Oxyrhynchus and the First Apocalypse of James: Collection History Just Got Murkier

As is often the case with important discoveries related to the ancient world these days, this is a tale that has taken a while to unfold, although ab initio there were alarm bells going off for some of us.  Back on November 19, 2017 Brice C. Jones mentioned an important discovery just revealed at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Boston. A paper was presented by Geoff Smith and Brent Landau on an “Oxyrhynchus Papyrus” which apparently contained the first Greek example of the First Apocalypse of James, which was previously known, but only in Coptic form (First Greek Fragments of a Nag Hammadi Text Discovered among Oxyrhynchus Papyri!). Inter alia, it was noted:

The papyrus codex fragments are housed in the Sackler Library at Oxford University and were found during the dig season of 1904/05. The two fragments have different inventory numbers but are written in the same hand and belong to the same codex.

Also mentioned:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this papyrus is that the scribe employed middle dots to separate syllables. This is rare in literary texts, but it does appear in school texts, which prompts the question as to how this document was used. Was it a school text? The editors suggest the papyri are fragments of a larger codex that probably contained the entire text of the First Apocalypse of James. Could the middle dots have served a liturgical function, facilitating easier reading on the part of the anaginoskon? The raison d’être of the codex is thus still being considered by the editors.

This set off alarm bells for me because I could not immediately imagine a situation where a text of this sort would be used as a scribal teaching text. And so, I was moved to tweet, of course, and a conversation ensued:

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If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘origin story’ for the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the link Dr Roberta Mazza mentions above is useful. But increasingly I find such origins stories in our discipline to become articles of faith which are never questioned. And every so often, we read about Oxyrhynchus Papyri being sold on the market and going to private collections; Brice Jones mentioned one a couple years ago (P.Oxy. 11.1351: From Oxyrhynchus to the Green Collection) as  did Roberta Mazza (Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus from the Egypt Exploration Fund distributions sold to a private collector). In the age of questioning collection history, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri ‘brand’ is probably as good as you can get. It’s precisely because of that that I had my questions: if this Greek Apocalypse of James papyrus genuinely was an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, prove it!

A few days after the Twitter convo, we finally had an official press release from the University of Texas on this:

The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University by biblical scholars at The University of Texas at Austin.   

To date, only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library — a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt — have been found in Greek, their original language of composition. But earlier this year, UT Austin religious studies scholars Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau added to the list with their discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations until now.

“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” said Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies. “We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”

The ancient narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death.

“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James — secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death,” Smith said. 

Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his “Easter letter of 367” that defined the 27-book New Testament: “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”

With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher’s model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith and Landau said.

“The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts,” said Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies.

The teacher who produced this manuscript must have “had a particular affinity for the text,” Landau said. It does not appear to be a brief excerpt from the text, as was common in school exercises, but rather a complete copy of this forbidden ancient writing.

Smith and Landau announced the discovery at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston in November and are working to publish their preliminary findings in the Greco Roman Memoirs series of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

As might be expected, the story was picked up by various outlets and spun in various ways:

… among others. The Newsweek coverage is especially noteworthy/blameworthy for trying to forge a link between this find and the James Ossuary from a few years ago. Things settled down a bit, and then a couple of days ago Candida Moss wrote an excellent corrective piece for the Daily Beast, with the intent of demonstrating — which she did — the actual significance of the find, devoid of the spin being put on it by various news outlets and websites. I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety:

That said, what caught my eye in Dr Moss’ article was the following:

The Greek of the First Apocalypse of James was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus collection, a famous group of papyrus fragments found by Grenfell and Hunt in an ancient trash heap in Egypt in the late nineteenth century. The collection is now housed at the University of Oxford. These particular fragments had been stored with a cluster of other Christian texts in the office of Oxford professor Dirk Obbink.

