Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Wall Street Journal: how the “Jesus wife” hoax fell apart

The Christian Apologetics Alliance tweeted this story from the Wall Street Journal.

Excerpt:

In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of a Coptic (ancient Egyptian) gospel text on a papyrus fragment that contained the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’ ” The world took notice. The possibility that Jesus was married would prompt a radical reconsideration of the New Testament and biblical scholarship.

Yet now it appears almost certain that the Jesus-was-married story line was divorced from reality. On April 24, Christian Askeland—a Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University and my colleague at the Green Scholars Initiative—revealed that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as the fragment is known, was a match for a papyrus fragment that is clearly a forgery.

Almost from the moment Ms. King made her announcement two years ago, critics attacked the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a forgery. One line of criticism said that the fragment had been sloppily reworked from a 2002 online PDF of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and even repeated a typographical error.

[...]Then last week the story began to crumble faster than an ancient papyrus exposed in the windy Sudan. Mr. Askeland found, among the online links that Harvard used as part of its publicity push, images of another fragment, of the Gospel of John, that turned out to share many similarities—including the handwriting, ink and writing instrument used—with the “wife” fragment. The Gospel of John text, he discovered, had been directly copied from a 1924 publication.

“Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery,” Mr. Askeland tells me. “First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century.” Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and “concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries.” In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was written in a dialect that didn’t exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.

Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor and Coptic expert at Duke University, wrote on his NT Blog on April 25 about the Gospel of John discovery: “It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake, and this conclusion means that the Jesus’ Wife Fragment is a fake too.” Alin Suciu, a research associate at the University of Hamburg and a Coptic manuscript specialist, wrote online on April 26: “Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus over.”

Tim McGrew linked to this interview featuring one of the scholars who provided the “smoking gun”.

Excerpt:

Why do you consider it to be a forgery?

Askeland: Essentially all specialists in ancient Egyptian material culture concluded that the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ was a forgery back in 2012.  Francis Watson, Alin Suciu, Hugo Lundhaug and Andrew Bernhard all contributed to a web-based discussion, which explained a string of grammatical anomalies in the fragment, appealing to an internet-based PDF of the Gospel of Thomas (the only surviving version of the Gospel of Thomas is in the Coptic language).  With The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife the forger had cut and pasted sections from the Gospel of Thomas, and in doing so created several grammatically impossible phrases.  In particular, the forger unwittingly included a typo, which marked the particular source. The idea that both texts could include the exact same typographical error (and this kind of typographical error) is statistically highly improbable.  Although the peculiarities of the scribal hand, which had no parallel among other ancient manuscripts, were damning enough, the textual source theory essentially settled the issue.

And:

What is your key insight? Why have you been credited with finding ‘the smoking gun’?

Askeland: I remember sitting at my desk in Tyndale House one day in 2010, finishing my dissertation on the Coptic versions of John, and encountering an old note concerning Codex Qau, the main Lycopolitan witness to John’s gospel; Lycopolitan is a dialect of Coptic. This manuscript was kept down the street at the Cambridge University Library, to which I went immediately. Fast-forward to the present.  Remember, The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was one of several fragments which were announced by Karen King.  There was also in this group of fragments a fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. Just recently, when I gazed upon Karen King’s Coptic John fragment, what I saw was immediately clear.  Not only were the writing tool, ink and hand exactly the same as those of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment, but also the method of composition was the same. As I looked at Karen King’s Gospel of John fragment, I finally saw that it was clearly copied (by the forger) from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of Codex Qau.  Indeed, the Gospel of John fragment had exactly the same line breaks as Codex Qau – a statistical improbability if it were genuine.

This is not the first time that fake manuscripts have surfaced that promote left-wing politics. Morton Smith, a homosexual, passed of a forged gospel called the “Secret Gospel of Mark” which promoted a homosexual view of Jesus. This 20th century hoax was accepted by the gullible mainstream media, until it was disproved as a forgery in the peer-reviewed literature, and in academic books. The Secret Gospel of Mark is so debunked that even Robert M. Price, who is on the far left fringe of New Testament scholarship, rejects it.

It should be noted that Karen King is a member of the liberal naturalistic Jesus Seminar. They presuppose atheism and their politics are hard left – that’s what they assume before they begin doing scholarship. Karen King specializes in “women’s roles in the church” and Gnosticism. I expect that she would be very happy if this Jesus-had-a-wife fragment were used to bash traditional notions of women’s roles in the church. And so would her allies in the secular leftist media.

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The Jesus-wife source is dated to eight-century Egypt: could it be authentic?

