Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Coptic gospel that mentions Jesus' wife?

PROFESSOR KAREN KING of Harvard University reports that a fragment of Coptic papyrus has come into her hands which appears to be from a fourth-century manuscript of a noncanonical gospel in which Jesus uses the phrase "my wife." The Boston Globe has good coverage of the story:
Harvard professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married
By Lisa Wangsness, Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE -- A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth century Egyptian papyrus that contains the first known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could fuel the millennia-old debate about priestly celibacy in the Catholic church.

The fragment, which has been preliminarily authenticated but still must undergo further testing, portrays Jesus as referring to a woman as his legitimate disciple -- most likely his wife, whom the text’s author probably believed to be Mary Magdalene.

The text is not evidence Jesus was married, said the professor, Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, who is scheduled to discuss her discovery at an international gathering of Coptic scholars in Rome on Tuesday. But she said it may cast new light on the history of early Christianity, including the formation of Christian views of celibacy and whether women were members of Jesus’s inner circle, issues still intensely relevant to the Catholic church, which allows only celibate men to be priests.

“The issue has far from gone away,” King said.

The fragment is smaller than a business card, and appears to have been torn from the middle of a page of a codex, or primitive book, written in a southern Egyptian dialect. Its owner, who declines to be identified publicly, does not know where it was found.
It contains just eight broken lines, scrawled in a crude Coptic hand.

The fourth says: “… Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….”

The next line reads: “…she will be able to be my disciple.”

The text does not prove that Jesus had a wife, King emphasized. Even if it is actually a translation of a second century Greek text, as King theorizes, it would have been composed more than a century after the death of Jesus. The earliest and most reliable information about the historical Jesus is silent on the question of his marital status, King said.

“It’s not saying we’ve got the smoking gun that Jesus is married,” she said.

Inevitably, that last point is already being missed in some press coverage (see below). On the key issue of authenticity:
In March 2012, King tucked the papyrus into her red leather bag along with her iPad and boarded a train to New York, where she and [papyrologist AnneMarie] Luijendijk, a former student of King’s, met [papyrologist Roger] Bagnall at his office. They sat for several hours around a table, looking at the fragment under magnification and different kinds of light, noticing different details and talking through possible scenarios.

The fibrous, dual-layered material was clearly papyrus, an ancient Egyptian precursor to paper made of the pith of a plant that grew along the Nile. It seemed to be ancient; the pith, which makes the smooth writing surface, had worn off, along with the ink, on one side. They could see a spot where a tiny insect appeared to have nibbled at the surface.

Ancient papyrus is available for purchase on the antiquities market, however, so King and her colleagues had to figure out whether the ink was applied in ancient times or by a modern forger.

Infinitesimal details suggested it was genuine: Tiny fibers shredding from the sides of the paper contained almost invisible traces of ink from lost letters. Damage to fibers after they had been inscribed suggested the ink had been laid on the surface long ago, not recently.

The handwriting, workmanlike and laid on with a nubby pen, seemed to date to the 4th century. Its irregular, blocky script is more common in private letters -- and quite unusual for a literary text, Bagnall said. But it is also plausible, he said, that it was the work of an unskilled scribe with a poor pen.

All in all, Bagnall said, “The preponderance of evidence is clearly in favor of authenticity, both because it is so hard to imagine who could have faked it and how, but also because there is nothing inherently suspect about it,” Bagnall said. “You’ve got the physical object, the handwriting, the language, and the content. There’s not a single one of those that seems to me suspect.”

See also the New York Times: A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus' Wife; Karen King's own website on the fragment, which links to a downloadable draft of her article: The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus; and this brief video by Professor King about the fragment: "Jesus said to them, my wife."

My take? I am ... wait for it ... skeptical. Professor King has done everything right and she is taking a very reasonable line of optimistic skepticism, but there's one point that I've seen no one raise so far and which Professor Bagnall in particular misses in the quote above: this fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I'm wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, "The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged." My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery.

Where do we go from here? The next steps are, first, to conduct the tests on the ink: if it demonstrates it to be the same chemical composition as ancient Egyptian ink, that will strengthen the case for authenticity considerably. Second, Professor King's article needs to be published in the Harvard Theological Review and evaluated by specialists around the world. I suppose it would also be possible to carbon-date the fragment, but this would at most show the date of the papyrus, not the writing, and the fragment has been taken out of its putative original context and moved around enough that it may now be thoroughly contaminated and un-dateable by such means. But with any luck we will be able to come to a consensus view in the next few years either for authenticity or against. We may never know the answer for sure, or we may come to a consensus that is either conclusively confirmed or conclusively refuted sometime in the future when a new technology is able to test factors that could not have been foreseen in 2012.