It was only when Obbink invited Smith to try to identify some of them that the fragments were discovered […]

So it seems these weren’t in the Sackler library when Drs Smith and Landau were given them. How can we be sure they are actually papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection? How do we know they weren’t part of some auction somewhere with dubious overtones? I’ve previously blogged on Dr Obbink’s questionable handling of papyri (The Hobby Lobby Settlement: A Gathering Storm for Classicists? ) and think it’s salutary to point out (again … and echoing rather more specifically my Twitter query mentioned above) that Dr Obbink’s story on the origins of the Sappho papyrus changed/evolved over time. If we believe Scott Carroll, Dr Obbink is also in possession of a Gospel of Mark fragment that’s been rumoured to exist for years now — and it was sitting on his pool table. Scott Carroll, of course, was the person behind the acquisition of plenty of papyri for the Museum of the Bible and others which we have been waiting to be published for ages. That said, the Apocalypse of James papyrus might very well be a genuine Oxyrhynchus papyrus, but the office it came from — as opposed to the library, perhaps — is already under a ‘cloud of suspicion’ of sorts. Hopefully the official publication will provide rather more specific evidence of its collection history and how it ended up in Dr Obbink’s office for Smith and Landau to identify.

UPDATE (the next day): see Brent Nongbri’s post for some additional background on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri:




Returning to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Reflections and Implications (I)

As readers of rogueclassicism are probably already aware, a couple of weeks ago Ariel Sabar wrote a lengthy piece in the Atlantic documenting his successful search for the owner of the so-called Gospel of Jesus Wife, who we now know is a certain Walter Fritz. It’s a sequel to an earlier piece he wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine back when the story was just breaking and overlaps to a large extent with some of the work Owen Jarus has been doing for Live Science over the past couple of years. It also overlaps with some of my own research, which I never actually had the opportunity to blog at the time (and which was largely covered by Owen Jarus’ pieces). Because of Sabar’s investigative journalism, the questions about the authenticity of the fragment currently loom larger than ever. At the same time, however, the investigative journalism approach tends to focus on the ‘telling of the story’ as much as the information involved, and important things might get lost along the way. The present post is an attempt to bring together as much as possible into one post everything that can be known about the GJW; a second post will consider the implications of this episode for scholars in Classics (soon-to-be-open museums) who are dealing with ‘new’ papyrus finds.

At the outset, I encourage people to set aside an hour or so to read the investigative journalism pieces in order; the Owen Jarus pieces are important because much of what Sabar reveals was already revealed by Jarus in one form or another:

As hinted at above, I’m going to try and organize this in a timeline, which makes the series of events  and assorted reactions a bit easier to follow. The timeline is interspersed with notes and observations along the way. An additional abbreviation to note is (KK), which is information gleaned from Karen King’s various accounts, but primarily:

  • King, Karen L. 2014. ““Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” Harvard Theological Review 107, no.2: 131-159 (online here)

It’s worth putting a link to Harvard’s collection of materials which include images (in theory; they don’t come up) and the scientific test reports (which may or may not download for you):

We’ll begin with Dr King’s account in Harvard Theological Review of how the GJW came to her:

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties.A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope, and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite. The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies.

… a footnote provides some additional information:

The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing and measuring approximately 110 x 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John.

… and away we go!

Annotated Timeline:

1961:  Laukamp swims to Berlin (AS2)

1963: Laukamp acquires papyri in Potsdam (KK)

  • so almost immediately there is a question: If Laukamp escaped East Germany in 1961, is he likely to have gone back in 1963 to ‘acquire’ the papyri?

1982 (July 15): Correspondence from Peter Munro from Gerhard Fecht to Laukamp identifying one of his papyri as being a fragment of the Gospel of John (KK)

1988-1992 or 1993: Walter Fritz is an MA student at the Free University of Berlin  (Freie Universität Berlin) (AS2)

1989:Jürgen Osing new department chair at the Free University;  apparently one tough cookie (AS2)

1991: Fritz publishes an article in Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, which apparently is still influential, but wasn’t very original(AS2)

1991 (October): Fritz hired as head of the Stasi Museum (AS2)

1992 (“Spring”): Fritz is dismissed (AS2)

  • It’s worth quoting AS on this one:

In March 1992, five months into the job, the museum’s board members ordered him to shape up. They were concerned, among other things, about valuables—paintings, Nazi military medals, Stasi memorabilia—that had gone missing from the building’s storage during Fritz’s tenure. Drieselmann confronted him about his job performance in the spring of 1992. Not long after, Fritz disappeared, leaving behind a resignation letter.