J. Warner Wallace tweeted this post from Al Mohler, which talks about the scholarly review of a recent discovery.

Excerpt:

Last week, the Harvard Theological Review released a much-delayed series of articles on the fragment. After a series of investigations undertaken by diverse scholars, the general judgment claimed by Professor King is that the fragment probably is not a forgery — or at least that it dates back to ancient times. The analysis suggested that the fragment dated from about four centuries later than Professor King had first suggested. This would place the fragment, if authentic, in the context of eighth-century Egypt — hundreds of years after the New Testament was written and completed.

The language used by the national media in reporting the story this time reveals the lack of confidence now placed in the fragment. The Boston Globe reported that the tests “have turned up no evidence of modern forgery,” but the reporter had to acknowledge that at least one of the scholars writing in the Harvard Theological Review insisted that the fragment is not only a forgery, but an amateurish effort. The New York Times ran a story that featured a headline announcing that the fragment “is more likely ancient than fake.” Note the uncertainty evident even in the headline.

In her major article released last week, Professor King defended the fragment’s authenticity, but acknowledged that — all previous sensationalism aside — “It is not entirely clear, however, how many women are referred to [in the fragment], who they are, precisely what is being said about them, or what larger issues are under consideration.”

This is a very different message than was sent back in 2012. Professor King now acknowledges that all the references to females in the fragment might be “deployed metaphorically as figures of the Church, or heavenly Wisdom, or symbolically/typologically as brides of Christ or even mothers.” In other words, the fragment might not even conflict with Christian orthodoxy.

The most declarative article in the Harvard Theological Review, however, dismisses the entire fragment as a modern forgery. Professor Leo Depuydt of Brown University argues that the fragment’s authenticity is “out of the question.” He points to several factors, including the fact that a set of typographical errors in the fragment matches a set of errors in an online edition of the “Gospel of Thomas,” an ancient Gnostic text. Depuydt put the chances of coincidence with respect to these errors as one in a trillion. Depuydt states that he “has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”

Taken as a whole, the issue of the Harvard Theological Review released last week includes some scholars who stalwartly defend the fragment as authentic, some who argue that there is no convincing proof that it is a forgery, and at least one who argues that the case for authenticity is laughable.

Previously when I blogged about this I noted that like sensational fiction writer Dan Brown, Karen King is a feminist, and anxious to insert women into more prominent roles in Christian history.

Mohler picked up on it too:

The larger background includes the fact that Professor King has devoted much of her scholarly career to making a case that the early church falsely constructed an orthodox understanding of Jesus that minimized the role of women. Back in 2003 she released The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, in which she argued that at least some ancient texts pointed to Mary Magdalene as an apostle. In 2012 she told the writer for Smithsonian: “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.”

Professor King, along with others such as Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, reject traditional Christianity and have turned time and again to ancient Gnostic documents, such as were found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt, to argue that early Christianity marginalized some theological voices and standardized doctrinal orthodoxy in order to maintain doctrinal purity.

I think this is why media outlets, who are sympathetic with this goal, would trumpet an eighth century discovery over the 1st century gospels. Let me be clear. Nothing from the eight century can be considered authentic if it contradicts multiple, independent first century sources. The only thing driving the media frenzy on this discovery is feminism, pure and simple.

I just want to say that I don’t always agree with Al Mohler, especially on marriage and men’s rights issues, where I think his exegesis of the Bible is overly influenced by liberal feminism. So to have him agreeing with me on King’s “scholarship” is a good thing.

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How prestigious evangelical scholars helped debunk the Jesus wife myth

Journalists hoped that the Jesus-wife story offered by feminist Karen King could be used to bash traditional Christianity, but it was later exposed as a forgery. A recent article by New Testament scholar Peter Williams has an after action report on the affair, and he explains why it was shot down so quickly.  (H/T Tweet from J. Warner Wallace)

Excerpt:

Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, follows through on a recent claim about Christ

On September 18, the news broke of a small fragment of papyrus purporting to record words of Jesus. It contained the striking phrase, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife …”‘ and then the text breaks off at the right hand margin.

The scholar making the announcement decided that this credit-card-sized scrap was a ‘gospel’ and gave it the bold title ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’. The announcement was made simultaneously at an academic conference in Rome and through pre-arranged media channels by Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School and holder of the oldest endowed chair in the USA. Dr. King said she was not at liberty to identify the owner and that the papyrus was of unknown geographical origin, but had spent time recently in Germany.

King claimed that the papyrus was from the fourth century, but that its content came from the second century. She was careful to state that this had nothing to do with the Jesus of history. Naturally, the media went into a frenzy and began to link it with debates about the ordination of women (BBC), or claimed it was ‘one of the most significant discoveries of all time’ (Smithsonian Channel, subsequently deleted), while Yahoo News led with the headline ‘Jesus had a wife, newly discovered gospel suggests’. The blogosphere and social media were wild with excitement, though some of the most sceptical realised that they were not at liberty to believe in the marriage of Jesus when they doubted his existence.

In my previous post about this, I talked about how Karen King is affiliated with the radical extremist liberal atheist Jesus Seminar group, how reputable scholars immediately found problems with the discovery, and how the mainstream media pushes these sensational discoveries because they have an agenda to discredit Christianity, and Judeo-Christian values. But this time I want to say something different, based on what Peter Williams says here:

[I]t’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown of The Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.

It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.

It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.

I think that we have to understand as Christians that some Christians are more effective than others, because of their knowledge and skills. Instead of sort of going through life willy-nilly (doing whatever feels good, or whatever attracts more people to our church, or whatever makes more people accept us), and making excuses about why we are justified in not studying anything hard, maybe we need to focus more on what actually works. We need to ask ourselves “what actually works in order to honor God and defend his reputation?” and “what kind of knowledge is useful in a debate about the facts and evidence for and against Christianity?”

Belly-dancing for Jesus and poetry-writing for Jesus and worship-leading for Jesus are not as good for Jesus as astrophysics for Jesus or New Testament scholarship for Jesus or philosophy of religion for Jesus or even hedge fund management for Jesus (a job which can pay for many willing students to complete their Ph.Ds). That’s the way the world really works. The sooner we start making our decisions about what to study based the needs and feelings of God instead of the needs and feelings of man, the better off we will be. We need to be careful about spiritualizing our desire to be happy and calling our emotional hedonism “God’s mysterious will”. We have to do hard things, because doing hard things puts us in a position to be effective and influential when it counts.

We have to study things that don’t make us feel happy so that God will feel happy. God’s happiness doesn’t depend on whether we’re happy. Feeling happy is not how we serve God. Feeling happy is not as good for God as debunking lies about him with the authority that comes from studying the issues and knowing the evidence. God is happy when more people people acknowledge his existence, his actual character and his good actions in history. We need to choose to study things that can contribute to those goals. I think we just need to stop projecting our emotions and feelings onto God, and stop thinking that the point of life is for us to have happy feelings of well-being and health and peer-approval. That’s not Christianity, that’s just narcissism.

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Durham University professor calls the “Jesus had a wife” manuscript fragment a forgery

The radically left-wing UK Guardian has the story.

Excerpt:

A New Testament scholar claims to have found evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a modern forgery.

Professor Francis Watson, of Durham University, says the papyrus fragment, which caused a worldwide sensation when it appeared earlier this week because it appeared to refer to Jesus’s wife, is a patchwork of texts from the genuine Coptic-language Gospel of Thomas, which have been copied and reassembled out of order to make a suggestive new whole.

In a paper published online, Watson argues that all of the sentence fragments found on the papyrus fragment have been copied, sometimes with small alterations, from printed editions of the Gospel of Thomas.

The discovery has already sparked fierce debate among academics, but Watson believes his new research may prove conclusive.

“I think it is more or less indisputable that I have shown how the thing was composed,” he said. “I would be very surprised if it were not a modern forgery, although it is possible that it was composed in this way in the fourth century.”

His paper claims the work was assembled by someone who was not a native speaker of Coptic, which is a polite way of saying that it is modern.

He does not directly criticise Professor Karen King, of Harvard, who presented the fragment at a conference in Rome this week. He says she has done a very good job of presenting the evidence and images of the disputed fragment. He believes the papyrus itself may well date from the fourth century, but the words, he says, clearly show the influence of modern printed books.

In particular, there is a line break in the middle of one word that appears to have been lifted directly from modern editions of the Gospel of Thomas, a genuine Gnostic or early Christian text.

It is common for words to be broken in the middle in ancient scripts, like Coptic, which were written without hyphens, he says. But it is most uncommon for the same break to appear in the same work in two different manuscripts.

You can read an introduction to the find by Dr. Watson on Mark Goodacre’s web site.

Excerpt:

On 18 September, Dr Karen King of Harvard University announced the discovery of a controversial new gospel-fragment at a Vatican-sponsored conference in Rome. Dr King believes that the papyrus fragment comes from a 4th century copy of an unknown gospel that may itself go back to the 2nd century. While only a few incomplete lines have survived, the fragment has become instantly famous on account of line 4, where we read: And Jesus said to them, “My wife…” This gives the text its proposed title: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW). According to Dr King, the reference to Jesus’ marital status is probably not an item of genuine historical information; rather, it takes us into the world of his later followers and their debates about issues of sexuality and gender.

