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Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery, say theologians

03 July 2015

Unpicker: Dr Simon Gathercole speaks in a video about the fragment of text

Unpicker: Dr Simon Gathercole speaks in a video about the fragment of text

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 internet.

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 money."

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 cop-out."

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 seen.

"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."

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