If it is genuine, it seems to be the earliest mention (fourth century or possibly somewhat earlier) of the idea that Jesus had a wife, which is of considerable importance for early church history. But it has no bearing on the actual question of whether the historical Jesus had a wife. Some of the headlines are not clear on this point: "Was Jesus married? Papyrus may give clue" (Houston Chronicle) and "'Proof' Jesus was married found on ancient papyrus that mentions how son of God spoke of his wife and Mary Magdalene" (The Daily Mail, which at least uses scare quotes for "proof," although not actually quoting anyone) and Jesus Had a Wife, Newly Discovered Gospel Suggests (LiveScience; true but the phrasing is misleading). I have commented on the question of whether Jesus was married here.

Pretty much the entire Biblioblogosphere is abuzz with the news. I haven't tried to read all or even very many of the posts, but I note good substantive posts by Mark Goodace (The Gospel of Jesus' Wife) and Jared Calaway (New Gospel Fragment: Preliminary Notes and Hypothesis) and a roundup by James McGrath (Coptic Text Mentions Jesus’ Wife).

Also, Alin Suciu is now at The Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies where Karen King presented her paper on the fragment yesterday. On Facebook he has promised a blog post on the authenticity issue when he returns from Rome. He thinks it's a fake.

Stay tuned ...

UPDATE: I note that Mark Goodacre does raise the Zeitgeist issue in the link above. I am not, however, persuaded by his comparison with The Gospel of Judas, which is genuine and which, granted, did fit in a general way the Zeitgeist's desire for counter-gospel traditions. But the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a whole new level of Zeitgeist correspondence, playing into the widespread (not just Dan Brown) meme that Jesus must have married Mary Magdalene; also to the desire to find some stratum of feminist equality in the early church which can serve as authoritative precedent for equality in the modern church; and also to the desire to undermine the Catholic tradition of a celibate clergy. It is just too perfect.

Moreover, The Gospel of Judas illustrates my point in another way. When it was published, it was immediately read as presenting a sympathetic Judas who was not evil after all—a Judas congenial to our Zeitgeist. Subsequent research has called this conclusion very seriously into question on philological grounds. (Background here and links.) We must always be especially wary of both interpretations and discoveries that tell us what we want to hear.

Also, at a Nag Hammadi Facebook Group, Louis Painchaud, who is also at the Coptic Congress in Rome, has called for caution and indicated, as has Alin Suciu, that the script of the fragment doesn't look real, nor does the way it is cut. And apparently others at the Congress are questioning its authenticity. (Pointed out by Mark Goodacre.) Note that Painchaud was one of the first, if not the first, to challenge the initial interpretation of The Gospel of Judas and to find in it a good old traditional evil Judas.

There are also problems with the story of the provenance of the new fragment. Again, noted on Facebook by Mark Goodacre, who had been independently making similar points.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Karen King forged this fragment, nor as far as I know is anyone else. I am confident that she has in all honesty and good faith brought to light a text that was given to her by someone else, and she has handled the whole situation entirely properly. But I am not alone in thinking that there is good reason to doubt that the fragment is authentic.

UPDATE: The AP registers skepticism: Harvard claim of Jesus' Wife papyrus scrutinized. Alin Suciu and other specialists are quoted.

Also, Tom Verenna sees problems with the physical characteristics of the fragment: The ‘Wife of Jesus’ Fragment a Day Later: Some Concerns About Authenticity.

UPDATE: Still more! The Tyndale House website has Simon Gathercole's analysis of the text: Gathercole on Jesus' Wife. And (HT Richard Bauckham) over at Evangelical Textual Criticism, Christian Askeland, who is also in Rome at the Coptic Colloquium, reports on reactions to King's paper:

During the course of the last several hours, I have attempted to understand the reaction of various persons within the coptological community here at the International Association of Coptic studies conference. My initial perception is that those who specialize in Nag Hammadi and early manuscripts are split with about four-fifths being extremely skeptical about the manuscript’s authenticity and one-fifth is fairly convinced that the fragment is a fake. I have not met anyone who supports its authenticity, although I do not doubt that there must be some.
He then goes on to explain in detail why he thinks the fragment is probably a forgery.

UPDATE (20 September): More here.