The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: A Call for Closure
Guest post by Andrew Bernhard
That’s the big question that remains unanswered about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and I must confess that I’m a bit confused as to why. It seems clear to me that the person who originally brought forward this tiny papyrus fragment could probably shed quite a bit of light on its mysterious origins. Yet, the identity of this individual remains shrouded in secrecy.
While Karen King granted anonymity to the self-identified manuscript collector who brought her the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (and has honorably kept her commitment), I would suggest that the situation has now changed materially. At this point, it seems very likely that the still unidentified owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife provided Professor King with at least six fake documents (both ancient and modern) . . . and lied about where he or she obtained the papyrus fragment.
The Documents in Question
The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wifeappears to have provided the following documents that are fake (that is, not what they were purported to be):
1. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment.
This was purportedly a papyrus fragment copied in antiquity, but it appears to be a recent forgery prepared by someone who “cut and pasted” words and short phrases from a unique PDF edition of the only surviving Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas posted online in November 2002 (“Grondin’s Interlinear”). Basically, to create the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife using material from the Gospel of Thomas, the forger only had to switch third person masculine singular pronouns to their feminine equivalents (a single letter change in Coptic) and place two key Coptic words (meaning “Mary” and “my wife”) into the “patchwork” text. There are also at least five tell-tale signs of forgery – including the apparent repetition of a typographical error from “Grondin’s Interlinear” – in the text of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (see my article in the July 2015 issue of New Testament Studies, especially pages 351-355, for more details).
2. The Gospel of John papyrus fragment.
This was purportedly a papyrus fragment copied in antiquity, but it appears to be a recent forgery prepared by someone who copied from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau codex (online since approximately 2005). Christian Askeland has provided a number of reasons for believing this fragment is a forgery, notably observing, “The forger skipped every other line of Thompson’s text when copying it onto his papyrus fragment … [but] failed to skip a line when he had to turn two pages of Thompson’s edition.” The two fragments share SEVENTEEN line breaks. As Stephen Patterson commented, “The John MS is clearly a forgery. The line breaks make this impossible to avoid . . . the John MS must be a modern forgery.” Michael Peppard has indicated that he believes scholars “have definitively shown that [the Gospel of John fragment] is a forgery.”
Note: the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Gospel of John fragments appear to be in the same handwriting. Roger Bagnall was the first to observe the similarity in handwriting, stating “the two (fragments) are very similar and are likely to have been produced close in time.” Askeland then systematically demonstratedthat they are in the same hand, and his view has been publicly endorsed by Stephen Emmel (paragraph 19), Alin Suciu, and Carrie Schroeder; as far as I know, nobody qualified to judge Coptic handwriting has ever disputed Askeland’s finding.
3. A contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” (dated November 12, 1999; signed by Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and the owner).
This contract purportedly documented the acquisition of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wifefragment, but it includes a suspicious handwritten note on it: “Papyri acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany)” (p. 31). The note is suspicious for two reasons. First, as Owen Jarus has reported after interviewing the representative for Laukamp’s estate, “Laukamp did not collect antiquities, did not own [the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife] papyrus . . . [he] was a toolmaker and had no interest in old things.” Second, as reported on page 80 of the November 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, “[i]n a later e-mail (from the owner to King) . . . the story seemed to change slightly with the collector saying that the papyri had been in the previous owner’s possession – or his family’s – ‘prior to WWII.’”
4. A typed letter to H. U. Laukamp (dated July 15, 1982; signed by Peter Munro).
This letter purportedly relates to the Gospel of John fragment, but it suspiciously indicates that (Gerhard) Fecht suggested the Coptic fragment might be dated as early as the second century and apparently failed to note a unique feature of it – the Lycopolitan dialect in which it is written (p. 31, n. 107). As an accomplished linguist of ancient Egyptian, it is hard to imagine Fecht not knowing that there is no evidence for the existence of Coptic in the second century. As Bentley Layton notes on the first page of his Coptic Grammar, “The written attestation of standardized Coptic Egyptian begins with Biblical manuscripts dating to about A.D. 300, shortly after the translation of the Christian Bible into Coptic.” In addition, it would be astounding if Fecht had viewed the Gospel of John fragment and failed to comment on the Lycopolitan dialect. In 1982, there was only one known Lycopolitan manuscript of the Gospel of John (the Qau codex), and Fecht certainly would have recognized this dialect: he published a three-part, 90-page analysis of the Gospel of Truth(from Nag Hammadi) in the journal,Orientala (1961-1963) . . . and the Gospel of Truth is preserved in Lycopolitan.
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