I had previously written about the so-called Jesus’ Wife fragment that was brought to the public’s attention in 2012 by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School (here, here, and here). It was greeted by a lot of controversy regarding its authenticity, with the evidence leaning heavy in the direction of forgery. We had been waiting for tests to be performed on the papyrus and ink for well over a year to see if they also pointed in the direction of forgery. Those results finally came out in April 2014. It turns out that the materials are old (~8th century A.D.), but not nearly as old as King initially suggested and the paleographic evidence indicated (4-5th century A.D.).
Despite the ~300 year difference between estimated age and actual age of the papyrus, this seemed to be a vindication for King against those who argued that it is a modern forgery. But is it? Couldn’t it be a modern forgery using ancient materials? After all, no forger buys his paper at the local Wal-Mart! We would expect a forger to use an old papyrus for his forgery, so an analysis of the materials alone is not sufficient to tell us whether this is a forgery (it can confirm forgery, but not preclude it). The analysis of the contents (vocabulary, grammar, writing style, etc.) is equally important, if not more important than the material composition itself for evaluating authenticity.
When the test results were initially revealed, I did not write about them for two reasons. First, I was too busy to read the slew of articles on the topic. Secondly, and more importantly, given how powerful the evidence was that this was a forgery, I was confident that more evidence would surface, and this evidence would call the laboratory results into questions. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. Although it didn’t take nearly as long for the counter-evidence to surface as I thought it would, my busy schedule still prevented me from writing about the new developments until now.
While most of the world heard about the supposed vindication of the authenticity of the GJW, few have heard about the new evidence that damns the GJW to a forger’s hell. The GJW was not the only fragment that King received. There were several others as well, including a fragment of the Gospel of John (GJ). The GJ fragment was tested at the same time as the GJW. It was revealed that the radiocarbon dates and ink analysis was very similar for both fragments. Indeed, it’s clear from a paleographical analysis that the same hand produced both documents.
A cursory examination of the GJ fragment led Christian Askeland to conclude that the GJ is also a forgery. Andrew Bernhard summarizes Askeland’s revelation:
[T]his Gospel of John fragment…shares all 17 of its line breaks with another manuscript of John (Codex Qau). Given that scribes had different size handwriting, page widths varied, etc., authentically ancient manuscripts just don’t have this kind of similarity with each other.
And they certainly NEVER have the same kind of relationship Askeland has noted here. The recently examined Gospel of John fragment copies every other line break from Codex Qau….with one exception. The last two line breaks copied from Codex Qau are consecutive – it’s a page break in an edition of the codex published in 1924 that separates them instead.
Alin Suciu and Mark Goodacre have produced images of the recto and verso of the GJ fragment side-by-side against Codex Qau to illustrate the relationship:
Interestingly, the 1924 published version of Codex Qau is available online, just like Grodin’s Interlinear Gospel of Thomas that was used to forge the GJW. We have then, two online editions of ancient texts, the peculiararities of which both appear in these two fragments. Coincidence? Absolutely not. The fact that the GJ is a clear forgery only strengthens the case that the GJW – written with the same hand using similar ink and similar papyrus – is also a forgery.
If this weren’t enough damning evidence, Joost Hagen points out that on the recto of the GJ fragment the forger clearly wrote his text around an existing hole in the manuscript. See the image below.
Focus your attention on the large hole in the middle, spanning lines 4 and 5 (line 1 is barely visible at the top). In line five, notice the gap between the (A) to the left of the hole and the (N) to the right of the hole? Why the gap in a document that did not utilize spaces between words? Also, notice the size of the lettering to the right of the hole in line five? The (N) is half the size it should be; the (T) is 1/3 shorter than it should be, and the (A) is slightly smaller than normal as well. Interestingly, the height of each letter is just enough to keep it from going into the hole. No scribe in ancient times would choose a papyrus with holes in it for his work, and then write around the holes. Only a forger who wanted to deceive people would choose a papyrus with holes in it for his work, and then write his text around the hole. Interestingly, in every other hole, the writing goes through the hole. It’s only in this instance that the writing goes around the hole. This appears to be a slip by the forger. Here is a closer view:
Another problem with the fragments is that the Coptic dialect these were written in ceased to be used in the 6th century, so why are they appearing on papyri dated to the 8th century? While it’s possible that someone in the 8th century copied an older manuscript word-for-word without updating the language, it’s not likely. It’s more likely that a forger wrote in an ancient dialect using an old papyrus that wasn’t quite old enough to make it believable.
I think the evidence is clear that the GJW is a forgery. Of course, even if it were genuine, it has no historical creditability. Even King acknowledges as much. What makes this fragment so interesting to me is not its content, but the way it has illustrated how scholars play detective, and how different scholars in different fields collaborate to get to the truth of the matter.