Ancient Coptic Fragment Has Jesus Alluding to His Wife

The New York Times published this article today about Professor Karen King’s apparent discovery of a fragment of an ancient text, likely composed a few centuries after the apostolic era, that in part reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” This would be the first ancient text in any language that has any reference to a wife for Jesus. The text is written in Coptic, the language in which the Gnostic Gospels from Nag Hammadi were written.

Now, to be clear, this discovery isn’t PaleoBabble — at least not yet. Karen King is a good scholar. She teaches on the history of early Christianity (which would include Gnostic sects) at Harvard. I don’t believe for a minute she’s faking anything. However, the text is unprovenanced, which is a problem. To quote the article:

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.


So, while authenticity seems likely, people making manuscript “drops” to scholars from the shadows or on street corners doesn’t help. I personally know people who’ve had this happen to them in some form or another and it’s gone nowhere. However, the instance I’m thinking of involved a photo and a transcription. This appears to be an actual text. Still, I hope the owner comes forward to settle that part of this issue. I should also say it’s nice to see Dr. King disclose information the right way — at a conference of peers — as opposed to the P.T. Barnum (or maybe Chuck Barris) approach of Simcha Jacobovici.

The part of all this that moves toward PaleoBabble, though, is what’s being said about it, and what will continue to be said. As Dr. King herself says, the text does not prove Jesus was married; it proves only someone (the writer of this text) thought he was married, or wanted to cast him as married. The NYT article notes:

[Dr. King] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

James Tabor jumps the gun in this regard, but I guess I can give him a pass on being excited about the news. I’d agree that seeing stuff like this surface is pretty cool. But let’s not insert conclusions into the data, or cast the latter as the former. James writes:

I have written extensively on this subject on my blog, suggesting that my colleagues, from Ben Witherington to Bart Ehrman, who are so insistent that “there is not a shred of evidence that Jesus was married, reconsider the question. I have changed my own position since publishing The Jesus Dynasty in 2006 in which I too insisted the “Jesus was married” idea was long on speculation and short on evidence. The implications of the two Talpiot tombs are one factor in my own shift, but in fact I would consider that evidence secondary compared to the textual evidence, including the evidence from silence, that can be mounted.


James, this isn’t “textual evidence” that Jesus was actually married. It’s evidence someone thought he was married or wanted to cast him as such (assuming of course we won’t see months on wrangling over the translation, in which case, the text will join others consigned to academic limbo).

James recommends Birger Pearson’s latest essay on Mary Magdalene. I agree that it’s well worth the read. My own bottom line is that I tend to agree with James and others that the Church (read: the Catholic church and then all those Protestants who blindly followed that tradition) has manipulated the testimony of Mary Magdalene.  Words like “bogus” and “willfully ignorant” only begin to capture this hermeneutical crime. However, we’re unwise to affirm the obvious and then extrapolate to the unnecessary (or to a dream).

Bible Code Debate with Yours Truly This Weekend

Some of you may be interested to know that my 2001 debate with Grant Jeffrey on Coast to Coast AM (then with Art Bell — the old Art Bell Show) will be replayed this weekend (Saturday night). Wow. 2001 – my grad school days.

The link has the show set for 6-10 PT. I can’t actually recall if I was on the full four hours or just three.  It may have been four since the show was five hours when Art did it (the first hour was usually for news or whatever else Art wanted to talk about). The only thing I do recall about the show and debate was that Grant Jeffrey really had no idea what I was talking about.  He basically has no background or knowledge of Hebrew, textual criticism, or how the Old Testament was transmitted.  But if you have a friend that believes this nonsense, please invite them to listen, as well as going to this web page – pretty much the page I had up for the show, visually demonstrating (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) how the idea of an every-letter equidistant letter sequence (ELS; the backbone idea of the Bible code) is demonstrably false.

Thanks to Shirley in Michigan for alerting me to this!

Bad Day for Vatican Conspiracists: 80,000 Manuscripts to Be Digitized

Just when you were almost convinced that the Vatican wasn’t asleep at the switch in its herculean effort to keep its ancient manuscripts secret. Bummer.  You can read about the initiative here.

Oh, wait . . .  I’ll bet that all these years they’ve been busy pulling out all the manuscripts they want to hide from public just so they can appear to be open now . . . that’s it.

Pulpit PaleoBabble Follow-Up

My thanks to Mark Goodacre for both the link and this follow-up to the nutty “666 in the NIV.”  Turns out that there’s not even 666 verses in the NIV if you actually look at the certain versification items — the NIV doesn’t include other verses in Mark, so it cannot have 666.  Bummer.

Another Great Moment in Pulpit PaleoBabble

Just when you think preaching can’t get any more insipid, you find yet another logic-defying sermon out there on the web. “Thanks” to the person who sent this to me.

Some surface observations on the problems with this “Bible lesson”:

1. Since the NIV *printed* the longer ending of Mark, isn’t it true that there are in fact 678 verses in Mark?  Didn’t he just count them for us?

