The Unraveling of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Sometimes when you tug a presenting yarn, it all comes unraveled.

Do you remember the Harvard professor Karen King, who overturned aeons of church teaching and history with one tiny papyrus fragment, the one that “evidenced” early Christian belief that Jesus had a wife? If not, here is the triumphalist announcement from a few years back proclaiming the legitimacy of a papyrus fragment notoriously named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”:

A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, ‘Jesus said to them, my wife’ is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.

Sounds like a case closed, huh? That’s what everybody thought—until Ariel Saban did some investigative journalism for The Atlantic.

If you haven’t yet, you need to read his hard-hitting, riveting, nearly-unbelievable-but-obviously-not-because-Karen-King-read-it-and-retracted-her-statement-with-her-career-at-stake (more on that later) piece of journalism.

But if you don’t have 30 minutes to read it, here’s a summary: A German man named Walter Fritz—who incidentally moonlights as a pornographer—concocted one of the most elaborate forgeries in history that includes a stint at a prestigious Egyptology program, stolen intellectual rights published in an influential academic journal, forged sales and provenance documents, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and much, much more. The cash-strapped Fritz used his limited know-how to create an ancient-looking papyrus that has many similarities to the Gospel of Thomas. Then, knowing that she was predisposed to believing this kind of thing exists, Fritz targeted Karen King, a tenured Harvard professor, in order to get her to disseminate knowledge of the papyrus, which she did in an article published in the Harvard Theological Review. For all of the Hollywood entrepreneurs currently reading my blog, this would make a great movie.

But in my estimation the fact that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery and that there is a kook behind it isn’t the biggest part of the story. After months of travel and phone calls and research, Saban took his story to Karen King for review. And here’s what happened:

I [Ariel Saban] told her [Karen King] I’d spent months reporting in Germany and the United States. Didn’t she want to know what I’d found?

“Not particularly,” she said. She would read my piece once it was published. What interested her more were the results of new ink tests being done at Columbia.

And read it she did. In fact, when this story went online, it was only a matter of a few hours before The Atlantic published a follow-up to the story with the stunning headline “Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’: The Harvard scholar says papyrus is probably a forgery.

In the follow-up, we find these words:

For four years, Karen L. King, a Harvard historian of Christianity, has defended the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” against scholars who argued it was a forgery. But Thursday, for the first time, King said the papyrus—which she introduced to the world in 2012—is a probable fake.

She reached this conclusion, she said, after reading The Atlantic’s investigation into the papyrus’s origins, which appears in the magazine’s July/August issue and was posted to its website Wednesday night.

“It tips the balance towards forgery,” she said.

Which brings me to the point of my writing. Here, in a nutshell, we see a sordid parable that illustrates the folly of trusting “science” and “scientific consensus” at the expense of history, philosophy, theology, and logic.

Consider the bolded statements below from an article commending the scientific rigor that went into validating the fragment:

After receiving the fragment in December 2011 from the owner, King took the papyrus to New York in 2012 to be examined by Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. After Bagnall’s initial assessment that the fragment was ancient based on handwriting and other features, further analysis began in earnest.

Over the past two years, extensive testing of the papyrus and the carbon ink, as well as analysis of the handwriting and grammar, all indicate that the existing material fragment dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE. None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery.

Two radiocarbon tests were conducted to determine the date of the papyrus. In the first test, the sample size was too small and resulted in an unreliable date. A second test performed by Noreen Tuross at Harvard University in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute produced a date of origination for the piece of papyrus from 659 to 859 CE. Other testing with FT-IR microspectroscopy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) confirmed the homogeneous chemical composition of the papyrus and examined patterns of oxidation.

James Yardley, Senior Research Scientist in the Center for Integrated Science and Engineering, Columbia University, and Alexis Hagadorn, Head of Conservation at Columbia University Libraries, used a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine that the carbon character of the ink matched samples of other papyri that date from the first to eighth centuries CE.

Malcolm Choat from Macquarie University examined the fragment at HDS and offered an independent assessment of the handwriting.

Microscopic and multispectral imaging provided other significant information about the nature and extent of the damage and helped to resolve a variety of questions about possible forgery.  For example, if ink had pooled on the lower fibers of the front, it would have shown the papyrus was written on after it had been damaged. Or if the alpha had overwritten a sigma in line four, it would have shown that someone tampered with an ancient fragment that read “the woman” by changing it into “my wife.” No evidence of this kind is apparent, however.

After all the research was complete, King weighed all the evidence of the age and characteristics of the papyrus and ink, handwriting, language, and historical context to conclude the fragment is almost certainly a product of early Christians, not a modern forger.

That’s a lot of science in one place: peer-review, technical know-how, expert opinion, state-of-the-art methods.

But now, because someone decided to use their noggin—even when that went against the overwhelming “scientific” evidence and consensus—we know the truth. The papyrus is a fake, a forgery, fool’s gold sold for 24-carat market value.

So what’s the lesson here? We need to be willing to challenge the scientific “consensus,” even when (especially when?) it claims to have the best science with the most authoritative scientists in its corner.

There is a more sure foundation than science for true knowledge, namely the divinely inspired Word of God.


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