Friday, September 21, 2012

The Jesus Wife Papyrus: Real or Fake?

It has been a busy few days since I first posted about the so-called Jesus' Wife fragment. The newspapers, television and blogosphere have been full of stories and opinions about the existence of the recently announced papyrus. I was surprised that even my small hometown newspaper had a short article about the discovery. And the story is moving fast.

As I said in the original post, it is important for us to be patient and see what the community of scholars has to say about this. Now that the papyrus has been published, it is time for the experts to examine it and weigh in.

But there has been no end of people chatting about this online. Some are well-respected scholars who, for the most part, are applauding the discovery but are also cautioning that there is a lot we still don't know. And then of course there are the usual suspects who are already making sensational claims about Jesus having a wife and are wondering where they should send a gift to the happy couple.

So here is a round up of some of the better links.

Larry Hurtado is cautious but does point out that calling the fragment the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is a bit premature.

Simon Gathercole notes that while the fragment has been judged to be authentic by two experts, there are some reasons to be skeptical.

Dan Wallace offers us a reality check of what we know and can say about the fragment.

Mark Goodacre provides a good round up of the story and offers a short article from Francis Watson in which Watson suggests that the fragment is a fake. For a response to Watson's article see James McGrath who thinks that there is still reason to doubt it is a modern forgery.

April Deconick does think Jesus was married, but doesn't think that this fragment proves it.

Tom Verenna has two good posts concerning the authenticity of the fragment. In the first he lays out four reasons why the fragment's authenticity should be questioned. In the second post he revisits those questions with answers from Richard Carrier. But Tom is still somewhat skeptical.

And now for those who plan to attend the Jesus nuptials.

I was disappointed to learn that the Smithsonian Channel was producing a special on the fragment. I had thought this was being handled the right way without the usual media circus. But since the special will air on September 30th, it now looks like this whole story will be sensationalized anyway.

And then of course there is Simcha Jacobovici. This is the man known for supposedly finding Jesus' family tomb and that of Joseph of Arimathea. Simcha is now sure that his theories have been vindicated.

Probably the best assessment of the situation so far is not from a biblical scholar but Jon Stewart. I offer you his slightly irreverent but humorously insightful take on the story.

And then for a slightly more irreverent but humorous take there is the Colbert report.


  1. John:

    "Scholars" have to get over the idea that there is something wrong with media coverage. Any finding that gets reported in the press immediately becomes fraudulent in the eyes of people such as Goodacre and Verenna.

    I can only surmise that many academics think they live in a special bubble that only they are qualified to decipher and if anything so vulgar as the uneducated masses finds it interesting, it automatically becomes suspect.

    This fragment is interesting to the world at large because of its content. That's life. Everything I have read in the press has been responsible.

    John, I'm not aiming this at you in partcular, because you normally seem reasonable, but I'm not sure why you are disappointed in the fact that something of interest to the public becomes the subject of a news documentary. Maybe you can tell us which news outlets should be allowed to cover it and when?


    1. DZ,

      My disappointment is due to the fact that prior to this fragment being announced and made available to other experts in the field it was already produced into a documentary for Smithsonian. Granted, they have a right to do this, but this documentary was clearly in the production stages for weeks if not months before anyone else in the field knew of the fragment's existence and/or translation. My only criticism of the media was specifically aimed at the Smithsonian Channel and Simcha, who has a history of making irresponsible remarks.

      As far as the academics, those who I know, including Mark Goodacre and Francis Watson, react not because they have a low view of the "uneducated masses" but the very opposite. These scholars are people who do know Coptic, do understand papyrology and want the public to have good information on the topic. Thus far I would agree that the media has been responsible. But I do think the whole thing smells a bit fishy when the scholar studying the fragment already has a movie deal sown up before publishing the results of her analysis. That is not a criticism of the public but other scholars who should know better. And I think that is the beef Verenna and Goodacre have here.

  2. Well, "scholars" know more offhand about this kind of thing than the general public. And the larger scholarly community needs to examine, evaluate, and critique the findings.

    For example, Dirk Jongkind (a respected scholar) has pointed out that the size & shape of the fragment is suspicious. Francis Watson (another respected scholar) has pointed out suspicious similarities it has to the Gospel of Thomas. The general public wouldn't even know that the name Jesus is written in the form of nomina sacra. The public wouldn't necessarily notice these things and their importance to the discussion.

    And lately too many times, a new "discovery" makes big front-page news (e.g., the lead codices) only to be exposed later as a forgery (and only be mentioned as a back-page footnote). The fragment needs critical examination by the larger scholarly community before any media circus should occur.

    And this critical examination should work both ways... both for things that challenge the traditional understanding of Jesus or the NT (such as this Coptic fragment somewhat does)... or for things that promote a traditional understanding (such as the alleged first-century papyrus fragment of Mark to be published by Brill next year).


    1. Who has the right to say when the public is allowed to know anything?

      How many scholars have to look at it? I want a specific number.

      Do they have to have certain credentials? Which ones?

      What happens if they don't agree, as they surely won't? Then it gets suppressed? Maybe it goes to arbitration before Justice Scalia?

      Who writes these standards and who enforces them? Would publishing a find improperly be punishable by jail time or just a fine?