1990s  (“1992-1995”): Fritz meets Laukamp; various stories(AS2)

  • not sure the ‘met at a von Daniken’ lecture is really necessary; I’m sure this is something which could be checked out …

1993 (at the latest): Fritz in Florida (AS2)

1995: Laukamp and Herzsprung running ACMB (AS2)

1996: Nefer Art’s website is up (my own research)

  • In April of 2014 I came across Nefer Art’s website mentioned on a page advertising various Florida photography businesses after following various online sources which referred to this Walter Fritz fellow.  Nefer Art was ostensibly a photography business, but their webpage seemed to indicate other things were going on. I was particularly struck, by an image (without a label or comment) on one of the pages: a18
  • In July sent this image to assorted  papyrologists for comment, by which time the photography site had been taken down (perhaps as a result of Owen Jarus’ 2014 Live Science piece?), but this image had been up from at least 2011 to November of 2013 (but it was still in the Wayback Machine in the ‘Art’ section).  My query clearly circulated around. Most saw the reference to Hecate and below there is a reference to Phoebe. None of those who responded had ever seen it before and didn’t think it was authentic. In the most recent wave of reaction to Sabar’s Atlantic piece, Christian Askeland brings up the above and gives pretty much the common opinion (More on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Walter Fritz). The drawing is pretty ‘simplistic’ and it really doesn’t have any affinities with any known illustrated papyri and the diacritics on the Greek are potentially anachronistic. In passing we might mention the apparent ‘fascinum’ approaching the nude female, which might suggest someone was looking at items from Pompeii, but that’s speculation.
  • What isn’t mentioned in the various sites now mentioning this piece is the page it comes from  has a copyright date 1996-2012, which might provide a terminus ante quem of sorts.
  • Besides this little papyrus scrap, what also interested me about this was the name ‘Nefer Art’. Readers might recall that Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos (of Gospel of Judas fame) had a gallery named Gallery Nefer and obviously had been selling papyri therefrom.  There seems to be a Gospel of Judas connection in here somewhere (possibly coincidental)

1997: Laukamp in Florida (AS2)

1997: Walter Fritz purchases papyri from Laukamp (AS1)

  • not sure if the 1997 date is a typo in the article, something misheard by Sabar in an interview with King, or just some mistake along the way; the papyrus wasn’t sold until two years later according to the contract

1999: (November 12): Laukamp sells papyri to Fritz (AS2)(KK)

1999 (December): Laukamp’s wife dies in Germany (with Laukamp at her side); four days later, the American branch of ACMB is registered in Venice, Florida with Walter Fritz as one of the signatories (AS2)

  • when I was checking out the address of ACMB in Florida it appeared it was little more than an office; there do not seem to be ‘machine facilities’ in a building full of medical services and the like

2002 (August): ACMB bankrupt (AS2)

2002: Laukamp dies in Germany (KK)

2002: Gospel of Thomas posted on the Internet (AS2)

  • mentioned because in the scholarly/blog reaction to publication of the fragment, it was clear that there was some connection to the Gospel of Thomas, specifically the online version which had a significant error in it.

2003: Walter Fritz running a web-based porn site (AS2)

  • As might be imagined, this seems to be the thing everyone (especially the Daily Mail) latches on to. Rather than taking the moralistic stance, however, we really should be looking at this in relation to the timeline and ask why no one has really looked into Fritz’s other sources of income. With ACMB bankrupt, an income stream has clearly dried up. AS2 tells us Fritz and his wife derived up to a third of their income from this. Where was the other two-thirds coming from? Photography?

2006 (December 13): Gerhard Fecht dies (KK) … confirmed

2006 (April): National Geographic publishes the Gospel of Judas

2007 (March) Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity  is published by Elaine Pagels and  Karen King, correcting some aspects of the initial publication

  • Yes, Karen King was connected to the Gospel of Judas; it seems likely that this was how her name was known to Fritz (who clearly had an interest in Gnostic matters)

2008 (January 2): Peter Munro dies (KK) … obituary

2008 (April): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS)

  • possible  further indication of financial difficulties?

2009 (August): Fritz’s wife’s blogpost (AS2)

  • this is another one which Christian Askeland has mentioned in one of his recent posts. Fritz’s wife blogs about making little amulets which incorporate bits of papyrus. The interesting quote:

I got these fragments from a reputable manuscript dealer who was restoring a larger papyrus with a christian gospel on it. The fragments were left over and couldn’t be incorporated into the big papyrus any more because they were so small. I have photos of the restoring process.

2009: Walter Fritz in London; visits a dealer with his papyrus collection (AS2)

  • taken in conjunction with the ‘wife’s blogpost’, we now have to wonder: did Fritz go to London before or after August of 2009? Askeland thinks the GJW was created after Munro’s death; perhaps the trip to London was a sidetrip after a funeral? Did he take his papyrus collection there to get it evaluated or was he there to purchase? It would be very useful to know which dealer in London this might have been.
  • restoring a Christian gospel … this definitely requires further investigation. Maybe the Museum of the Bible knows about large Christian gospel papyri that hit the market in 2009?

2010 (February): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS2)

  • again, financial difficulties?

2010 (April): Walter Fritz writes Vatican about sexual abuse as a child (AS2)

  • if we add this to the ‘financial difficulties’ speculation, it’s worth noting that 2010 was a big year for the Vatican compensating sexual abuse victims. For German victims, such compensation was approved in September of that year. It doesn’t appear, however, that Fritz’ claims were compensated.

2010 (July 9): Walter Fritz emails Karen King about the papyrus; she is suspicious and says she didn’t have time.

2011 (June ?): Walter Fritz emails Karen King again …  (AS2)

2011 (December): Walter Fritz delivers the papyri to King. On loan to Harvard for ten years?

2012 (March): Roger Bagnall express the opinion that it is authentic based on ink penetration (AS2)

2012 (August 26): Walter Fritz registers the website: http://www.gospelofjesuswife.com (AS2)

  • This is important insofar as it raises the question of who came up with the title. It’s also important because clearly Fritz is trying to make money off this somehow

2012 (September 18): Karen King announces the details about the papyrus at the International Coptic Congress in Rome (AS1)

2012 (November 14-15, 2012) Malcolm Choat examined the fragment during a visit to Harvard  (KK)

  •  It would later result in: Malcolm Choat (2014). The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A Preliminary Paleographical Assessment . Harvard Theological Review, 107, pp 160-162. doi:10.1017/S0017816014000145.

2012 (December 17) Microscopic imaging was conducted by Douglas Fishkind and Casey Kraft with Henry Lie at the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging  (KK)

2013 (March 11-12) Raman testing of the ink was done by James Yardley with Alexis Hagadorn at Columbia University (KK)

  • ink testing suggested there was nothing inconsistent with ancient ink;  it apparently took three months to acquire funding for radiocarbon testing. We note that at one point in this saga that ‘the owner’ was going to pay for the radiocarbon testing; perhaps the fact that it took so long is another indication of his financial situation

2013 (June-July) Radiocarbon analysis was performed by Greg Hodgins at the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. Funding  provided by a gift from Tricia Nichols. (KK)

  • I’m very curious about Tricia Nichols’ involvement in this. She’s a Denver-based philanthropist and  I can’t help but wonder who approached her: was it King? Fritz? What is the connection?

2013 (August 26) Multispectral imaging was performed by Michael Toth and select images were processed by William Christians-Barry (KK)

  • I couldn’t get the images of this to come up today, but I’m wondering why this technology wasn’t used to get a better reading of the faded side …

2013 (November 5) Timothy Swager, Joseph Azzarelli and John Goods performed Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) testing at MIT (KK)

2014 (April 10):  Harvard press release about the results of the testing demonstrating that the papyrus is ancient

Now the scientific dating of the papyrus and analysis of the ink (which is not ink at all, but rather lampblack, a pigment often used in ancient Egypt for writing on papyrus) indicate that both are consistent with an ancient origin.

Because the fragment is so small, carbon-dating it proved troublesome. Researchers at the University of Arizona called into question their own results—which dated the papyrus to several hundred years before the birth of Christ—because they were unable to complete the cleaning process on the small sample of papyrus with which they were working, and felt that might have led to spurious results. A second carbon-dating analysis undertaken by Clay professor of scientific archaeology Noreen Tuross at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dated the papyrus, and a separate one (also believed to be of ancient origin) with text from the Gospel of John to approximately A.D. 700 to 800.

Because the text concerning Jesus’s wife is written in Sahidic, a language of ancient Egypt, it may be a transcription of an earlier Coptic text that was based on a Greek copy, as many early Christian gospels are. Given similarities in wording and subject to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip, the text of the GJW may originate in a time as early as the second half of the second century C.E.

