Jesus said, “There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” And behold, one of his disciples who was standing by said to him, “Rabbi (which means ‘teacher’), how can this be if some are toothless?” Jesus replied, “You of little faith, do not be troubled. If some people are missing any, the teeth will be provided.”
Don’t recognize this story from one of the Gospels? Here’s why: The text was published in 1950 by classicist Paul Coleman-Norton. He claimed that he had discovered it on a manuscript in Morocco while fighting in World War II. But it was an open secret that he had invented the episode as well as the Greek text. Late New Testament expert Bruce Metzger noted that Coleman-Norton had already regaled his students with this joke before the war.
This particular fake is probably best described not as a forgery but a hoax. Coleman-Norton wanted to be funny. But other fakes are harder to detect—and have more serious consequences. Left undetected, some forgeries of biblical or early Christian manuscripts could severely distort our understanding of the biblical text and of Christian history.
Enter the much-discussed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript. Over the past three years, since Harvard Divinity School historian Karen King unveiled it, opinion has differed wildly over whether it is truly ancient. But now the controversy is being put to bed: A team of scholars gathered by Francis Watson (Durham University, UK) has produced a series of articles in the journal New Testament Studies (issue 61.3, July 2015) that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript is a modern fake.
Here’s how other scholars and I arrived at this important conclusion.
'Jesus Said to Them, "My Wife..." '
The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript is a piece of papyrus the size of a credit card. It has eight partial lines of text. Line 4 has received the most attention:
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ”
Here the line breaks off. The text is copied in Coptic, the language of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, later written down in the Christian era in a mainly Greek alphabet. The text before and after line 4 discusses the worthiness of women and refers specifically to “Mary.” The text is probably implying that this “wife” is Mary Magdalene.
The manuscript came to our attention on September 18, 2012, when King made the announcement. There was no hint of suspicion in her own assessment; indeed, two other scholars had encouraged her to consider it genuine. She claimed that it was probably a 4th-century manuscript, but that this Coptic translation went back to a Greek original from the 2nd century AD. This is the period when many other apocryphal writings were written in Greek.
Almost immediately after the announcement, however, leaders in the field began raising questions. That included Stephen Emmel, one of the leading scholars in Coptic manuscripts. Despite the sceptics, however, King and others maintained that the document was authentic. This resulted in a scholarly stalemate. But encouragingly, King said the manuscript would undergo scientific testing.
In March 2013, the fragment’s ink was analysed and found to be consistent with types of ink from the ancient world. In summer 2013, radio-carbon analysis of the papyrus (more on this later) was conducted at an accelerator mass laboratory in Arizona. This, rather suspiciously, gave a date range of 404-209 BC!
So further tests were conducted in March 2014, producing a more likely timeframe of 7th-8th century AD. This ancient date for the papyrus, and the reports about the ink, confirmed King in her initial judgment that this text was part of an ancient work. To this day, a Harvard Divinity School webpage still claims, “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to Be Ancient.”
Almost as soon as these scientific reports appeared, however, the evidence began to point in a different direction.
5 Reasons We Know It’s Fake
How was the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife exposed as a forgery? In her New Testament Studies article, Gesine Schenke Robinson, a scholar at Claremont Graduate University, lists 10 reasons why we know it is a fake. Here, I will boil the reasons down to three key points and two circumstantial ones, many of which have played a part in detecting other fake manuscripts.
1. Guilt by association
One way to get a more dubious document accepted is by inserting the fake manuscript into a collection acknowledged as genuine.
The Jesus’ Wife fragment did not come to Harvard on its own. It was delivered alongside another manuscript in the same handwriting and similar ink: a copy of the Gospel of John. At first glance, the John manuscript appeared genuine and did not attract suspicion. In fact, the John manuscript proved to be the undoing of the Jesus’ Wife fragment.
Christian Askeland’s prize-winning PhD, about the Coptic texts of John, involved him looking at a number of manuscripts, including a Coptic text of John in the University of Cambridge. Askeland noticed early on that the Harvard manuscript of John looked almost identical to the Cambridge one. In fact, it wasn’t identical, because the Harvard manuscript turned out not to be based on the fourth-century manuscript, but on a 20th-century book in which the text was presented.
We know the Harvard manuscript was forged using the later printed edition—which is readily available online—for one reason: The forger copies alternate lines of the Cambridge text, but after copying the last line of one page he inadvertently copies the first line of the next page. In other words, when he turns the page he forgets to skip a line as he had previously been doing.
And the Harvard John manuscript and the Jesus’ Wife fragment are written in the same handwriting and in similar ink. So, the two stand or fall together.
2. Scientific testing
One of the most important techniques for testing manuscripts is carbon-dating. All living tissue contains not only “normal” carbon but also a radioactive carbon (“radio-carbon” or “carbon-14”). After an organism dies, the carbon-14 decays at a constant rate. Since we know the rate at which carbon-14 decays, we can measure roughly how long the papyrus has been dead, and therefore how old the papyrus is.
