [the Gospel of John fragment] is a forgery.”

Note: the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Gospel of John fragments appear to be in the same handwriting. Roger Bagnall was the first to observe the similarity in handwriting, stating “the two (fragments) are very similar and are likely to have been produced close in time.” Askeland then systematically demonstrated that they are in the same hand, and his view has been publicly endorsed by Stephen Emmel (paragraph 19), Alin Suciu, and Carrie Schroeder; as far as I know, nobody qualified to judge Coptic handwriting has ever disputed Askeland’s finding.

3. A contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” (dated November 12, 1999; signed by Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and the owner).
This contract purportedly documented the acquisition of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment, but it includes a suspicious handwritten note on it: “Papyri acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany)” (p. 31). The note is suspicious for two reasons. First, as Owen Jarus has reported after interviewing the representative for Laukamp’s estate, “Laukamp did not collect antiquities, did not own [the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife] papyrus . . . [he] was a toolmaker and had no interest in old things.” Second, as reported on page 80 of the November 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, “[i]n a later e-mail (from the owner to King) . . . the story seemed to change slightly with the collector saying that the papyri had been in the previous owner’s possession – or his family’s – ‘prior to WWII.’”

4. A typed letter to H. U. Laukamp (dated July 15, 1982; signed by Peter Munro).
This letter purportedly relates to the Gospel of John fragment, but it suspiciously indicates that (Gerhard) Fecht suggested the Coptic fragment might be dated as early as the second century and apparently failed to note a unique feature of it – the Lycopolitan dialect in which it is written (p. 31, n. 107). As an accomplished linguist of ancient Egyptian, it is hard to imagine Fecht not knowing that there is no evidence for the existence of Coptic in the second century. As Bentley Layton notes on the first page of his Coptic Grammar, “The written attestation of standardized Coptic Egyptian begins with Biblical manuscripts dating to about A.D. 300, shortly after the translation of the Christian Bible into Coptic.” In addition, it would be astounding if Fecht had viewed the Gospel of John fragment and failed to comment on the Lycopolitan dialect. In 1982, there was only one known Lycopolitan manuscript of the Gospel of John (the Qau codex), and Fecht certainly would have recognized this dialect: he published a three-part, 90-page analysis of the Gospel of Truth (from Nag Hammadi) in the journal, Orientala (1961-1963) . . . and the Gospel of Truth is preserved in Lycopolitan.  
5. A handwritten note in German (unsigned, undated).
This note purportedly indicates that Fecht viewed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment (presumably in 1982), but it suspiciously states, “Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage” (p. 31). As an accomplished scholar, Fecht had both studied and published on both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and early Christian writings. As Karen King has noted, “[N]o serious scholar considers [the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife] to be evidence of the historical Jesus’s marital status” (p. 36) It would be truly extraordinary if Fecht had.[2]

Note: Gerhard Fecht and Peter Munro were Egyptologists at Freie Universität in Berlin in the 1980s; Munro contributed a chapter to Fecht’s 1987 Festschrift. Everyone named in the “supporting documentation” for the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is deceased. Laukamp reportedly died in 2002, Fecht in 2006, and Munro in 2009.

Obviously, assuming that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was forged after 2002, the owner of the fragment can’t have acquired it in the late 1990s from a man who died in 2002 and no documents indicating that scholars examined it in 1982 in Berlin can be authentic.

6. An English translation of the fragment.
According to the first Smithsonian article about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, 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 . . .’”)” But the English given for line 4 doesn’t actually appear to be a translation of part of of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.

In line 4 on the papyrus fragment, the Coptic conjunction je (which would function something like a comma and a quotation mark at the beginning of a quote in modern English) is strangely missing, and so King rightly refined the “translation”. Yet, the unexpectedly missing conjunction is apparently “translated” . . . incorrectly . . . just as it appears in the English of “Grondin’s Interlinear.”

As the figure below shows, in “Grondin’s Interlinear,” the seemingly complete phrase meaning “Jesus said to them” is separated from the conjunction je by a line break, and Michael Grondin has used “this” as a “filler” in his interlinear beneath the Coptic word (although je would never actually be translated this way).

It looks to me like a forger accidentally omitted je in preparing the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment, and the “translation” itself is based directly on the English of “Grondin’s Interlinear.” Indeed, although only the “translation” of line 4 has been released to date, it seems highly probable that the “translation” the owner provided is actually a patchwork of words and short phrases “cut and pasted” from “Grondin’s Interlinear” in English.

A Call for Closure

I do not think it is unreasonable at this time to call for closure with respect to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.  “[T]he piles of evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a forgery” mentioned by Joel Baden and Candida Moss in The Atlantic have now been systematically presented in detail in the most recent issue of New Testament Studies (Cambridge University Press). And as I have explained above, it seems quite clear to me that the person who brought the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to Karen King has some serious explaining to do.  

I sincerely regret that Professor King has had to endure personal attacks on her integrity made by some forgery proponents using inexcusably hostile rhetoric. I also respect that she has maintained her personal commitment not to the identity of the owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife for so long. I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to her for having suffered through what has almost certainly been an excruciating ordeal. 

Nonetheless, I have become convinced that identifying (or at least trying to identify) the forger may be the only way to bring an end to the strange saga of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. This will require that Professor King identify the owner (as she has said she can legally), make the three supporting documents cited in her article (p. 31) available for public inspection, and release the English translation given to her with the papyrus fragment. We need access to anyone who may have been involved with what now seems to be an obvious forgery, and we need all potentially pertinent evidence to be made available.

I hope that I will have the opportunity to collaborate with Professor King (and, perhaps, many others) on the task of holding the dishonest person who produced the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife accountable for his or her actions.

[1] The only other change made was the simple deletion of the two letter Coptic word meaning “not” in line 5.

[2] Documents 3-5 have not yet been made available for public examination, so the analysis given here is based on the description in Karen King’s 2014 Harvard Theological Review article about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.


Dorothy King said...

In 2012 Zeus Eksioglu, a dodgy dealer was selling out of Turkey - and so by default also smuggling - a Galatians fragment that Green now owns (since 2013). At the time Eksioglu claimed it came recently from Egypt; now, like the new Sappho fragments, the Green scholars claim the fragment passed unnoticed in a November 2011 Christie's sale job lot of papyrus fragments, fragments which had passed through the hands of various scholars who had all failed to noticed their importance as they were still glued together.

(I go into those in more length here:

I suspect that had Karen King been contacted later rather than in 2010-2011, this same Christie's lot could have been given as the provenance of the "wife" fragment as ... call me cynical, but a lot of the papyrus fragments that passed through Eksioglu and co's hands have not only highly dubious provenances, but also seem too good to be true and probably wouldn't pass the scrutiny of most scholars who didn't have a vested interest in them.

I don't know if he was lying to make another sale, but re the Jesus' Wife fragment, Eksioglu claimed in 2012 that he had been 'conned' by the buyer and so was not not going to be taken for a ride again. I quote his dodgy English:
"Please my friend l said "jesus said my wife" you said 700 usd !.. "

I don't think King did anything wrong any more than I think Obbink did - they were just naive about the art market - but ... there are lots of similarities between the other papyri the Eksioglu sold and this Wife one he claims to have sold, in that they seem to have been forged by someone with access to old papyrus fragments and a good (but not great) knowledge of ancient languages, and similar provenances (Wife, Sappho; missed by some solid scholars, noticed by the 'amateur' collector).

Andrew Bernhard said...
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