Saturday, April 26, 2014

GJW latest and some reflections


Mark Goodacre: Illustrating the forgery of Jesus' wife's sister fragment

Steve Caruso: The Final Nail in the Coffin For The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

Mark and Steve explain very clearly the implications of the new information from the Gospel of John fragment from the same cache of manuscripts as the GJW.

Anthony Le Donne: Interview with Caroline T. Schroeder re: Jesus' Wife Fragment

The interview with Prof. Schroeder, who is a Coptologist, presents the issues especially lucidly. Excerpt:
CTS: I am now convinced the fragment is a forgery. Christian Askeland's research discovery on Thursday changed my mind. In a nutshell: the Jesus's Wife fagment (JWF) was written by the same copyist as another papyrus fragment in the same collection, and that other papyrus is a forgery. Ergo, the Jesus's Wife fragment was forged.

The Jesus's Wife papyrus was part of a small collection of six papyri, which also included a fragment of a copy of the Gospel of John. As part of the testing of the JWF, its ink was compared to the ink of several ancient papyri, including of this Gospel of John fragment. (In an attempt to determine whether the ink on the JWF was indeed ancient.) The Gospel of John piece has never been published, so scholars had not seen it or studied it before. Not even photographs. However, as part of the latest issue of the Harvard Theological Review about the Jesus's Wife Fragment, documentation of the ink tests was posted online, which included digital photographs of the Gospel of John fragment. Christian Askeland examined the photographs and compared them to the JWF. He has persuasively shown that the handwriting on the two is the same. Since the John fragment is a forgery, ergo Jesus's Wife is a forgery (same copyist).

Why is the John fragment a forgery? Line breaks on this John papyrus correspond exactly to line breaks of another published fragment of John. On both the recto and verso sides of the papyrus. This is just an impossible coincidence. Anyone who has read Coptic manuscripts and papyri can tell you that we have never seen a case in which two copies of the same text break the lines in exactly the same places so consistently. (And in this case, if you look at the aligned photos provided on Alin Suciu's blog and Mark Goodacre's blog, you will see that the "scribe" copied every OTHER line break of the published John edition, in an attempt to make it look like the new John fragment was twice as wide.) There are also issues of dialect. The dialect of the text in the John fragment died out a century or two before the dating of the actual fragment and Jesus Wife).

Finally, the so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife also contains uncanny resemblances to an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, including replicating a typo in the edition. (See here)

I was willing to consider the possibility of coincidence with just one manuscript. But two out of six papyri in a collection so similar to published editions of other manuscripts? Both written in the same "scribal" hand? And the published editions all available online? That cannot be coincidence; it must be deliberate
I have seen various comments on Facebook etc. pointing out that the new John fragment could be an ancient copy of the Coptic manuscript published in 1924 and it is possible that the dialect of Coptic in which it was written continued to be copied after the sixth century and this happens to be the first case we have discovered. As for the first point, the fact that the new John manuscript copies only every other line sure makes it look as though the copyist was trying to make the manuscript look twice as wide as it was. But yes, an ancient scribe could have copied the other ancient John manuscript and just happened to have a papyrus that was exactly twice as wide and decided to copy accordingly. And luckily we found both manuscripts. That is not impossible. I don't know exactly what the case is for the extinction of the Lycopolitan dialect of Coptic in the sixth century, but I imagine it is thinkable that the odd manuscript written in it could have been copied a century or two after that.

But really, what are we doing here? As I have already pointed out, if the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment is genuine, this already involves a pile-on of unusual and suspicious features that amounts to us having won the lottery. Now another manuscript from the same cache written in the same hand again presents us with another pile-on of simlarly suspicious features. At what point do we stop claiming another lottery win and just accept that the whole thing is a forgery?

If Coptologists start objecting and explaining why Askeland's arguments are wrong, then we would be back to just one lottery win. So far that isn't happening. If the current state of the question holds, the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a fake.

James Kugel

MOMENT MAGAZINE: James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief. Excerpt:
After completing his graduate studies, Kugel taught at CUNY and Yale before returning to Harvard in 1982 to teach Hebrew literature. It was at Harvard that he began to make his mark on the world of biblical scholarship. Prior to Kugel’s work, the discipline generally focused on the nuts and bolts of the Bible: how it was written, when it was conceived and what early historical periods it reflected. Kugel offered a different approach in two of his early books, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts in Early Judaism and Christianity (1990) and The Bible As It Was (1997), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Kugel published two versions of this book, one for a popular audience and another, re-titled Traditions of the Bible, for an academic one.) In them he argues that much of what is considered the Bible today is based on interpretations developed between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These interpretations came primarily from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha—or as Kugel calls them in Hebrew, sefarim achi kitzonim, the Outside Books—texts preserved by the Christian tradition and not considered part of the Jewish canon, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Judith and the Book of Enoch.

