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.

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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.

 

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