Thursday, March 26, 2015

The "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" Is a Forgery

Photos of FHF can be viewed online.
            On February 27, 2015, Salon magazine published a remarkably inaccurate article about Jesus.  The author, Valerie Tarico, (a non-theist), stated at the outset that Jesus was probably married.  The first thing she mentioned as the basis for this claim was “an ancient papyrus scrap” that referred to the wife of Jesus.  She was referring to the fragment which Harvard professor Karen King – the publisher of that papyrus scrap – has labeled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” 
            Tarico’s Salon article is a collection of falsehoods glued together with inaccuracies and wrapped in half-truths, but her claim about this papyrus is particularly misleading.  The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” has been demonstrated to be a forgery.  Yet even after the proof of the forgery has been placed online where any journalist can access it, Salon published Tarico’s claim anyway.  If Salon were a doctor, it would be guilty of malpractice.
            The proof of the counterfeit nature of the Forged Harvard Fragment – abbreviated, for the sake of convenience, as FHF – does not consist in the date of the materials out of which it was fabricated.  Forgers have plenty of access to ancient papyrus.  Forgers can not only use ancient papyri – say, relatively cheap receipts – to write upon, but they can also burn ancient materials to create soot as a component of carbon-based ink to write with
            FHF was subjected to two Carbon-14 tests, and the results, part of the detailed analysis published in Harvard Theological Review, were wildly divergent:  one test indicated that the materials were from A.D. 650-870, and the other one indicated that the materials were from 410-200 B.C.  Neither one is consistent with a production-date in the 300’s or 400’s, which is what the Harvard professor had been proposing.     
            FHF’s carbon-14 date in 650-870 is consistent with the date of another fragment which was in the same collection of old fragments in which the FHF was brought to Karen King’s attention:  a fragment of the Sahidic (Egyptian) text of the Gospel of John.  The production-date of the papyrus used for the fragment of Sahidic John was carbon-dated consistently to somewhere between 640 and 880.  This supports the idea that the fragment of the Sahidic text of John, and the FHF, both come from the same batch of papyrus, and that the papyrus-material was produced in 640-880.  Strengthening the likeliness of this is Dr. Christian Askeland’s observation that when one looks at the fragment of the Sahidic text of John, and also at the writing in FHF, “the writing tool, ink and hand” are “exactly the same.” 
            This presents a rather large obstacle to the notion that the FHF was written in the 300’s or 400’s:  a writer in the 300’s or 400’s obviously would not have access to papyrus writing-material produced in the 600’s-800’s.  So is the solution to move the production-date of the texts into the 600’s-800’s?  That isn’t feasible either, because by that time, the dialect in which this particular fragment is written was no longer being used.  The dialect – Lycopolitan Coptic – is attested rather sparsely; it is known from a manuscript called the Qau Codex (a manuscript of the Gospel of John produced in 350-400) which was published in 1924 by Herbert Thompson
Photos of the Sahidic fragment of John are included in the report in 
Harvard Theological Review and can be viewed at several news-blogs. 
(Photo credit unknown -- Timothy Swager (?))
When we look at the Qau Codex and compare its text of the Gospel of John to the contents of the fragment of John that was made by the same person who made the FHF, we find something highly incriminating:  the line-endings in the fragment of John correspond to the line-endings in the Qau Codex.
            Even without knowledge of Coptic dialects, this can be seen via a simple comparison, as shown here.  Thus we can practically reconstruct what the forger who made FHF did as he produced FHF’s sister-forgery:  he wrote the text of the Qau Codex, and simply combined every two lines as a single line.
            On May 24, 2014, Bart Ehrman wrote about this at his blog:  “On the reverse side of the Gospel of John fragment there is writing (not from John but from another text).”  He also wrote:  “The words and letters on the left hand margin for all of 17 lines in a row of the “new discovery” match exactly those in the text that was discovered in the 20th century,” i.e., in the Qau Codex.  Both of Ehrman’s statements are problematic.  First, the fragment in question has text from the Gospel of John on both sides.  Second, the left margin of the fragment is only extant on one side.  Third, the correspondence to the Qau Codex occurs on alternating lines in the fragment, not on every line.  (One wonders if he ever even saw pictures of the fragment he was describing to his readers.)  Hopefully Dr. Ehrman will post again on this subject in a less confused state.  In the meantine, the fragment can be viewed in the online report submitted to Harvard Theological Review.
           Francis Watson has shown that the FHF’s text is similarly derivative:  the forger basically pieced together snippets from the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas (a Gnostic text composed in the 100’s), altering their contents to make the contents more sensational, but leaving clear traces of his source.      
            Stephen Emmel has pointed out a different path to the same conclusion:  when one reconstructs the format of the text of the Gospel of John that would be necessary in a codex in which a page has the particular passages on the front and back that this fragment contains, the codex’s pages would need to be either exceptionally tall (if the text were written in a single column) or exceptionally wide (if the text were written in two columns).  This augments the point that the person who made the Sahidic fragment of John – the same person who made FHF – did not carefully think through everything that would be required to make a convincing forgery.
           Mark Goodacre and other perceptive readers noticed that in one phrase, the FHF reads the same as the text of the Gospel of Thomas usually does, except for one unusual reading which happens to be identical to a typographical error that appeared in an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas – specifically, an edition by Mike Grondin which was first available in November of 2002.  This may indicate when and where the forger obtained his text of the Gospel of Thomas before using its component-parts in the process of putting together the text of the forgery.  Not long thereafter, Dan Brown’s deceptively marketed and fictitious work The Da Vinci Code was published – which, as Dr. Francis Watson has noted, may have given the forger the idea of using snippets of the Gospel of Thomas to create a forgery which conveyed that Jesus had a wife.

What's next, National Geographic?
                The history of the Forged Harvard Fragment was interesting and illuminating.  It showed the value – I mean, the worthlessness – of some “expert opinions,” and the worthlessness of the sort of “peer review” that can occur when the ultra-liberal “peers” thirstily want something to be true.  (James McGrath at Butler, Candida Moss at Notre Dame, James Tabor at UNC-Charlotte, and April DeConick, I’m thinking of you.  Candida Moss has finally acknowledged the obvious about FHF, in a CNN report on February 20, 2015.  Why does it seem so hard for the others?  Roger Bagnall, any comment?  And AnneMarie Luijendijk: “impossible to forge”?  Please explain.)  
            It also showed how a group of scholars (Leo Depuydt (whose has consistently maintained his early assessment that FHF is a poorly executed forgery), Francis Watson, Andrew Bernhard, Mark Goodacre, Michael Grondlin, Alin Suciu, and Christian Askeland, among others), connected by the internet, can undo the damage which the recklessness and negligence of other scholars would probably have otherwise done.  
            And, inasmuch as Salon magazine is still spreading essays that treat the Forged Harvard Fragment as something other than a proven forgery, months after the proof was provided, it also shows that there is a real need, on the part of people who engineer a sensationalistic mess, to clean up after themselves with the same level of energy that was expended in the promotion of a falsehood.  Why has there been so little, if any, acknowledgement of the proof the FHF is a forgery from the Smithsonian Channel and other media-outlets responsible for spreading false claims about this forgery?  When will the headline appear in National Geographic informing its readers that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is fake?)  This responsibility seems to be very much lacking in some circles of New Testament academia – which is rather ironic considering what the New Testament says about honesty.

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