“Even more importantly, Kugel demonstrates that those early interpreters are the real authors of the Bible as it came to function in Judaism and Christianity,” says Benjamin Sommer, a Hebrew Bible professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. By dint of his encyclopedic knowledge, Kugel was able to put pieces together from sources as diverse as obscure midrashim and the writings of early Church fathers. “There’s a gap between the last pages of the Tanakh [Bible] and the first texts of our rabbis,” Kugel explains. “So much of what we think about the Bible is really dependent not on the Bible but what these ancient interpreters said. I tried to highlight that they were as important to Jews as they were to Christians.”

His emphasis on the importance of scripture to early Christians and Jews was well received by Jewish and Christian scholars alike. “It’s hard to overstate what Kugel’s work has brought about,” says Gary Anderson, the Hesburgh professor of Catholic theology at Notre Dame. “His deeper point is not always appreciated but bears repeating: The very notion of sacred scripture arises in this environment of early interpretation.” Anderson continues, “This is an argument that will wear well over time; it constitutes a lasting legacy to Kugel’s oeuvre.”
Kugel was one of my teachers during my PhD program at Harvard and I was a teaching fellow for his famous undergraduate course The Bible and Its Interpreters. I continue to introduce my students to his books at every opportunity.

More on James Kugel here and links, as well as here and here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

GJW: conclusively a forgery?

CHRISTIAN ASKELAND (ETC BLOG): Jesus had an ugly sister-in-law.

The too-clever title of this blog post misled me yesterday into thinking it was a joke or satire, and I was busy so I didn't read it until this morning. It is actually a very important contribution to the debate about the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. It seems that Harvard website has more information on the ink tests, which included the elusive fragment of the Gospel of John which came along with the GJW. A photo of the Gospel of John fragment is included. And Coptologists Askeland and Alin Suciu conclude that it is an obvious fake. The Harvard fragment is based on a modern edition of a Coptic manuscript of John, down to the same line divisions, and the dialect of the fragment is too early for the date of the papyrus it is written on. And it is written in the same handwriting, in the same ink, and using the same writing instrument as the GJW. The two were written by the same person.

This is very big. Unless the claims of the Coptologists can be shown to be wrong, the evidence is conclusive. The Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a fake.

See also further comments by Mark Goodacre.

Endless background on the GJW going right back to the first announcement is here and follow the links.

UPDATE: Leo Depuydt weighs in by e-mail over at What's New in Papyrology.

UPDATE: Hot off the press (virtually speaking), this article by Charlotte Allen in the Weekly Standard Magazine has already been overtaken by events. But it's a good overview of the story up to yesterday: The Wife of Jesus Tale. An investigation into the origins of a scrap of papyrus raises more questions than it resolves.

UPDATE: Bible History Daily (BAS) links, in an e-mailing received just a few minutes ago, to a summary by Noah Wiener of the state of the question as of 23 April, two days ago. Wiener surveys the story commendably thoroughly with lots of links to recent blog posts: The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Revisited. Harvard Divinity School declares the papyrus ancient, but the debate rages on. But again the story has moved on significantly in the last two days and the piece needs an update.

Pre-premiere review of Lilith, the Night Demon

DAN PINE: Lilith, the Night Demon: Racy, raucous, homegrown opera rears its head in Bay Area (
At the heart of the opera stand Adam and Lilith. As written by composer-librettist Horowitz, they resemble a Garden of Eden version of George and Martha, the pugilistic protagonists from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Though the opera is filled with salacious dialogue and NC-17 topics, Horowitz says none of it came from him. He drew his Lilith story directly from accounts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, the Zohar and a medieval Jewish tale called “The Alphabet of Ben Sira,” which added juicy details to the saga.

Though not directly mentioned in the Torah, the Lilith figure explains for some the presence of two creation stories in Genesis. Lilith, presumably, was Adam’s first bride, later tossed away for Adam’s trophy wife, Eve.
The article is quite well informed and goes into a lot of detail both about the opera (which opens on 1 May) and about the mythic background of the story. The opera itself seems to have made good use of all this material and Heather Klein makes a cute Lilith. I wish I could make it to San Francisco to see this one.

Background here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Second-Temple-era chisel?

