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‘Jesus’ wife’ fragment authenticity doubtedcomment (0)

October 4, 2012

‘Jesus’ wife’ fragment authenticity doubted

Various news outlets caused a stir over the announcement of a small, newly translated Coptic manuscript fragment indicating that Jesus may have had a wife.

But what should Christians make of the new claim?

Not much, according to scholars at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS). In fact, even the scholar who presented the discovery Sept. 18 at the International Association of Coptic Studies in Rome downplayed any possible link between the Coptic fragment and the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels.

James Leonard, assistant registrar at NOBTS’s Leavell College, studied Coptic texts intensively during his doctoral studies at Cambridge University. And while he has only seen photographs of the recent discovery, he is skeptical about the authenticity of the document.

“We have to start out by deciding whether the fragment is ancient or if it is a modern forgery. If it’s a forgery, what do you do, you just throw it out,” Leonard said. “If it is indeed ancient — going back to the fourth century or even to the second century — it still would have no historical value pertinent to Jesus’ life, given that its witness is so late.”

The papyrus fragment, smaller than a business card, includes eight lines of handwritten text in the Coptic language. Derived from the Greek alphabet, Coptic is essentially the Egyptian language represented with an alphabet rather than hieroglyphics. 

Some who have commented about the fragment note a strong resemblance to the noncanonical Gnostic manuscript known as the Gospel of Thomas.

Karen L. King, the Harvard University scholar who has been studying the manuscript, believes it is a genuine fourth-century copy of a second-century text. However, the owner of the fragment has not been identified and little is known about the document’s origins. King has repeatedly issued cautions to the media. The text, she said, does not provide historically reliable data regarding Jesus’ marital status.

Key figures in the textual studies discipline are split on whether the document is authentic; that is, whether the document was written in the fourth century. Some scholars, including Roger Bagnall of New York University and AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton, have joined King in arguing for the document’s authenticity. Other scholars, including Francis Watson of Durham University and Simon Gathercole of Cambridge — professors Leonard worked closely with during his doctoral studies — have pointed out what they believe are telltale signs of forgery. In a paper posted online at www.markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf, Watson argued that the text appears to be constructed by a modern author rather than an ancient native Coptic speaker. 

“Watson shows how the fragment looks as if a forger took snippets of quotations from various Coptic sources — mostly the Gospel of Thomas — and patched them together,” Leonard said.

“Indeed, one line of the fragment ‘coincidentally’ ends at the same place where the text is broken off in the corresponding line of the only extant manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas,” he said.

Gathercole sees another reason for concern: the most inflammatory statement in the manuscript is squarely in the center of the fragment. While the shocking statement is in the middle, key explanatory information is missing because of where the document is torn.

Bill Warren, New Testament professor and director of the Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS, has been following the discussion about the new discovery. Warren said the “clean cuts” and careful framing of “my wife” without the surrounding words to provide context creates suspicion about the document’s authenticity. 

“If we assume that the fragment is authentic, the placement of the main statement being discussed about Jesus saying ‘my wife’ right in the center of the fragment is at best suspicious, and the lack of a fuller context for knowing what exactly was being said lends itself to speculations that may be far off the mark if only a fuller context was known,” Warren said. “For example, was Jesus answering a question about ‘my wife’ and so us[ing] the wording from the questioner? We simply don’t know the context.”

Warren also mentioned the detail most news outlets have apparently missed. The scholars who believe the document dates to the fourth century and those who believe it is a modern forgery agree on one thing: the fragment does not offer credible facts about Jesus.

“This fragment even if authentic does not tell us anything about the historical Jesus, even as Karen King herself admits, but some in the press seem to overlook [that],” Warren said. “Rather it tells us about either a divergent group’s deviant beliefs or someone’s strange imagination-driven ideas about Jesus.”


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