Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gospel of Jesus' Wife update

THE GOSPEL OF JESUS' WIFE is getting endless attention in the media and the blogosphere, but I don't see very much today which adds anything new.  As far as I know, no papyrologist has come out in favor of its authenticity or even pointed to another ancient papyrus fragment that shares its odd features.  So it looks to me as though we have a small fragment that really, really fortunately preserves just the words that say exactly what we really, really would like to have an ancient gospel fragment say about Jesus.  Coincidentally, the physical features of the fragment are also highly unusual or even unprecedented.  So we've won the lottery twice.  Either that or it's a fake.

James McGrath has produced an excellent roundup of media and blog coverage:  2 Jesus’ Wife.

A couple of specific new items are worth flagging.  First, as I have said, no papyrologist (with the possible exception of the two who originally studied the fragment, although they themselves have not released any statements) argues that the fragment is genuine.  And so far I have only been able to find one specialist in any related area who defends its authenticity.  At the CNN blog, Eric Marrapodi has 5 questions and answers about Jesus' 'wife', which reports the following:
Elaine Pagels, a professor from Princeton University who is an expert on gnostic writings such as this one, noted to CNN, "You can find boxes filled with Coptic fragments." But what makes this one significant is for the first time, it explicitly has Jesus referring to "my wife."


Some experts in the field, including Pagels, suggest the fragment contains too little to be faked, suggesting that a forger would have included much more in the document to try and raise the value.

I have not seen the exact wording of anything Professor Pagels may have said, so I don't know how accurately her views are being related. But the argument, whoever is making it, is very weak.  The forger, if it is forged, produced just enough to accomplish the objective (fake an ancient gospel with Mary of Magdalene as Jesus' wife and disciple).  Why include more text?  If it were accepted as genuine as it stands now, it would already be fantastically valuable in terms of the antiquities market, and each new line of forged text would make it increasingly likely that the forger would make a slip and be detected.

Second, April DeConick has a blog post is which she says that the Gospel of Philip, another fourth-century Coptic text that we already knew, also says that Mary was Jesus' wife:

But let's keep in mind that we actually already have a text that mentions Jesus' wife. It is the Gospel of Philip. We already know that there were some early Christians, in particular the Valentinian Gnostics, who taught that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' consort or wife. They wrote about it in the Gospel of Philip.
Unless the Coptic word translated as "companion" in Gospel of Philip 59.6-10 and 63.30-32 has the specific connotation of "wife" or "consort" (in which case, why is it not so translated in the Robinson, Meyers, or Layton translations?) the new fragment makes explicit what is at most implied in the Gospel of Philip. I have put this point to April in the comments, so you can see what she has to say when she answers. [Update: Link now added. Sorry about that!]

So my current judgement, which seems to be what most people are thinking, is that the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment is very likely a fake. If it is genuine, it tells us what one late apocryphal tradition speculated about Jesus, but nothing about the historical Jesus.

I will continue reporting as new discussion of interest comes up.

UPDATE: Tom Verenna has had some of his doubts about the physical characteristics of the fragment assuaged: Two Days Later: Another Evaluation of the ‘Jesus Wife’ Papyrus.

UPDATE: Dirk Jongkind notes that if the fragment is genuine, it appears to have been deliberately cut out of a larger context in modern times, presumably by the dealer. What, he wonders, if that was done because the larger context would have ruined the sensational effect the fragment now has? That would take a very clever (and lucky) dealer indeed, but who knows?