The ‘Wife of Jesus’ Fragment a Day Later: Some Concerns About Authenticity

I neglected to blog this yesterday (for background go here); with my busy schedule and limited time, I felt it best to give the whole story a day to run through the paces before discussing it at any length.  I’ve taken some time to seriously contemplate this new find and thought I might offer some additional perspective (though in the end it will probably imitate what others have already said).

First and foremost, the things that interests me about this is the ‘freshness’ of the manuscript.  It looks ‘clean’.  In fact it reminds me a lot of the ‘freshness’ I noted with the so-called Markan fragment that hit the blogs a few months back–though admittedly that one looks *very* suspect.  This fragment, however, is quite fascinating.

Frayed edges, definitely papyrus. Coptic looks dense.

It is fascinating to me precisely because I can’t shake the feeling that something is off about it.  Granted, I’m no papyrologist, so perhaps Alin Suciu or even Richard Carrier (who is actually trained in papyrology) can correct me if I’m wrong on any of these points.

Here are some concerns.

  1. The papyrus itself looks ‘fresh’; it reminds me of the sort of papyrus one would find on eBay with some neat little Egyptian iconography on it–the fraying looks like something I’ve seen before:

    Modern papyrus sheet selling for $15.

    Besides the fraying on the side, which I still feel looks too ‘fresh’, there is the subtle issue that the papyrus shows no addition signs of wear that I’ve seen elsewhere–no deterioration is obviously noticeable anywhere around the central portion of the papyrus?

  2. Ink is another big concern.  The Coptic looks like it has been ‘layered’ on (for a lack of a better word).  As if someone went over the letters more than once to give it a blotched appearance that I’m not very familiar with.  This may be due to my lack of experience, but it seems that some words have been ’emboldened’ to make them more obvious to readers or observers.
  3. Spacing.  There is no amount of real spacing between the lines of script.  It seems as if, to me, someone tried to fit a lot of information in a small amount of space.  But it has been my understanding that enough spaces were given between lines of script to allow for marginal or scribal notes to be added.  I see no indication that such spaces exist on this fragment.

    Compare the Jesus Wife fragment with this papyrus, for example, to see the spacing between lines.

  4. Line disarray.  The script appears not to follow any lines; in the center the Coptic script dips down and then travels back up, as if someone forgot to include lines for the script to follow.

    Notice how the lines seem all disarrayed. This seems abnormal to me.

These are just some of my concerns, but I think they might be important ones.  When I first saw the fragment yesterday I didn’t say much, other than that the translation looked interesting and that there were no real causes for alarm (a 4th century manuscript that mentions a wife of Jesus is really nothing to freak out about; no real controversy involved).

I am especially interested to hear from anyone else who might have concerns about this fragment.  The fact that it is unprovenanced is very telling, in my opinion, though that doesn’t necessarily make it a fake.  Also I would like to be clear that none of this criticism is directed at Karen King, whose work is otherwise very exceptional and should be considered a model for those looking to publicize a new discovery.

  • See also Mark Goodacre’s analysis here (he raises some of the same issues)
  • UPDATE: Jim West provides additional details on the motivation behind the release of this fragment.  You’ll want to check it out.
  • UPDATE 2: See James McGrath’s roundup of the current conversation about the fragment here.
  • UPDATE 3: My impressions have changed based upon new information.  Read the new article here.


14 Responses

  1. I wonder if this unnamed owner may have had a hunch about what it said and so he tampered with it a bit highlighting the words he thought were of interest? Or maybe in the process of going from one hand to another someone did their own attempt at reworking of the letters by darkening them? Those are a couple of thoughts that came to mind. That said, I am no Papyrologist either, but I do think that your concern about the ink (shared by Mark Goodacre who wrote “I can’t get over how amateurish and blotchy the fragment’s text looks” here: is one I hope is addressed as people continue to study the fragment.

  2. Oh wow, Mark and I were on the same page on this one. He and I talked a bit about this off-channel, as it were, and he did mention he felt that there were indications of ‘darkening’ too, but I hadn’t yet read his blog on it. I’d say ‘great minds think alike’ but I wouldn’t want to insult him!

  3. […] “The Wife of Jesus Fragment a Day Later: Some Concerns About Authenticity” Tom Verenna expressed more concern noting that (1) he thinks the papyrus looks ‘fresh’; […]

  4. I agree with you. It does look suspicious to my, untrained, eye. Still Roger Bagnall has looked at it. He is (as far as I know) the leading papyrologist in the English speaking world, and he has an interest in early Christian papyri. Surely he wouldn’t give his opinion that it looks authentic if it has been so blatantly manufactured… Interesting story to follow though.

    After the hype in the press over those faked lead codices you would have thought the media would be a bit more restrained in this next round of “amazing discoveries” that occur every year that supposedly change our mind on early Christianity.

  5. I am very interested in what Alin Suciu has to say about it.

  6. […] offer perspectives reflecting appropriate scholarly caution. Christian Askeland, Paul Barford, Tom Verenna and Jim West expressed suspicion about authenticity and/or the motives of the owner of the […]

  7. I find it interesting that the ink on the back is so faded, as are the letters on the very bottom (partial) line of the front, while the rest of the front has much darker ink.

  8. […] The ‘Wife of Jesus’ Fragment a Day Later: Some Concerns About Authenticity […]

  9. […] l’autorevolezza di Bagnall). A sollevarli è un blogger tutt’altro che “devoto”: Thomas Verenna. Tra i molti interventi a caldo, il suo ci sembra per ora il più interessante, anche perché […]

  10. […] Verenna has two good posts concerning the authenticity of the fragment. In the first he lays out four reasons why the fragment’s authenticity should be questioned. In the second […]

  11. […] Thomas Verenna, The ‘Wife of Jesus’ Fragment a Day Later: Some Concerns About Authenticity and Two Days Later: Another Evaluation of the ‘Jesus Wife’ […]

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