2014 (April): the critical edition is published by the Harvard Theological Review

2014: Porn sites associated with Fritz  are taken down (AS2)

  • I wonder how closely this coincides with  the publication; was Fritz going to admit he was the owner of the papyri? Whatever the case, that income stream has apparently dried up.

2014 (by December): comparison of the fragment of the Gospel of John which was also part of the package which King was given was demonstrated to be much later, and so the doubts about the authenticity of the GJW were renewed.

  • The December 2014 article in the Atlantic provides an excellent summary: The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife
  • it is worth noting that King continued to refuse to believe the item was a forgery

2015 (November): Fritz denies being an Egyptologist; denies being the owner of the papyrus and doesn’t know who is (AS2)

2016 (March): Fritz denies being the owner, but says he knows the owner. He also denies forging the papyri (AS2)

2016 (two weeks later): Fritz admits he is the owner of the papyrus (AS2)

  • not sure why the ‘forging’ angle wasn’t pursued

2016 (April): AS meets Fritz face to face and ‘fleshes’ out the tale.

In short, the whole story of Walter Fritz and his admission that he is the owner of the piece clearly suggests that the Gospel of Jesus Wife probably isn’t living up to its billing. Without getting into the salacious side of things, he clearly has the knowledge to pull off a forgery — whether he had the talent is not clear (but his wife is an artist! Hmmmm). He seems to have had numerous opportunities to acquire papyri.  He had a spell of financial difficulty which might provide motive; he seems to have some chip on his shoulder in regards to academia, which might also provide motive; he seems to be somewhat charismatic and probably made use of that as well. Still, all we know for sure now is that he is the owner of the fragment of papyrus known as the Gospel of Jesus Wife. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from/about Walter in the next few months.

In the wake of the article, Karen King would concede that the information provided ‘tipped the balance’ in favour of forgery: Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’

I asked why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background. “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated,” she said.

Many news reports in the wake of the Atlantic article give the impression that this is something ‘shocking’, but is it? Karen King did a lot of things right:

  • she was initially skeptical of the claim
  • she showed the papyrus to several people for their opinion (including Roger Bagnall, who isn’t someone who would be directly connected to her ‘school of thought’)
  • she announced the discovery at a scholarly congress and not on some significant date like Easter or Christmas
  • she made preliminary versions of her paper and photos available
  • she acted on peer review suggestions to have it tested

… but she did at least one thing wrong:

  • after being so up front about the announcement and preliminary paper, she did not keep us similarly informed about the testing (i.e. she should have said ‘we are going to do this, that, and the other thing which will probably take x number of months’
  • she was not suspicious that she was given photocopies of documents; photocopying can cover up a number of ‘peccadilloes’ when one wants to fake a document (I’m sure I’m not the only one who (ages ago) photocopied any typewritten page which had used whiteout/correction fluid in order that the ‘need for correction’ wasn’t apparent in the good cop)

Notice that I did not include ‘not investigating provenance’ in there. What she had and what she told us was probably more than we’ve had in regards to a papyrus from many times. If we are ever told anything, it’s usually something like ‘acquired at an auction’ or ‘some famous dead guy acquired this from a shop in Cairo in 1922). From what I can tell, King actually gave us more than we usually get and she pretty much decided it was a closed case since everyone involved was dead. She really should not be criticized for doing what pretty much the whole discipline has been doing for at least a century.

Clearly, however, things have changed. We’ll consider the implications of all this (and the growing interest in provenance/collecting history) in a subsequent piece. One last thing to mention, however: we have been told that there were six papyri in this collection and the owner — who we now know to be Walter Fritz — was trying to sell them to Harvard. The Gospel of John piece is obviously one of the six along with the GJW. What about the other four? Is everything still being offered for sale to Harvard? Is someone else working on the other four papyri? These are some rather large questions which still need to be answered.

