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The Rest of the (News) Story

Our fast-paced world often jumps from news story to news story, reporting on something for a time but then moving on; front page news quickly recedes into the back pages. At times, there are new developments in sensational news stories that do not get the same publicity as the original story, perhaps because the original “story” would be ground-breaking, but further investigation proves that the great claims of the news story do not have any credible evidence and thus nothing has really changed..

The story of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” would be one such story, as in 2012 a Harvard Divinity School Professor named Karen King revealed a small (about 8 X 4 cm, so the size of a business card) piece of papyrus (ancient writing material) that included the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” Such a fragment, which had a mysterious background before coming to King, was said to call into question central claims of the Christian faith and supported the viewpoint of those who seek an alternative to traditional Christianity. Its discovery garnered attention in publications such as the The Smithsonian, the New York Times, and USA Today. This past week, however, the Harvard professor who advocated for the authenticity of this fragment admits that it is probably a fake, something that numerous other reputable scholars have been arguing for the past four years for a variety of reasons. King had been defending the writing during this time, but after an investigative story came out in the Atlantic, King became convinced it was a forgery. While the original story was much publicized, it is unclear if as much attention will be devoted to this potentially final chapter, so I wanted to make sure you know about it.

There are a variety of reasons to consider the text a forgery. Carbon-dating tests show the fragment more likely to be medieval than ancient. Much of the text seems to be copied from the Gospel of Thomas, another text that emerges after the time of the New Testament and teaches a different form of Christianity. In fact, it seems to be a copy of an edition of the Gospel of Thomas available on the internet since it features the same errors. In addition, the handwriting and script do not seem to match ancient conventions. Finally, this text was not one that was discovered at an archaeological site but one that was purchased by a collector, with the antiquities market being known for fakes and forgeries as a way to make money. In fact, the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment came to Harvard with another fragment from the Gospel of John, with these two texts matching in the handwriting and ink, but the Gospel of John fragment was proved to be a forgery, a copy not from the 4th century but one the followed that printing of a manuscript in a 20th century book. Because these two fragments feature the same ink and handwriting, it is likely that both are forgeries.

It must also be noted how public media also misunderstood the significance of this fragment had it been deemed not a forgery -- as Dr. King claimed that it was a fourth century copy of a potentially late second century work. Why are those dates important? First, the date of the fragment would be later than fragments we have of the canonical gospels (those gospels in Scripture, which we call the “canon”). Second, the date of the composition of the work would still be over a hundred years later than the date of the composition of the canonical gospels. Also important is the fact that it would be a translation, as the fragment was in Coptic, not its Greek original -- we have New Testament manuscripts in the original language. The size of the fragment (it only featured eight lines) should also be remembered, as it would be only a minor portion of a work -- we would need more of the story to really understand what is being said (for example, the church is referred to as Jesus’s bride, could it be a metaphorical reference). In fact, the title given to it as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is one that was likely picked to garner attention rather than because it conveys the contents of the writing. Finally, if the fragment truly is ancient, at best it shows that some individuals in the late second century believed that Jesus was married. This view is one that we hear people posit today as well, being featured in works like The Da Vinci Code and in scholars who seek to call into question the truth of the Christian faith. Therefore, there was nothing really new in this story or discovery; it just served to support conspiracy theorists who oppose biblical Christianity. The irony is that the conspiracy proved to be related to this text and not the biblical ones!

Therefore, even if the story takes another turn and the document is proved to be ancient, it would not shake my faith and should not shake yours. So, what should we learn from this. Here are a few things:

  1. Just because a Harvard professor says something (or it is written about in the Harvard Theological Review),doesn’t mean it is right. Of course, this applies to others as well!
  2. Don’t just read headlines but also read the stories and understand what is and is not being said.
  3. When reading the headlines, also remember that this could just be the beginning of the story -- if it is a big story, keep following it over the coming years.
  4. People have been and always will be seeking alternatives to the Christian faith or ways to try to assault key Christian claims.
  5. The New Testament gospels remain the most reliable place for information on the life of Jesus even as there have been discoveries of other so-called gospels.


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