The GJW fragment is written in Coptic, a later form of the language of ancient Egypt. In translation it runs as follows:

1 “… [can]not be my [disciple]. My mother gave me life…”
2 … The disciples said to Jesus, “…
3 … deny. Mary is not worthy of it…
4 …” Jesus said to them, “My wife…
5 … she can be my disciple…
6 … Let the evil man swell up…
7 … I am with her, so as to…
8 … an image…”

On the reverse side of the papyrus fragment, only a few individual words and letters have been preserved.

The papyrus fragment itself may well be very old. The question is whether the ink is also old. If chemical tests are carried out to establish the composition of the ink, these might show that a modern ink has been used and so prove the text to be a modern forgery. Whether tests could reliably show that an ink compatible with ancient origin is actually ancient is less certain. Meanwhile, it’s important to look very closely at the text itself – and especially to investigate how it was put together.

In my article, I argue that the GJW fragment may be a modern fake. Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas – the best-known and most complete of the ancient gospel texts that have come to light over the past century or so. The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.

Basically, Dr. Francis Watson is looking at which works the fragment seems to quote from in order to date it and judge its historical reliability. If it quotes from the late Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, then it’s not early, and not reliable. But if it includes line breaking from the modern translations of the Gospel of Thomas, then it’s a fraud. I would say that right now, it looks like a fraud, and we will just have to wait for the dating on the materials (ink and papyrus) to be sure.

In fact, Harvard University is making the publication of the find conditional on this sort of scientific testing.

Excerpt:

Harvard University says it hasn’t committed to publishing research that purportedly shows some early Christians believed Jesus had a wife even though its divinity school touted the research during a publicity blitz this week.

The research centers on a fourth-century papyrus fragment containing Coptic text in which Jesus uses the words “my wife.” On Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced at an international conference that the fragment was the only existing ancient text in which Jesus explicitly talks of having a wife.

Harvard also said King’s research was scheduled to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January and noted the journal was peer-reviewed, which implied the research had been fully vetted.

But on Friday, the review’s co-editor Kevin Madigan said he and his co-editor had only “provisionally” committed to a January publication, pending the results of the ongoing studies. In an email, Madigan said the added studies include “scientific dating and further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, The Associated Press raised questions about the fragment’s authenticity and provenance, quoting scholars at the international congress on Coptic studies in Rome, where King delivered the paper. The scholars said the fragment’s grammar, form and content raised several red flags. Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, flatly called it a “forgery.”

Boston University archaeologist Ricardo Elia said Friday that the Harvard Theological Review should delay publication until the fragment’s owner and origins are more clearly documented.

You can also check out this 6-page report by Dr. Watson, featuring a line-by-line analysis of the Coptic phrases. Mark Goodacre is a tenured professor of New Testament at Duke University, which has one of the best New Testament programs, in my opinion. So don’t be put off by the site that is hosting it.

Hoaxes and political agendas

Dr. Watson notes in the 6-page report that this is not the first time that fake manuscripts have surfaced that promote left-wing politics. Morton Smith, a homosexual, passed of a forged gospel called the “Secret Gospel of Mark” which promoted a homosexual view of Jesus. This 20th century hoax was accepted by the gullible mainstream media, until it was disproved as a forgery in the peer-reviewed literature, and in academic books. The debunking of Secret Gospel of Mark is so thorough that it is even accept by Robert M. Price, who is on the far left fringe of New Testament scholarship. It should be noted that Karen King is a member of the liberal naturalistic Jesus Seminar. They presuppose atheism and their politics are hard left – that’s what they assume before they begin doing scholarship. Karen King specializes in “women’s roles in the church” and Gnosticism. I expect that she would be very happy if this Jesus-had-a-wife fragment were used to bash traditional notions of women’s roles in the church.

The mainstream media

Now why isn’t the mainstream media taking a cautious approach to this find? Here’s my answer – they want as many people as possible to avoid Christianity. The more they can get people to avoid acting like Christians and voting like Christians, the fewer moral restrictions there will be on their desires. For example, people on the secular left are particularly fascinated with recreational sex followed by abortion, as well as the undermining of chastity and traditional marriage, and even fiscal policies like the free market and private property. All of this is offensive to them. So whenever they get the chance to bash Christianity with hoaxes, they will do it. Media bias has been well-documented by a number of published studies from top universities. It’s a bad thing to let personal immorality cause you to lie to others so that they miss their chance of knowing God and entering into fellowship with him. But that’s what the mainstream news media does every day.

Further study

J. W. Wartick has linked to a whole bunch of responses on his blog. He’s got Daniel Wallace, Darrell Bock and other well-known New Testament scholars. But I think that the response by Dr. Watson is decisive, and should be your first stop.

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