Two Days Later: Another Evaluation of the ‘Jesus Wife’ Papyrus

Yesterday I posted several suspicions about the authenticity of the papyrus, but some of those suspicions may not be immediate cause to doubt.  After speaking with Richard Carrier (who, by the way, trained in papyrology under Roger Bagnall), I have to revise some of my earlier criticisms.  I’m still very skeptical about the antiquity of the papyrus, but I’m feeling a little less hostile towards the notion that it might be genuine (plus I am still waiting for the analysis of other experts like Alin Suciu to weigh in).

1. The ‘Fresh look’

There are some serious concerns here about provenance.  We just don’t know whence it came.  So why the condition appears to be very clean, I cannot say.  Also, it appears that it has been cut up (i.e., antiquities dealers will cut up papyrus sheets as a way to make more money) and, since we lack context, it is feasible that this just happens to be a part of the leaf of papyrus that turned out to be the cleanest.

But even if it turned out this was the case, it wouldn’t automatically mean that this leaf is authentic and even testing the papyrus sheet itself won’t necessarily yield a conclusive answer.  Since smart forgers can use ancient papyrus just as workshops that produce fake codices will use ancient lead; the only way to dissolve most doubt about the fragment would be to verify the antiquity of the ink (but even with ink, I’m told, a smart forger would know how to manipulate that).  Is your head spinning yet?  This is the trouble with unprovenanced artifacts and manuscripts, there is just no way to remove reasonable doubt completely.  Moving on…

2. The Laying, Inking, Blotching, and Misalignment of the Script and

I’ve been working off the assumption that any scribe copying a narrative text (like a Testament, a Wisdom book, a Gospel, etc…) would be a professional; that is to say, such a scribe would be meticulous and produce a script that looks like this:

Fragment of the Gnostic text ‘Dialogue of the Savior’

These are the type of manuscript fragments that I’ve seen predominantly.  They make up the majority of Gnostic manuscripts we have from the 3rd-4th Centuries CE (e.g., like those from the Nag Hammadi codices).  However, there are tons of manuscripts that are not written by professionals.  And some of them look like our ‘Jesus Wife’ fragment:

This manuscript has the blotching, the light script and the darker script, which I’ll explain below.

Here is a closer analysis:

This effect can be the result of a scribe, using a thicker reed, who is continuously running low on ink (and thus needing to re-apply fresh ink after a few lines; so the result is lighter script and then darker script and then lighter script again, the result of the ink running low and then requiring an additional application).  So this is why this type of blotching is found on other ancient manuscripts and may be the reason why there is similar blotching on the ‘Jesus Wife’ fragment.

Of course, it is possible that a smart forger would be able to do the same thing, given time.  Once more we see that without a proper context it is impossible to know with any certainty that this fragment is genuine, but it is becoming less likely (though still in the realm of ‘possible’).

Also, I made the note also of how the script failed to remain in any sort of straight line and there even appeared to be examples of script getting smaller (like with what we saw on the fake Gos. Mark fragment).  But this is apparently also a phenomena that occurs with nonprofessional scribes who probably did not use lines to produce straight script.

So this is still seen in some manuscripts where the scribe was simply untrained or just didn’t care or perhaps was in a hurry.  Either way, what we find is that in many cases it depends on the scribe who copied the text.

Important Caveat:

Just a quick note, however.  While these sorts of script variations exist, I’m not sure I’ve seen, or know of a case where, blotching and misalignment are occurring on the same manuscript.  In other words, if a scribe has enough time to reapply coats of ink to a reed and papyrus, I imagine he has enough time to make his work neat–and the script on the ‘Jesus Wife’ fragment is very neat (that is, the script appears to be written in the same style as some of our other Coptic codices–something King also makes note of in her published article), and this is indicative–in my opinion–of some ample scribal training.  So there should be no reason why a trained scribe (someone who would be educated enough to know better) would produce these sorts of lackadaisical lines of script that appear to follow no line order.  So this does cause me to pause.  Also the darkening of the line specifically dealing with ‘my wife’ does bother me as well.  More on this below.

3. Conclusion with Discussion

These details definitely forced me to rethink my original impressions of the fragment, but some items of note still trouble me a great deal.  Many leading experts in Coptic manuscripts doubt its authenticity–including those who were present at King’s presentation of the paper at a conference in Rome (among them Alin Suciu, who I respect a great deal).  But Bagnall actually saw the fragment and Bagnall is quite a force to reckon with in the world of papyrology.