DISCOVERY NEWS: Ancient Chisel Used to Build Western Wall Found
(Rossella Lorenzi).
A 2,000-year-old stonemason’s chisel that may have been used in the construction of Jerusalem’s Western Wall has been unearthed at the bottom of the structure along with a number of Second Temple-era objects, claims an Israeili archaeologist.

Some of the artifacts, which include a Roman sword, cooking vessels, a gold bell, coins and a ceramic seal, would suggest the Western Wall, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews, had not been built by King Herod at all.

Eli Shukron, an archaeologist working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), found the chisel last summer during a dig near a tunnel at the lower base of the Western Wall.

The IAA is still studying the artifact and has not yet verified anything about it. Further to the above, this is interesting:
According to Shukron, the excavation revealed a number of coins beneath the wall which date decades after Herod’s death.

This would suggest that construction of the Western Wall had not even begun at the time of Herod’s death and was likely completed only generations later by one of his descendants.
It couldn't have been very many generations later. Herod died in 4 BCE and the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

Watch this space ...

Samaritan Passover again

INNA LAZAREVA: Postcard from... Mount Gerizim (The Independent).
There is a cry as one priest raises a large knife and then swoops it down sharply on the sheep’s neck. Cheers erupt as others lean in to slaughter the lambs. Moments later, everyone embraces each other, leaving bloodied handprints on the starched white clothes. Each community member steps forward to receive a dot of the sheep’s blood on their forehead. The feast of Passover begins...
Background here and links.

St. George's Day 2014

HAPPY BELATED ST. GEORGE'S DAY! It was yesterday, 23 April. I thought of it but didn't have a chance to post on it. St. George is the patron saint of England and a hero to Palestinian Christians. He was also martyred in Palestine c. 300 C.E. and reputedly (alas in only in very late traditions) slew a dragon.

Background here and links

"Lilith" the folk opera

MUSIC: Legendary 'Lilith' inspires edgy folk opera (Janos Gereben, The Examiner). Excerpts:
“Producers of the show, which opens next week across the Bay Area, call it an “edgy folk opera” and “bawdy alternate Jewish story of Creation.”


The demonic character Lilith (in Hebrew, the name translates to “night monster” or “night hag”) first appeared in the Babylonian Talmud. Jewish folklore says she was created at the same time as Adam, but refused to be subservient to him and was forced to flee Paradise.

She mated with archangel Samael, becoming an accuser, seducer and destroyer. Even worse, she was a child-killer. A succubus, she roamed at night, seeking newborn babies and strangling them in their sleep.

Soprano Heather Klein doesn’t seem daunted about playing the evil character. She calls the score a “huge work that brings together so many genres — Jewish liturgical, operatic and folk,” and adds that she is “amazed by the character-driven melodies that bring this daring Yiddish and English libretto to life.”
Lilith started out as a Sumerian wind demon who was transmogrified into a baby-killing Babylonian demon; she made an appearance as a ruins-inhabiting demon in the Bible (Isaiah 34:14); she took a side turn to become Adam's disobedient first wife in Jewish legend; and she also became a Jewish demon who went back to her baby-killing ways. She gets around.

I was surprised at how many past PaleoJudaica posts there are on Lilith. They (excluding ones whose links have succumbed to link rot) are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Queen Helena of Adiabene's sarcophagus?

BIBLE HISTORY DAILY: The Tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. GarcĂ­a disagree with the widely accepted position that the Aramaic-inscription-bearing sarcophagus from the "Tomb of the Kings" in Jerusalem belonged to Queen Helena, although they do think that she was buried there in a different chamber.

For more on Queen Helena and that sarcophagus, see here and here.

Samaritan Passover 2014

SLIDESHOW: A Passover ceremony at Mount Gerizim (Haaretz). The Samaritan Passover runs on a slightly different calendar from that of the Jewish Passover.

Past posts on Samaritan Passover are here and links.

More doubts about the GJW

MARK GOODACRE: More doubts surface on the Jesus Wife Fragment. The doubts are raised by Owen Jarus at LiveScience: 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife': Doubts Raised About Ancient Text. The problem is that, according to an estate representative, the now dead West German man who supposedly provided the papyrus was not an antiquities collector and did not own papyri. Not conclusive, but interesting and worth following up further.

Mark also links to a recent video interview with Karen King here.

Background on the GJW is here and links.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On the DSS

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING: What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? These ancient parchments discovered by chance in desert caves by the Dead Sea tell mysteries about the mysterious Jewish sect that wrote them, and debunk a myth about Goliath's height while about it. (Elon Gilad, Haaretz).

This is a pretty good summary of the majority opinion about the Scrolls, with which I more or less agree. But I would like to nuance the confident identification of the Qumran sectarians with the Essenes, and I would be very caution about the uncritical harmonization of the sectarian texts with the accounts of the Essenes by Philo, Pliny, and Josephus.

Also, there are a few papyrus scrolls from Qumran in addition to all the parchment, and the extra passage about Nahash was already known through Josephus' retelling of the story before the Qumran Samuel manuscript was discovered.

For some related posts, see here, here, here, here, here, and here and follow the many links. Also relevant posts at the old Qumranica blog are here and here.

St Andrews Symposium

LAST CHANCE TO REGISTER: The St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies: Ancient Readers and their Scriptures, 2-3 June 2014 (University of St Andrews). The registration deadline is 1 May 2014. For registration information, follow the link or e-mail Garrick Allen (

Mouse in Hebrew

HAARETZ: Word of the Day / Akhbar from the bible to the digital age. The word for mouse goes back millennia, completely unchanged, but its antecedents may be an artifact of some ancient's sense of humor. (Elon Gilad).
At any rate, much like mice in the pantry, this word for the humble rodent has lasted through the ages, from Biblical times to the time of the Mishnah, through Talmudic times in Aramaic and then to rabbinic writings in Hebrew of the Middle Ages. Nor has it changed with the revival of Hebrew as a living language in the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

That said, akhbar underwent an important semantic twist in the late 20th century, when in 1963, Bill English built a prototype of a device designed by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute. The little palm-sized box with a cord protruding from its front resembled a mouse and thus it was so named.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sof pasuk

IT'S NOT OVER: Word of the Day / Sof pasuk: Ending things, biblical style. A poetic phrase to help express one's strongly-held feelings. (Shoshana Kordova, Haaretz).
“This isn’t sof pasuk,” they said, using a phrase that roughly means “This isn’t the last word” or “It’s not over yet.”

Sof means “end” and pasuk (pah-SOOK) is a verse in the Bible (with pasuk muzikali meaning “musical phrase”), such that the term literally means “end of the verse.”

More to the point, perhaps, it is the name of the Torah cantillation symbol that signals, not surprisingly, the end of the verse, the same way that “period” in American English and “full stop” in British English are the names of the punctuation mark that signals the end of a sentence.

Maaloula, Easter, Assad, and Aramaic

MAALOULA WATCH: Assad makes Easter visit to recaptured Christian town.
State television reports Syrian president goes to Maalula, taken by government forces in December
(AFP). See also here.

Well that was a good gesture, but more is needed: Why the language of Jesus is at risk (Kinda Jayouse, Globe and Mail).
But in the Syrian civil war, Maaloula is also strategically significant. The village is located near the main road that links Damascus to Homs, which is considered an essential supply route. That is why the government was eager to retake Maaloula from rebels – to cut off their supply routes and give the government more control of central Syria.

The exodus of Christians over the past year has worried experts, who fear that Aramaic speakers will integrate into their new communities and eventually the language will disappear. And although the village has been recaptured, many believe that the residents will not return because their homes have been destroyed, they are not wealthy enough to rebuild and the insecurity of the civil war continues.

“The village is badly damaged and security is very limited,” says one Maaloula resident who did not want to be named for safety reasons. “I do not think we will be able to go there to settle in a long time.”

“We are so happy [Maaloula] is free now, but the village is littered with land mines, many parts of it are destroyed and some homes have been torched,” says a former resident named Ward, who fled in late 2013 and has taken refuge in Damascus. “Most villagers are poor and I doubt they would have the means to rebuild their homes. And those who have the means are afraid that the general security situation is not stable yet or safe,” she added.
Meanwhile in the USA: Assyrians Who Fled Syria Prepare to Celebrate Easter in Chicago (Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune).

The situation in Maaloula is critical and its status as one of last remaining places where Aramaic is spoken as a daily language hangs in doubt. This is a chance for the Assad Government to demonstrate its goodwill and commitment to human rights and religious tolerance. Let's see Maaloula rebuilt, re-established for the original inhabitants, and made secure.

The world is watching.

Background on Maaloula (Ma'aloula, Malula) is here and links.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter 2014

HAPPY EASTER to all those celebrating!

The links have rotted in my old Easter post, so here they are again. The resurrection narratives in the four Gospels are found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20-21. Paul refers to Jesus' resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. As a bonus, go have a look at the Passion and resurrection fragment of the Gospel of Peter, which may, at least in part, be independent of the canonical Gospels.