The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is now officially a forgery. Maybe.

As we move into Lent season, stories about the papyrus fragment have started to resurface. Although no new information seems to have come to the fore since last year, now seems as good a time as any to run through what we know (and don’t know).

The controversial papyrus, which (it was argued) included Jesus referring to his wife’s role in the church, was purchased as part of a bulk packet of three Coptic papyri. Although chemical testing on the papyrus and its ink have reinforced arguments for authenticity, this isn’t true of one of the accompanying documents, which was written in the same hand.

Of course, palaeography isn’t foolproof, but it’s enough to swing the pendulum in the other direction. And what’s particularly remarkable about the palaeography in this case is that it seemed to be written with a brush (like a native Egyptian under the Ptolemies), rather than a pen (as would be expected in Byzantine Egypt). Because this second document is agreed to be a forgery, by extension the wife papyrus should be, too.

A few other issues are troubling to me, though. For example, it’s odd (and disheartening) that the same two scholars have made the rounds of the press, writing different articles for different publications with the sole aim of debunking the papyrus. Yes, it is good to aim for ‘truth’, whatever that may be in the case of a scrap of papyrus whose carbon dating checks out. And I am sure that the original presenter can adequately fend for herself. But unlike an academic debate, where articles with differing views can be put side by side, the two competing views in this case are not given equal time — and that is true regardless of which side you believe. You have to search to find both sides of the story.

I say that even though I am skeptical of the significance that has been attached to this papyrus, regardless of whether or not it is genuine. Writing on CNN, for example, Joel Baden and Candida Moss suggest

doubts … beyond the unlikelihood that the tiny scrap that survived the centuries would happen to be the one that contained the reference to Jesus’ wife

No? Accidents of preservation are just that — accidents. They do not follow rules of logical reasoning. If the worst we can say about something new is that it adds new material to our knowledge of the world, we ought to accept it. And it is true that there is sometimes a worrisome trend of suspicion towards material that is actually novel.

Yet no one seemed perturbed by the assumption that the transmitted Coptic ta hime (the equivalent of Greek te gyne) at the end of a line was being translated by everyone as “wife”, instead of the more neutral “woman”. Is it more comprehensible? Maybe. Is it the only possible way to translate? No; it’s just the one that gets more attention. And attention does seem to be the goal here: there’s been a lot less interest in the new Sappho, for example. Granted, Sappho does not have a religious following of millions. But since the appearance of a new text on a known topic ought to raise many of the same questions, it is interesting that only one has managed to attract such controversy.

Finally, I think it’s a little sad that despite the huge amount of public attention that’s being paid to the possibility of forgery — it’s exciting! it’s like CSI! it’s like the Da Vinci Code! — very few people in the public sphere are pointing out the real problems with this kind of forgery. Because when all is said and done, as forgeries are more and more sophisticated, it becomes harder and harder to find out whether an object is genuine. And that does pose huge problems for our knowledge: if this papyrus isn’t a forgery, it is now tainted by the stigma of potential forgery, and becomes that much more difficult to use. If it is, arguments already made using it have to be rethought — less of a problem over the course of only three years, but in the cases where the case for forgery has lingered longer, hugely detrimental to our knowledge (Elizabeth Marlowe has some interesting ideas on this as it relates to sculpture). We are used to think of “provenance” as a term that relates only to “art” — marble, terracotta, painting, etc. But ‘art’ in itself is a problematic (because subjective) term. Here was, and perhaps still is, a call to pay more attention to provenance for all objects.

In the end, I suspect that we will still occasionally hear about the Jesus’ wife papyrus (like the James ossuary — remember that one? It was similar in many ways). But we probably won’t end up having the conversation about why forgery is wrong or how it’s detrimental to scholarship. And in the end, that’s really unfortunate.


~J

 

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