      It would be nice if everything was neat and tidy, and avery find was obvious, but the world doesn't work that way.

      And that's my central complaint. These complaints about the media are based on a pining for impossible standards in a world that is not like the real world the rest of us live in.


  3. See, what galls me is the idea that any publicity for a find is evidence that the find is suspect. Can't you see how circular and irrational that argument is?

    Apparently this fragment has been hidden for decades. Does the fact that nobody knew about it make it less likely to have been a fraud, or did the likelihood of fraud jump on the day it was announced?

    I'm just gobsmacked by the idea that there is some unwritten rule that scholars (in this case King) have some duty to "share" finds with some "scholarly community." If I read the paper right, King consulted at least three experts in the field. Why is that not enough? Was she supposed to put it on the Internet? I fail to see anything wrong with consulting the Smithsonian or making a documentary.

    Understand I have no opinion about the provenance, and don't think that this proves anything with regard to Jesus being married. Obviously a lot of non-historical things have been written about Jesus.

    However, I'm appalled by the scholarly blog clique who savage anything new or unconventional, usually on the first day they hear about it.


    1. DZ,

      I am not sure whether this is a fraud or not. And even if it isn't it doesn't change the way things should work in the field. Yes, King consulted three experts, but as happens many times in the field, there will be those who disagree. That will just take time to shake out. But by moving to a popular venue so fast it appears that King may be circumventing what is protocol among those of us who work in the field. There should be time for it to be studied more. Look, I wouldn't have objected to the documentary if during this week King was contacted about it and agreed to do it in time for Xmas. But the timing is unfortunate. It means that there is greater potential for misinformation to be perpetuated. And as far as a "duty" to share with other scholars, it is known as peer review. All of us who want to have our work taken seriously submit it to peer review to be tested, as would any good scientist or other historian. At this point, it seems like that is not happening.

    2. Just so I am clear, why is three experts not enough? What is the proper number?

      How do you define "fast?" The thing has been in a closet for 30 years, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. And the scrolls would have sat unread in scholars' desks for another 30 years if not for the press.

      And if you chide King for acting rashly, why no harsh words for those who conclude it is a fraud on the day they heard of it? Without ever seeing it in person?

      I completely fail to understand why the timing was unfortunate. This piece either is or isn't a fraud, which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with how or when it is reported in the press.

      I'm not an academic, how does peer review work? Does peer review involve publishing drafts on the Internet? Or does it involve showing a paper to a limited number of professors who have the chance to make comments and suggestions before it is finalized (which is what King did)?

      I think you are completely wrong as to the potential for misinformation. Look, the opinions about this thing have very little to do with the evidence and everything to do with everybody's institutional axes. Jim West and his clique are going to denounce everything that they feel is negative in relation to their faith.

      Bashing the press gets used as a cover for the truth, which is that they are unwilling to consider anything that might conflict with their cherished ideas. And again, this is not aimed in particular at you, you strike me as much more temoerate and reasoned than most.

    3. That was by me.


    4. DZ,

      You are obviously very passionate about this and I appreciate that. I am not sure what ax you have to grind with Jim West since I don't read his posts and have not for some time. Perhaps you are right about him and others like him, I am unable to comment.

      I must say before I answer any more that somehow this conversation has drifted into a discussion of King, which is not what I wanted. I don't know Karen King nor I am trying to criticize her work. As I have said above and in previous posts, caution needs to be used here. I will hold King's conclusions tentatively until more people have had a chance to weigh in.

      My disappointment, which would include King,is what appears to be a rush to sensationalize the find when only a limited group of people have had the chance to see and study the fragment. This is the same criticism I leveled at Dan Wallace over the gospel of Mark fragment. Although in that case Wallace has yet to let anyone see it.

      I supposes as far as the documentary goes we will have to wait and see exactly what they will say. But at this point, it is hard to know what more they can say about it.

      Peer review, yes, involves sending it to two to three people. But no, there is no magic number. There more eye and brains the better since there is more opportunity to understand it better and perhaps see things others do not.

      Yes, king did show the scrap to some other papyrologists. But even in this case once it is published it would give more scholars the chance to study it and test King's hypothesis. I am not suggesting she is committing fraud.

      As far as misinformation, I have seen too many examples on TV and in print of misinformation presented as fact and perpetuated. I stand by that comment.

      I suppose that the thing we disagree on here is whether or not King should have been making a documentary prior to her revealing her findings to the community. I think I will be in a comfortable majority of those who would rather there had been more time for it to be studied and then put on Discovery or what have you. In the end DZ, that seems to be really the only thing we disagree upon.

    5. I think you are right about our disagreement, and I appreciate your tone.

      You are also right about the fact that I am passionate about the underrated freedom of the media. Not to mention that "media" or "press" encompasses a huge number of very different formats and organizations, which makes generalizations useless.



  4. A good friend posted this on Facebook:

    “It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational is the promotion it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts,” Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown wrote nearly three decades ago. “People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the traditions about how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead are fascinated by the report of some ‘new insight’ to the effect he was not crucified or did not die, especially if his subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India.”


  5. On a lighter note, Dr. Byron - because I enjoyed the videos, here's one for you. Did you follow the Jesus Wife trend? A nice round up: