It seemed real; it seemed fake; it seemed real again; now we’re back to fake.
“It” is the controversial little scrap of papyrus, written in Coptic, that seems to have Jesus referring to “my wife,” in contrast to the traditional stance that affirms Jesus’ perpetual bachelorhood.
The quick backstory: In 2012, a Harvard professor, Karen King, brought this papyrus to the attention of scholars and the public.
Both the material and the script looked authentically ancient at first glance, and though the notion of Jesus having a wife was remarkable, these “lost” Christian writings, such as the Gnostic Gospels, are full of unorthodoxies.
It was good enough for King, who is widely respected in the scholarly world.
From the beginning, there were doubts, however, beyond the unlikelihood that the tiny scrap that survived the centuries would happen to be the one that contained the reference to Jesus’ wife.
The papyrus, along with a few other ancient papyri of lesser novelty, had been passed to King by an anonymous figure.
Anonymity, in the world of antiquities, is often a bad sign, compounding the inherent uncertainty when dealing with texts that are bought and sold rather than discovered in a firm archaeological setting.
Then there were aspects of the text itself that seemed suspicious.
For a fragmented scrap of papyrus, it seemed to have an awful lot of important content on it. Not only did Jesus refer to “my wife,” he also potentially described a certain Mary — perhaps Mary Magdalene? — as “worthy” and capable of being a disciple.
It is (almost) too good to be true.
At the same time, the handwriting seemed surprisingly sloppy.
Then again, other scholars noted that just because a scribe has poor handwriting and a text is informative does not make it a forgery. Perhaps we just got lucky this time.
More specific issues arose in the perceived familiarity of the document.
The text of the Jesus’ wife fragment is remarkably close to published editions, available online, of another Coptic Christian text, called the “Gospel of Thomas.”
So close, in fact, that one of the typographical errors in an online edition of the “Gospel of Thomas” is replicated, uniquely, in the Jesus’ wife fragment.
What are the chances of that?
Yet some would say that the fact that there is considerable overlap with the wording of the “Gospel of Thomas” isn’t a problem: Christian authors regularly copied word-for-word from other texts.
The canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for example, reproduce much of the Gospel of Mark, with only slight alterations. And the vocabulary used in the papyrus is remarkably common.
The most compelling argument for authenticity is the flip-side (or verso) of the manuscript.
There are faint traces of ink on this side that have been worn away, suggesting that they are truly ancient.
It would be highly unusual for a modern forger to get his hands on an ancient papyrus written on only one side and equally difficult to imagine how the verso might have been made today.
Yet for all the arguments and efforts, there was no smoking gun – on either side.
And so the papyrus was submitted for testing: carbon-dating of the papyrus itself as well as chemical testing of the ink. Just last month, those test results came back.
It turns out that the papyrus is genuinely ancient. The ink has the chemical composition of ancient ink. The news spread, including here, that the papyrus was the real McCoy.
Of course, tests like those can’t really prove authenticity; they can prove only potential authenticity. And they are hardly foolproof.
SOURCE: Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss