Some More Nails for the Ossuary of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

The excitement/brouhaha over the purported Gospel of Jesus’ Wife thing has died down a bit, but over the past couple of weeks there have been a couple of developments which are probably of great importance, although we must admit that the ‘waiting for further testing’ tack which seems to have become a drumbeat over the past few weeks continues to be necessary. That said, we would like to focus on a couple of related things, but first we should point folks to our previous coverage (in case this is something new):

… and to the more regular updates of James McGrath (which will provide you with more thorough background to what follows):

With that noted, the major development of the past couple of weeks is an increasingly strong suggestion that the papyrus fragment dubbed the Gospel of Jesus Wife is a forgery.  Before getting to that, though, we must deal with the almost-lone-voice-crying-in-the-wilderness who is objecting to such suggestions: Professor Simcha Jacobovici of Huntington University. Back on October 1, when the ‘forgery’ argument was just developing, Professor Jacobovici — whose self-proclaimed mission is the burst the bubble of the academy — made an important point, but then descended into a diatribe against those he disagrees with and so was pretty much guaranteed no one would comment … inter alia:

So far, they are not accusing King and Bagnall of forgery. They are simply saying that King and Bagnall were fooled by a modern forger, who is smarter than both of them. And what do they base this theory on? Nothing! It seems – surprise, surprise – that the fragment is similar to other non-canonical gospels e.g., the Gospel of Thomas.

So what? If that was a criterion for forgery, all the canonical gospels would have to be disqualified as ancient forgeries since they all resemble each other. This is pure nonsense, but it’s what the professional naysayers do. The sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy i.e., the theologians masquerading as objective scholars, kick into action whenever their theology is threatened. They’ve learned the trick: shout “forgery!” often enough, repeat it on the internet ad nauseam and on various blogs manned by C-list scholars, and pretty soon you’ve got everyone ignoring the content of the new discovery and focusing on whether it’s real to begin with. Add a couple of charges of “sensationalism” and you’re set.

The important point Professor Jacobovici did make was that similarity to the Gospel of Thomas on its own probably was not sufficient to confidently label the GJW a forgery. Indeed, I jokingly suggested in a private conversation with assorted “C-list scholars” that we could, in theory, be dealing with a “Q” for the Gospel of Thomas or something like that. But the joke didn’t stand for very long as the connection to Michael Grondin’s interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas became more apparent (on which more later) and compelling. Once that claim came out — especially as presented by Andrew Bernhard — Professor Jacobovici took a different, and definitely important, tack (on October 16), inter alia:

The pseudo academic babble came in the form of an online article by Andrew Bernhard from Oxford no less ( And what does Andrew say? If I understand him correctly, he argues that something called the Grondin Interlinear version of the Gospel of Thomas has a kind of “typographical error” and that this type of typographical error appears in the Jesus Wife Papyrus. Meaning, someone forged the papyrus and used the Grondin Interlinear Gospel of Thomas as his guide. By copying the typographical error, however, the forger gave himself away. Bernhard’s argument is packaged in some pretty heavy analysis of Coptic writing, enough to scare anyone not at Oxford.

There’s only one slight problem with Bernhard’s analysis. I believe that Grondin’s Interlinear version became widely available online only in 2002, Bernhard says 1997. In any event, this papyrus was already seen in 1982 by Peter Munro, a prominent Egyptologist at the Free University in Berlin and a long time Director of the Kestner Museum in Hannover. More than this, he showed it to a colleague, Gerhard Fecht, who identified the papyrus as a 2nd to 4th century CE (AD) fragment. The collector who owns the papyrus turned over to Prof. King at Harvard Divinity School some signed and dated letters by Prof. Munro and an unsigned, undated note that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence. The latter states that “Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment…is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife” (emphasis added). So when you get rid of the babble, what is Bernhard really saying? He is saying that the fragment was most likely forged “after 1997 when Grondin’s Interlinear was first posted online”. How could someone forge something in 1997, when the “forged” item was already referenced in 1982?

This is an important objection and, of course, is one which really needs some explanation if the ‘forgery’ claims are to be taken seriously. It is necessary, then, to point out that Professor Jacobovici appears to be misreading the information Dr King provides about the origins of the fragment as presented in the online version of her paper (p. 2). Her first statement of importance:

Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but we have some clues about its modern history.

Gloss: the provenance of the fragment is unknown; as was mentioned in earlier analyses by practically everyone commenting on this, that is a major red flag.

Then comes this:

The current owner possesses a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin). The letter states that a colleague, Prof. Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as a 2nd-4th c. C.E. fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. He advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. This fragment of the Gospel of John is now in the collection of the owner of GosJesWife, who acquired it among the same batch of Greek and Coptic papyri.

