AN ANCIENT "Gospel" fragment that appeared to suggest that Jesus
was married has been denounced as a forgery by a group of
theologians and scholars.
The latest edition of the Cambridge University journal New
Testament Studies has been devoted to proving that the scrap
of papyrus unveiled by the theologian and Harvard professor Karen
King, in 2012, was probably created no earlier than 2002.
Articles in the journal unpick the so-called Gospel of Jesus's
Wife, suggesting that there is little or no evidence that the
manuscript dates to the fourth century, and that it was put
together by someone copying ancient Coptic text from the
Professor King, an expert on early Christian history, announced
at a conference in Rome in 2012 that researchers had found the
phrase "Jesus said to them, 'my wife'" on a fourth-century Coptic
copy of an earlier second-century Greek Gospel.
She cautioned that the find did not prove that Jesus had had a
wife, but she suggested it showed that at least some early
Christians believed that he was married.
But the series of articles in New Testament Studies
show that the fragment from the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is actually
a "patchwork" of words and phrases lifted from the non-canonical
Gospel of Thomas.
An American scholar, Andrew Bernhard, argues that a forger must
have used a PDF version of the Gospel of Thomas, published online
in 2002, to prepare the fake Gospel of Jesus's Wife, as grammatical
errors have been exactly replicated.
Another academic, Christian Askeland, suggests that another
fragment - part of John's Gospel - from the same collection as the
Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a clear copy of an ancient manuscript
first published in 1924. The same ink, handwriting, and pen used in
this forgery are also found in the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, leading
Mr Bernhard to conclude that it, too, is a fake.
Dr Simon Gathercole, a senior New Testament lecturer at
Cambridge University, and another contributor to the journal's
debunking, said on Tuesday that the supposedly ancient manuscript
was probably no more than ten years old: "I think this is more
likely to be a forgery which someone has produced to make
But Professor King was sticking to her guns, he said. "I spoke
to Karen about it briefly a year ago," Dr Gathercole said. "She has
pretty loyally stood by the authenticity of [the Gospel of Jesus's
Wife] as she did at the beginning. . . All she said was 'It
certainly raises some interesting questions,' which is a classic
Professor King was asked to comment on the New Testament
Studies' arguments, but did not respond.
A website on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, maintained by Harvard
Divinity School, states that tests on the papyrus dated it to
between AD 659 to 859, which led them to revise their timing of the
Gospel to the seventh or eighth centuries, not the fourth as was
initially thought. The "carbon character" of the ink used also
matched samples of other papyri from a similar period.
But an article in New Testament Studies by two
specialists based in Berlin argues that, while the papyrus itself
is ancient, the other scientific tests carried out on the
manuscript were not able to provide reliable information about when
the letters were inked on to it.
"Most of the effective forgeries in the last 200 years have been
on ancient papyrus. In itself, ancient papyrus doesn't show
anything at all," Dr Gathercole said. He was initially suspicious,
as the fragment was unlike any other ancient document he had ever
"Not just because of the content - the sensational 'wife'
business - but the way it was put together seemed very strange. It
did not have the ring of truth about it."
An editorial introducing the series of articles in New
Testament Studies concludes by calling for the claims about
the Gospel of Jesus's Wife to be formally retracted. "Forgeries
corrupt - and are intended to corrupt - the scholarly work of those
who may be deceived by them, and they need to be exposed as
conclusively as possible."