Carbon-dating is used rarely for dating manuscripts. It is expensive, not terribly precise, and—to museum curators’ horror—requires destroying part of the papyrus. It has been used to date some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are certainly ancient), and also to date a manuscript of Mark’s Gospel kept in Chicago (which is certainly not).
In April 2014, Harvard Theological Review published the results of the carbon-dating of the Jesus’ Wife fragment (more precisely, "Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination"). Although there are problems with some aspects of the testing, the useful parts proved to be another nail in the coffin of authenticity.
King had claimed that the manuscript probably dated to the 4th century, but the testing showed that the papyrus probably came from the 8th. King presented these results to confirm that the manuscript was ancient. This is partly true. The papyrus is certainly ancient. But that proves nothing: In the 16th century genuinely old papyrus was used to forge the will of Julius Caesar.
I think all of us who doubted the manuscript from the beginning believed that the papyrus was ancient. But this raised additional questions, because the Coptic dialect in which the John manuscript was written was no longer used in the 8th century. It would be like finding a manuscript in Shakespearian English written on modern photo paper.
3. Copying from other texts
There are other signs. When the fragment was released, I was writing a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal gospel from the 2nd century AD. So it didn’t take me long to realize that the Jesus’ Wife text was heavily based on Thomas. Many other scholars arrived at this conclusion independently at the same time. What’s more, the Jesus’ Wife fragment is based not just on the Gospel of Thomas, but on the Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, it is based, down to very fine details, on the only Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas known to us today.
My own essay in the new issue of New Testament Studies compares the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragments. I argue that it would be an incredible coincidence if the original Greek Thomas and the hypothetical original Greek text of Jesus’ Wife happened to be translated into Coptic in exactly the same ways.
But it gets worse. Since the fragment first appeared, New Testament scholar Andrew Bernhard noticed that the new Harvard fragment bore a suspicious resemblance to a particular copy of the Coptic text of Thomas posted on the Internet in 2002. What’s striking is not just the parallels between the Jesus’ Wife manuscript and the Thomas webpage, but the parallels between the Jesus’ Wife manuscript and a mistake on the Thomas webpage.
In Coptic, a direct object in a sentence is marked by a prefix n- or, in some cases m-. In his web transcription of the Gospel of Thomas, Michael Grondin, who maintains the webpage, missed this m- prefix before the Coptic word for life in the sentence, “My true mother gave me life.” In the corresponding sentence in the first line of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the modern forger gives himself away by reproducing the same mistake where the new fragment has the sentence, “My mother gave me life.”
In this case, we can probably identify the precise modern source on which the text in our fragment is based.
4. Dubious origins
Two additional factors.
The first is the dubious origins of the manuscript. Scholars are becoming increasingly suspicious of artifacts not found in genuine archaeological digs. (This has led to doubt over the recently published “Gabriel Revelation’s” text, for example.) The Jesus’ Wife manuscript has emerged from the shadows, presented to King by an individual who remains anonymous. In fact, documents show that the manuscript was purchased in 1999 from one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who supposedly obtained it in Potsdam, Germany, in 1963.
Unfortunately, all the persons mentioned in the documents have recently died. And in 1963, Laukamp lived in West Berlin, so couldn’t easily have traversed the Berlin Wall over to Potsdam in East Germany that year. Scholars have interviewed Laukamp’s acquaintances, and none of them knew him as a manuscript collector. Since I do not imagine for a moment that it has been produced by King herself, we simply do not know who created the fragment or where it has come from.
5. The Da Vinci Code Effect
Second, it is highly suspicious that the Jesus’ Wife fragment should first show up after the worldwide phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code. As Stephen Carlson, patent attorney, biblical scholar, and author of The Gospel Hoax, has noted:
Successful fakes are tightly coupled to the time in which they were created because they were designed to deceive a contemporary. By necessity, the faker has to include details intended for a victim who lives much later than the time of the false document’s supposed creation.
The past decade has provided the perfect atmosphere for a forgery like this one.
It is no longer that the finger of suspicion points in the direction of a forgery. Leaving aside the circumstantial evidence, each of the three main pieces of evidence mentioned above would be enough to disprove claims that the fragment is truly ancient. As a result, like other curiosities like the Tibetan Life of Issa, the so-called “Archaic Mark” manuscript, and Jesus’ saying about dental provision, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife should be consigned to the filing cabinet under F for fakes, frauds, forgeries, and fabrications.
Simon J. Gathercole is senior lecturer in New Testament studies on the Faculty of Divinity at University of Cambridge and author most recently of Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker Academic). For more on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment, watch Gathercole's recent interview with Cambridge University Press.