Jesus Said To Them “My Wife … ” Ctd

In September 2012, historian Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School unveiled a papyrus fragment she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which stirred debate because, well, that should be obvious. At the time readers sounded off on the discovery and I pondered its meaning at some length. In the intervening years the fragment has been rigorously tested to ascertain its age and authenticity, which some initially questioned. The results are in and, according to the HDS press release, they indicate it doesn’t seem to be a forgery:

Over the past two years, extensive testing of the papyrus and the carbon ink, as well as analysis of the handwriting and grammar, all indicate that the existing material fragment dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE. None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery.

Two radiocarbon tests were conducted to determine the date of the papyrus. In the first test, the sample size was too small and resulted in an unreliable date. A second test performed by Noreen Tuross at Harvard University in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute produced a date of origination for the piece of papyrus from 659 to 859 CE. Other testing with FT-IR microspectroscopy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) confirmed the homogeneous chemical composition of the papyrus and examined patterns of oxidation.

James Yardley, Senior Research Scientist in the Center for Integrated Science and Engineering, Columbia University, and Alexis Hagadorn, Head of Conservation at Columbia University Libraries, used a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine that the carbon character of the ink matched samples of other papyri that date from the first to eighth centuries CE.

Emma Green interviewed King about these results, and she reiterated what the text does – and doesn’t – tell us:

“The question that the broader public immediately grabbed onto is, ‘Does Jesus have a wife?'” King told me. Although that’s obviously an interesting topic, the more important question is historical: What does this text say about his early followers? “Early Christians were grappling with the question of whether you should get married and have children, or whether it’s better to be celibate and virgin,” she said. “This fragment seems to be the first case we have where a married Jesus appears to be affirming that women who are mothers and wives can be his disciples.” …

“There are so many questions this fragment can’t answer,” King said.

“Is Jesus talking about a real wife, or the church, or a sister-wife? Who is the Mary—his mother, his wife, or some other Mary entirely?” She says that rather than trying to answer those questions definitively, it’s more important to analyze what this text might say about the historical Jesus. “Was anybody talking about Jesus being married or not, and how was that question being used? Were people arguing about who’s worthy of discipleship or not?”

All this coincides with the release of a new issue of the Harvard Theological Review dedicated to the fragment’s meaning and the scientific testing done on it which can be read in its entirety here. One of the rebuttals to King’s take on the fragment comes from Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University and a skeptic about the fragment from the start, who still isn’t convinced:

I find nothing in these documents that could change in any way the fact that I am personally 100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I have otherwise never deemed ink or papyrus tests necessary or relevant in light of the evidence set forth below. I will make three brief observations, however.

First, the ink tests show chemical composition, in this case carbon-based “lamp black,” not age. Carbon-based ink is exactly the type that I would have used if I had been the forger. Second, as for the papyrus, nothing is more common than for forged paintings to be painted on an old piece of wood. And third, in a letter of July 19, 2013, accompanying his report, the principal investigator of the radiocarbon dating test, Professor Greg Hodgins, states that certain stable isotope measurements “[cast] doubt upon the validity of the radiocarbon date.”

Francis Watson argues (PDF) that the scientific data isn’t the main issue – it’s the fragment’s composition and construction that makes him believe it’s not the real deal:

In September 2012 I showed

that the text has been constructed out of small pieces – words or phrases – culled from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (GTh), especially Sayings 30, 45, 101 and 1 14, and set in new contexts… The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this is a very unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.

I do not see anything in Dr King’s response to cause me to retract that last sentence. Furthermore, I pointed out that the very first line of the fragment

begins in the middle of a word, at exactly the same place as in the equivalent passage in the one surviving Gospel of Thomas manuscript. And line 1 ends with the same ending as the following line in Thomas. This is quite a coincidence, and it suggests that the author of [the Jesus’ wife fragment] may have drawn his Thomas material from a modern printed edition.

Other scholars made equally damaging criticisms of the fragment following its initial publication. The question is whether there is anything in Harvard’s belated response to cause those of us who reacted negatively to the new papyrus fragment to think again. Perhaps there is. But it is not obvious how even the most scientifically rigorous investigations of the age of the papyrus or the composition of the ink take the debate forward.