Gloss: the papyrus which dates to the 2nd-4th century A.D. is not the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (as Professor Jacobovici’s post seems to imply). Or is it? We then move to the unsigned, undated note which states:

Professor Fecht glaubt, daß der kleine ca. 8 cm große Papyrus das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt. Fecht meint, daß dies ein Beweis für eine mögliche Ehe sein könnte.

It’s translated in a footnote:

“Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage.”

Actually, in terms of glossing all of this bit, we can look to the article Smithsonian Magazine put out back when this story was young:

[..] Among the papers the collector had sent King was a typed letter to Laukamp from July 1982 from Peter Munro. Munro was a prominent Egyptologist at the Free University Berlin and a longtime director of the Kestner Museum, in Hannover, for which he had acquired a spectacular, 3,000-year-old bust of Akhenaten. Laukamp had apparently consulted Munro about his papyri, and Munro wrote back that a colleague at the Free University, Gerhard Fecht, an expert on Egyptian languages and texts, had identified one of the Coptic papyri as a second-to fourth-century A.D. fragment of the Gospel of John.

The collector also left King an unsigned and undated handwritten note that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence—this one concerning a different gospel. “Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage.”

In other words, there’s a lot of confusion/cognitive dissonance being thrown at us here. We have dated evidence of a fragment of the Gospel of John (dated to the 2-4th century). We are told that the fragment now known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was part of the same collection by the person who is apparently the current owner. We also have an undated note — which seems kind of convenient — between a couple of dead guys hinting (perhaps) at the authenticity of the fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus’ wife. In other words, we really have nothing remotely reliable in regards to the provenance of this fragment, especially in terms of the date it was acquired by anyone involved. Professor Jacobovici takes Bernhard to task for not analyzing the handwriting of this undated note — which, of course, is beyond Bernhard’s purview — but it does seem like an avenue worth exploring. Dr King apparently has these items in her possession (according to the Smithsonian Magazine piece) so perhaps there are ‘other manuscripts’ she might want to test first.

So given the foregoing, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the lack of any solid dates specifically tied to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (as opposed to that Gospel of John that is also mentioned)  pretty much negates Professor Jacobovici’s objection in regards to possible anachronistic forgeries. We probably should also note — since Professor Jacobovici always seems to be impugning the motives of those he disagrees with — that Professor Jacobovici’s support for this fragment being genuine is motivated, of course, by his own controversial theories regarding the Talpiot tombs. He is not a neutral observer in this. (Full disclosure: I am Catholic and  am not currently suffering from  theological trauma of any kind … I am a Classicist by training and have long believed — even before I became a Catholic — that  it would be a likely thing for Jesus to have been married; indeed unusual for him not to be … it doesn’t affect my Catholicity at all one way or the other).

Turning now to the folks looking for forgery, we find most of them are actually one step removed from the blogosphere — i.e. they are degreed folks who have written papers and/or drafts of papers which various bloggers have posted.  As such, it is useful to gather them together at the outset … first we have Francis Watson’s contributions which were shared via Mark Goodacre’s NT Blog:

… we should note some criticism of Watson’s methods by Timo Paananen which were posted on James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix blog:

Most recently, however, and the ‘smoking gun’ which gave rise to Professor Jacobovici’s post noted above, was Andrew Bernhard’s article — along with Mark Goodacre’s ‘executive summary’ — which noted that a ‘typo’ in the fragment curiously seems to match a typo in the pdf version of Michael Grondin’s Interlinear English Coptic Translation of the Gospel of Thomas. Mark Goodacre has all the links here:

I encourage all to read the ‘executive summary’ and Andrew Bernhard’s paper itself … I suspect the latter spawned a LiveScience article which appeared in the past couple of days (‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Faces Authenticity Tests)

Even in the wake of Bernhard’s paper, however, there are some academic heavyweights expressing skepticism at the forgery claim … e.g Dr. Robert Kraft in a comment on Alin Suciu’s most recent post on these matters: Alin Suciu – Hugo Lundhaug: A Peculiar Dialectal Feature in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, Line 6 … Dr Kraft thinks it “improbable” that a forger would go to the trouble. I can hardly claim to be an academic heavyweight, and I’ve mentioned consistently that I know nothing about Coptic, but my somewhat-trained eye finds much to support the notion that we’re dealing with a forgery and hopefully this plain ‘visual’ analysis will add further weight to the academic claims of forgery.
To do so, I’ll be posting the same photos over and over so the reader doesn’t ‘lose’ the  train of thought. Photos of the fragments come from that Harvard Divinity School Page: The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus … and the first thing we need to reiterate (Cato like):


Someone has to adequately explain how the lettering on a page from a Codex (as we are told) can be so well-preserved on one side, and so poorly-preserved on the other side. And just for bonus marks, they have to explain why eight lines seem to fit on the legible side while the other side seems to have problems handling six. In his list of the steps a forger would have to take to pull this off, Dr Kraft suggests:

1. Find an appropriate piece, preferably old with at least one blank side and if it has any writing on its other side, let it be nearly illegible and faded Coptic. (This is perhaps the easiest step — I even have some blank pieces from my eBay purchases.)

… and someone from a nefarious profession probably wouldn’t even have to resort to eBay. In other words, it isn’t difficult to find a medium to ‘add value’ to, as we’ve mentioned in our previous post on these matters. Indeed, I think I’ve beaten that horse pretty badly by now (despite the lack of any response to it) so we can turn to other things that have struck me as odd about this. Here’s the front again:


Something that has been increasingly bothering me over the past week is how neat the right margin is and how nicely it follows the ‘edge’. It gets even more suspicious when one compares it to the transcription/translation that is also provided by the Harvard Divinity School:

The words on the right side are pretty consistent in terms of how dark/legible they are. The letters are almost all complete words (i.e., the word ends at this right margin). By contrast, we get the ‘jagged’ look of the left side, although for the most part we still seem to have complete words. This suggests to me that someone was working from a previously-prepared text and actually writing from right-to-left, whether because they were using a brush and didn’t want to smear as they were going along, or because they were left-handed, or because they came from a culture which naturally wrote things from right to left.

And just to bring the fragments a little closer to their alleged source — Michael Grondin’s translation — consider the following (he said, Bill Nye-like):

Click for a larger version

The papyrus image is line one … coincidentally, it is the line with the possible ‘smoking gun’ of a typo copied from Grondin’s Interlinear translation. The Coptic text above is the last line of p. 18 and the first line of page 19 of the pdf version of Grondin’s translation. As Bernhard and others have noted, the highlighted words make up the line in our papyrus fragment. But perhaps more importantly, it shows that the line length of the papyrus is also possibly identical to the line length in Grondin’s pdf. Other lines are made up of ‘multiple clippings’, so this might not be as apparent.

Last, and certainly not least, is an indication to the average layperson, how easy it would be to alter an existing line from Grondin’s work and give it a rather more spectacular meaning:

The papyrus excerpt is from line 5 … the ‘she will become my disciple’ bit. The top comes from p. 11 of Grondin’s translation, from the line that is 11 from the bottom (I’m not clear how these things should be cited, obviously). As can be seen, all that is required to turn the “he” to “she” is to leave off that one vertical stroke (changing a “fay” to a “sigma”, I am told, by Mark Goodacre).

In other words, there really is an awful lot going on here to suggest a forgery, even to the untrained eye. The right margin is curiously straight while the left margin is jagged. As others have shown, the words of the papyrus seem to be cut and pasted from a readily available online text of the Gospel of Thomas, and even reproduce a typo found therein. Even more, there is a decent hint that the line length of the online version of the Gospel of Thomas is being imitated and to give a gender change to otherwise uncontroversial words really wouldn’t be too difficult. Combining that with the utter lack of confidence we have in terms of the provenance of the fragment, at this point we really can’t be confident of any notions of ‘authenticity’ being attached to this so-called Gospel of Jesus Wife. Of course, we still should await the results of any testing that does occur ‘just to be sure’, but I wouldn’t advise holding breaths on this one. Any testing will either definitely rule it out or — if the forger had the sense to use distilled water and/or ancient recipes for his/her ink — deem the authenticity ‘inconclusive’. The collective analysis of the ‘forgery crowd’ should be enough to override any ‘inconclusive’ judgement.

4 thoughts on “Some More Nails for the Ossuary of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

  1. This is a reasonable summary, but I’d like to make two points.

    1) Nobody’s motives are questioned more than Simcha Jacobovicci’s. In fact, his interest in anything is automatically evidence of fraud by most academics. That’s not to say they are right or wrong, but please let’s not turn this into a matter of the pure-hearted scholarly community who smell a forgery versus the biased money-grubbing anti-forgery crowd.

    Everybody has a motive. Some motives are religious, some are monetary, some are professional, but nobody commenting on this is pure.

    2) I’m puzzled by the conclusion. If the tests show modern ink, then it obviously is a forgery. If not, then the results must be onconclusive and you still presume a forgery because of the “collective analysis of the forgery crowd.”

    If the facts don’t support the crowd’s position, why should we presume they are right? Shouldn’t opinions be based on facts?

    The textual analysis, while interesting, certainly is not proof.

    1. Thanks for the response; I’m not suggesting any ‘purity’ here at all and agree that everyone has a motive. But Professor Jacobovici has a history of dismissing cogent scholarly arguments with accusations of religious motives to the extent that those who don’t agree with him are suffering from “theological trauma”. As for the ink, the tests will either show evidence of modern substances in it (in which case it’s obviously a forgery) or, if there is no such evidence, still offers the possibility of ink made according to a non-modern recipe, which can probably be found on the internet. That is, any ink analysis won’t prove authenticity in any event, and so other criteria will have to be given weight. Until someone can explain away the things I’ve mentioned above, the authenticity (in my opinin) will continue to be questioned.

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