Debate Magazine

How We Know “Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Fragment is Fake

By Eowyn @DrEowyn

In September 2012, a Harvard Divinity School (HDS) feminist professor named Karen King (now age 61) claimed that she had found archaeological evidence that Jesus had a wife.

King specializes in Coptic literature and has published several books on Gnosticism, women in antiquity, and alleged new Gospel discoveries — the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary of Magdala.

As reported by the New York Times, King made that startling assertion at an international conference on Coptic Studies on Sept. 18, 2012 in Rome. The historian of early Christianity said she had identified a scrap of papyrus from the fourth century, with a phrase in Coptic which has never been seen in any piece of Scripture:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

Jesus wife papyrus fragment

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife is a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

King claims that the provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and that its owner asked to remain anonymous.

Karen King with papyrusKaren King, then age 59, with the papyrus fragment

Since her announcement more than two years ago, King and Harvard have been silent, insisting that more information would be forthcoming and that the fragment was undergoing further “tests.”

But a number of leading experts in ancient Coptic dialects have not been silent, but have denounced the fragment to be suspicious and a fake. (See my post of Dec. 18, 2013, “No archeological evidence that Jesus had a wife“.)

Now, a for-subscribers-only Wall St. Journal article by Jerry Pattengale, “How the ‘Jesus’ Wife’ Hoax Fell Apart,” explains how scholars, notably Indiana Wesleyan University Coptic specialist Christian Askeland, definitively have proven the “Jesus had a wife” papyrus fragment to be a forgery and a hoax.

Here are the reasons:

1. The “Jesus’ wife” fragment is a match — in handwriting, ink and writing instrument used — for an earlier “Gospel of John” papyrus fragment that itself is clearly a forgery.

2. How scholars know the “Gospel of John” papyrus fragment is a fake:

  • The “Gospel of John” text had been directly copied from a 1924 publication because the former has the same line breaks as the 1924 publication.
  • The “Gospel of John” text is written in a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the 6th century. But radiometric tests conducted on the “Gospel of John” papyrus fragment by none other than Karen King found that the papyrus plants used for the fragment had been harvested in the 7th to 9th centuries. In other words, the “Gospel of John” text was written in a dialect that didn’t exist when the papyrus it appears on was made!

3. Since the “Gospel of John” fragment is proven to be fake, so too is the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus fragment because the two fragments are a match in handwriting, ink, and writing instrument used. As Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor and Coptic expert at Duke University, wrote on his NT Blog on April 25, 2014: “It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake, and this conclusion means that the Jesus’ Wife Fragment is a fake too.”

All that remains is for Karen King and Harvard Divinity School to admit her purported discovery is a forgery, and to issue an apology — for which I suggest we should not hold our breath.

H/t Patheos and FOTM’s Seumas


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