Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Jesus' Wife" Fragment Almost Certainly a Forgery


If you want to create a forgery using the latest techniques to fabricate aged papyrus and ink, best not rely upon the Internet for your text source.

The much-touted scrap of papyrus, containing just a few lines of Coptic text mostly from the Gospel of Thomas, has been regarded by scholars in the field as suspicious almost from the first announcement of its unveiling -- even by the professor at Harvard Divinity School who made the announcement.

The editor of the Vatican's newspaper pronounced the fragment a fake after reviewing a detailed line-by-line study of its text by a Coptic scholar, which those interested may read here.

Now, don't let the technical discussion of Coptic orthography and grammar put you off: to understand why the fragment is almost certainly a fake, we have to delve into some arcana, and I shall try to make it as easy as possible to follow, by using all the Web resources at my command.

In the scholarly article just linked, Dr. Watson (what a perfect name for this investigation!) of Durham University notes the presence of an unusual "grammatical error" in the fragment. Take a look at this line of text from the 50th Saying in the Gospel of Thomas which he reproduces on the second page of his offprint (GTh 50.1):
The underlined portion of that text is the portion that appears in the upper right corner of the first line of the fragment, as you can see from this close-up of it (H/T: Mark Goodacre's NT Blog):

The picture cuts off the alpha character at the start of the underlined portion above, but you should be able to make out the rest of the characters by matching them one-for-one to the underlined text. Also, note that after the pi character (π) the fragment has only one-half of the omega (w-shaped) character, with the rest of the last word (which means "life" in Coptic) in the line torn off.

Now compare the first line of the fragment with the actual Coptic text of the start of Saying 50, as reproduced above. Notice the one character in the underlined part which is not underlined: it is like a Roman capital M with a bar line over it. The fact that Dr. Watson did not underline it means that it is missing from the fragment in the text, as you can see again from the picture. The fragment goes directly from the iota (i) to the pi character, and that is just the problem.

For as explained in more detail at this link (as well as more briefly in footnote 3 of Dr. Watson's paper), that missing bar-M character is essential to make the phrase grammatically correct in the Coptic language. Its absence signifies either an illiterate, or negligent, copyist. But could it also signify more?

Scholars at first appear to have assumed that it was just a scribal error, as Dr. Watson did in his paper. But then the fact that all of the selections which the fragment quotes from the Gospel of Thomas match perfectly with the one known copy we have extant of that document (as recovered at Nag Hammadi) began to make them suspicious: what are the odds that a third-century copyist would have exactly the same original text to work from as the one who made the full-length copy that we have known about since 1945?

The suspicion deepened to near certainty when another Coptic scholar, Michael Grondin -- who had posted on the Web his interlinear translation of the Coptic original of the Gospel of Thomas -- noticed that his Web version of the text contained by accident the very same grammatical error in the exact same spot.  Here is an enlargement of the particular page (18) from Dr. Grondin's .pdf of his interlinear version  (again thanks to Mark Goodacre) -- notice the M-bar character is also missing between the iota and the pi:

Now, what are the odds of that?

Dr. Grondin posted his online version in 2002, and had not revised it since then. (No scholar had called the error to his attention.) It was based on the published text from the Nag Hammadi library, whose printed version does have the missing M-bar character in its proper place. But in scanning the text for his Web version, the scan apparently missed it, and our forger's mistake was evidently in relying upon the Internet-based version of the text, and not a printed one, for his forgery.

Many Christians knew from the outset that the claimed text was, if not a fraud, a Gnostic invention: Jesus never married, or else his instruction from the Cross to the apostle John to take care of his mother would have been a cruel, and very un-Jesus-like, rebuff of his supposed spouse.

Well, now we know which it is -- and once again, the popular Christian-bashing press (as well as the liberals at General Theological Seminary and other Episcopal schools), who so celebrated the find as an embarrassment to Christianity -- can eat crow.


  1. How pleased with myself. I found the error after you pointed it out. It is quite a feat for my old eyes and limited training.

    We remember when the ossary box was found with the names James, brother of Jesus, son of Joseph?

    Shame of folks who want to degrade things.

    El Gringo Viejo

  2. Not that I was losing any sleep over it, but that is a nice bit of detective work.