However, a good forger can produce a good fake.  What also concerns me, more so than the manuscript, is the money changing hands.  The anonymous owner of the fragment (again, ALWAYS a specious matter when anonymous dealers are involved) is looking for financial gain in all of this (he wants to sell it to Harvard) and there apparently is a movie/documentary in the works about this piece.  That means that there is a financial gain for faking such a manuscript.

That isn’t to say it is fake, but it does raise some eyebrows.  And in a community where fakes are commonplace–especially when you factor in anonymous dealers and lack of provenance–this is no idle matter.  Certainly there is reason to be concerned and reason to doubt this fragment’s genuineness.  As for me, I don’t think this is a genuine fragment.  It will take some more than circumstantial possibilities to change my mind on this.

More Thoughts on the Markan Manuscript Fragment

This picture has been making headlines around the Biblioblogosphere and academic community boards on

James McGrath brings up the fact that this picture was first circulated on D.M. Murdock’s message boards.  Interestingly, however, the fragment has (surprisingly) been transcribed correctly by her (though her eisegesis of the text is terrible and her correlations are nothing short of parallelomania). Still, the picture has no provenance and there is no provided moniker which is shocking (especially if such a find is legitimate; the first thing that should have happened was for the institution to issue a moniker for it and designate a group of experts to investigate it).

Here is a side by side I made of the uncial script next to the fragment (all graphics below were made by me unless otherwise specified):

And here is the overlay:

The text is of Mark 5.15-18 for those who were unaware.

A couple of thoughts:

  • First the fragment looks crisp and the text sharp.  This has been pointed out by Jim West and others, though I’ve seen the DSS’s and they look crisp and the text looks sharp (though admittedly they are still more faded than this).  Compare this fragment with the Isaiah Scroll and you’ll see a very clear difference.   Compare also to this uncial Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072.
  • Against the authenticity of the fragment, anyone who has seen a scroll or manuscript will note that this fragment is missing scribal lines (like the lines on lined paper found in notebooks everywhere).  They appear in the two examples I gave earlier (closeup is below).  Not every papyrus has the lines this clear, but even if the lines were not present, one can clearly see that the script on the fragment changes in size and varies in placement (it is not in a straight line which is what one expects and the rows are not evenly spaced).

  • Another problem, as others have already brought to the attention of the community, is the differences in the letters; they are extremely inconsistent.  There are three different versions of alpha in the fragment alone which suggests a hand that is unfamiliar with the language.
  • There are some reasons why I would stress caution before immediately jumping on ‘fake’:
    • I would imagine that even forgers would do a better job than this; especially expert forgers who have been doing this sort of thing for years in markets where they expect to find experts (heck I could do a better job than this), so that might suggest that this is an authentic piece.  Or it might just prove that the forger was an amateur or simply didn’t care about his accuracy and just wanted to make a quick buck off a gullible tourist who wouldn’t know the difference.
    •  What really makes me pause is how the Greek of this lines up.  A forger, I suspect, would just copy off existing Greek manuscripts of Mark (from any of the codices–like the Sinaiticus or the Vaticanus–online which are easy to come by; just find it, print out a sheet, and copy onto papyrus) but these are not lined up according to the columns on any of the codices I’ve looked over.  This might mean that, if it is a forgery, then the forger could have used a Greek uncial manuscript that is not known (at least not to me, though might exist somewhere).  The letters aren’t  random, they do match up with Mark 5.  Though again this could just be a sloppy forgery and the forger could have just taken a few letters a line for a few lines to fill in the blank fragment (or a full sheet which they then cut up and distributed as fragments).
  • Finally, there are no fray marks (which has been pointed out elsewhere).  No signs of disintegration or degradation.  I’ve seen a lot of modern papyri (you can get them for a good price on eBay these days); there is no dirt on this fragment and you can clearly see that the edges appear cut rather than having been pulled apart by wear or by time.   I’ve stated before on other blogs and in comments that the piece looks ‘fresh’.

All that said, I have to say it looks fake.  The fact that the papyrus of this fragment is so clean leads me to believe that the papyrus leaf this fragment came from is modern (and you can pick up papyrus with Egyptian iconography or Greek script on them from eBay these days for relatively no cost, add text to the blank parts, cut it up, and sell it for a nice profit).  I’m still going to remain cautious about offering any definitive statement (though others have already made clear their opinions on the matter), but I lean towards forgery on this one.   Time will tell.

Further reading:

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