New Sappho Followup II ~ Implications for the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

This is pretty much a duplicate of my previous post (New Sappho Followup ~ Some Questions Answered in TLS, but since it really is a separate issue (despite being mentioned in my initial post on the Sappho things: A New Sapphic Poem ~ Wading into the Morass ) it seems to merit a post of its own. As longterm readers of rogueclassicism might recall, the last we heard of the Gospel of Jesus wife was that they were waiting the results of testing (Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Latest). Most recently, Mark Goodacre has reminded the blogworld of the same thing (Whatever happened to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?). With that in mind, I think we really should compliment the diligence of Dr Obbink in regards to similar matters as described in the TLS:

Some scholars did, at first, doubt its authenticity, including one of the editors of the last “New Sappho” to be discovered. But other indicators leave no room for doubt. Metre, language and dialect are all recognizably Sapphic and (more difficult for a forger to achieve) there are no contrary indications whatsoever of date or handwriting . The authorship of Sappho was clinched, however, when the papyrus’s text was found to overlap, in two narrow vertical bands of letters, with fragments of two previously published papyri containing fragments of Sappho. The antiquity of the physical fabric of the papyrus is beyond reproach: indeed, it was damaged in ancient times, torn up the centre of the one complete surviving column, and still bears the ancient papyrus repair strips on its back applied in antiquity. It is written in black carbon ink in an identifiable professional bookhand, but with idiosyncratic stylistic traits that would be difficult for a modern calligrapher consistently to emulate. It also passes tests of spectral analysis for density of ancient carbon-base ink. The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance. The owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, but has submitted the papyrus to autopsy and multi-spectral photography, as well as Carbon 14 testing of an uninscribed portion of the papyrus sheet itself by an American laboratory, that returned a date of around 201 AD, with a plus-minus range of a hundred years.

So it appears that it really isn’t that difficult to arrange for this sort of testing. The obvious question: what’s taking so long to get it done with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

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Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Latest

This one’s just starting to make the rounds and likely won’t get too much attention. CNN’s Belief Blog has an update of sorts on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife thing, especially as regards the testing, which, of course, we all await with bated breath. Inter alia:

[…] A dealer took the fragment to King for analysis and translation in 2011. The dealer wishes to remain anonymous, she said.

“We’re moving ahead with the testing, but it is not yet complete, and so the article will await until we have the results,” King said in an email to CNN.

“The owner of the fragment has been making arrangements for further testing and analysis of the fragment, including testing by independent laboratories with the resources and specific expertise necessary to produce and interpret reliable results. This testing is still underway,” Kathyrn Dodgson, director of communications for the Harvard Divinity School, said in a email to CNN.

“Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish Professor King’s paper after conclusion of all the testing so that the results may be incorporated,” Dodgson said. “Until testing is complete, there is nothing more to say at this point.” […]

As presented, this is a little misleading. The owner of the fragment didn’t just bring the fragment “for analysis and translation”. He (or she) is trying to sell a collection of papyri to Harvard, something which seems often to be missed in all these discussion. At the close of an article in Harvard Magazine, e.g., we see:

The collector (who told King he wishes to remain anonymous to avoid being hounded by people who want to buy the fragment) has recently offered to give it to Harvard as part of a purchase of a substantial portion of his collection. He has told King that the discovery made him realize that these types of things needed to be in the hands of libraries and universities where they could be properly studied and not disappear into private collections. Harvard is now formally deciding if it wishes to acquire the collection.

In his notice of this ‘update’ (GJW update), Jim Davila expresses concern that it is the collector who is having the testing done and wonders whether we will get an answer to the authenticity question. This is a valid concern and we similarly would like more details about who is doing the testing and whether they are legit etc.. But now we do see why this testing has been taking so long — if we put this in the context of Harvard buying the fragment, it is clearly up to the seller to produce the proof of its authenticity and clearly Harvard has listened to the blogosphere in regards to questions thereof. Then again, it seems likely that this sort of thing might be standard procedure whenever there is doubt cast. The longer the owner-initiated testing takes, of course, the more doubt can be cast on the authenticity. For my part, I am beginning to doubt whether we’ll ever hear of test results.

In case you’ve missed the saga (in chronological order):


Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ~ Just Sayin’

Tip o’ the pileus to Robert Cargill who alerted us to a post at The Quaternion (A Coptic New Testament Papyrus Fragment (Galatians 2) For Sale on eBay) which really has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, but does, as the title suggests it might, presents a photo of a fragment of a Coptic fragment of the New Testament. Even better, this fragment comes from a Codex and Brice Jones includes photos from both sides of the page. Hopefully people will see from this my constant complaints about the state of preservation of one side of the “codex” page that has been dubbed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (e.g.: Some More Nails for the Ossuary of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife).