More Charges of Forgery Leveled against Jesus’ Wife Fragment

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/07/2014

Not long after the papyrus and ink of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment were dated to AD 659–859 in refutation of accusations of forgery, new evidence has come to light that may once again point to forgery. From the New York Times:

Last month, the Harvard Theological Review published the results, saying that radiocarbon tests produced a date of 659 to 859 A.D., and examinations using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy found that the ink matched other papyruses that were dated from the first to the eighth centuries....

Dr. Askeland discovered among the papers published in the theological review a photograph of a small tattered square of papyrus called the “Gospel of John,” which features strikingly similar handwriting in Coptic to the Jesus’ wife fragment and was tested alongside it. Both fragments were given to Dr. King by the same owner.

It happens that Dr. Askeland wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge on the Coptic versions of John’s Gospel, so he decided to compare this square fragment with another John text called the Codex Qau, an authentic relic which was discovered in 1923 in a jar buried in an Egyptian grave site. Amazingly, the text of the small John fragment replicated every other line from a leaf of the Qau codex, and for 17 lines the breaks in the text were identical. It “defied coincidence,” he said.

Dr. Askeland’s theory is that a modern-day forger copied from a photograph of the Qua codex off the Internet. If the John text is forged, he reasons, so is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which seems to be written by the same hand.

Not only that, but he found that both these John texts were written in the Lycopolitan dialect, which experts believe died out before the seventh or eighth century, when the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was supposedly written, according to radiocarbon testing. [For another problem with the John fragment, see here.]

Dr. King herself is taking this seriously:

“This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery,” Karen L. King, the historian at Harvard Divinity School, said in a telephone interview, her first since the recent developments. “This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.”

A scholar who previously supported the authenticity of the fragment also says more research needs to be done:

Malcolm Choat, a Coptic expert at Macquarie University in Australia who cautiously contradicted the doubters in his paper last month for the Harvard journal, said in an interview that the new evidence was “persuasive,” but “we’re not completely there yet”—until the John and Jesus wife papyruses can be studied in person or using high-resolution images to understand their relationship.

While nothing theological rides on such a late fragment, even if genuine, I’m still interested to see how this turns out and grateful for the public scrutiny, which I hope will discourage future forgeries.