2. As educated students of the textual history of the Bible (any Bible) know (guess that excludes this pastor), verses were not original to the text of either testament.  That means that versification is artificial from the get-go, so any numerical “truth” derived from counting them is, well, paleobabble.  Chapter divisions were added in the 13th century. During that century, Stephen Langton (ca. 1227), a professor at the University of Paris, and Cardinal Hugo de Sancta Cara (ca. 1244-1248) pioneered the chapter divisions. (One wonders how this preacher might react to catholics being the source of the chapter divisions).  Much earlier than this, the NT was divided into sections ca. the Council of Nicea, and before that the Hebrew Masoretes divided their canonical texts into section, paragraph, and phrasal divisions using accenting traditions. These divisions (oh, horror!) do not coincide with the KJV divisions or those used by other modern English translations. It is not known exactly when versification was added, but the oldest such scheme seems to be Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541; another catholic!), though his system was not popularly adopted.  As Christopher Smith notes in an article produced for a magazine I edit, “Robert Estienne created an alternate numbering in his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament.”1 The first English New Testament to use the verse divisions was a 1557 translation by William Whittingham (c. 1524-1579).

None of this probably matters to the speaker, though, since he appears to be a King James only adherent. That brings me to the next problem.

3. The King James Only view that is apparent from this sermon is foreign to the reality of history of the biblical text. Readers are encouraged to read two volumes on this nonsense that are quite informative and helpful.  First, there is Carson’s King James Version Debate, The: A Plea for Realism (1979); then there is White’s  King James Only Controversy, The: Can You Trust Modern Translations?.  Even fundamentalists like Roy Beacham would denounce the KJV only position: One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible.

My point here is that this view is completely on the fringe — and there are real reasons why it is.  Frankly, the KJV debate is really a debate about the NT. None of its arguments work with respect to the Hebrew Bible (they don’t work on the NT, either, but applying them to the Hebrew text is where it really gets laughable).

4. My King James Bible says that 666 is “the number of a man” (Rev. 13:18) not the number of a manuscript tradition or publisher or versification scheme.

5. Jesus (I assume that’s who he means by the video title – the greatest preacher) didn’t assign verses to the Bible, nor does he ever reference them. Nor did he write Mark (or any other NT book).  If the preacher is talking about himself, then substitute his name for Jesus accordingly.

I’ll fly my flag at half mast again tonight, not for Ted Kennedy, but for the state of the American pulpit.

Bart Ehrman on Coast to Coast AM Tomorrow Night

In case you like late-night talk radio, you might want to tune in. The C2C site has a list of affiliates by state to catch the show.

I’ve been on C2C many times. The host for this one will be Ian Punnett. Ian is a seminary grad (went to both Univ of Chicago Div school and Columbia  in SC). He will make the material interesting.  I’ve emailed him with some resources to (hopefully) present a balanced interview.  But then there’s Bart.  Bart is a very capable scholar, but he doesn’t have much time for things like logic and even-handedness in analyzing data.  That’s unfortunate, since the result is that he often commits paleobabble-ological sins (hey, a new word!).

In case some of you have not bothered to keep up with Bart Ehrman’s less-than-charitable view of the text fo the NT, here are some resources:

This last link below is especially important, since it is produced by the most widely trafficked (and easily the most scholarly) textual criticism blog on the internet:


The Myth of the LATENESS of the Belief in Jesus as Incarnate Deity

At first glance, you might wonder why this is PaleoBabble fodder. Having just returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (this year in Boston), I was reminded again how even scholars have an insular perspective.  This is especially true of New Testament (NT) scholars like Bart Ehrman, who seems amazingly unaware or indifferent to the scholarship both within and outside his field for how early the idea of a godhead came along. For example, there is a spate of recent books dealing with early veneration of Jesus as God, well before the New Testament text was “fiddled with” (Ehrman supposes that textual alteration of the NT books is where that idea comes from). Here are some representative academic titles:

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?: Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion To Jesus

Naturally, there are also recent scholarly books on how the New Testament presents Jesus:

The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, And Luke (Simon Gathercole)

From Messiah to Preexistent Son: Jesus’ Self-Consciousness & Early Christian Exegesis of Messianic Psalms (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 2 Reihe) (Aquila Lee)

There is also at least one book-length challenge to Ehrman’s ideas (most of that has taken place in scholarly journals):

Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” (Timothy Paul Jones)

On the pre-New Testament side of things, the above titles by Gathercole and Lee include a good bit of Jewish material from the “intertestamental” period. My own work has focused on the idea of a godhead in the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). I just delivered a paper on that subject at one of the conferences I just attended. The paper is entitled, “The Concept of a Godhead in Israelite Religion,” and is written in a somewhat conversational style (I didn’t do much in the way of footnotes; I’ll be adding that sort of thing as I revise for publication). It is also geared a bit to a Christian audience (hence the few references early to a Trinity). I plan to create two scholarly articles from this: one for a Christian academic audience, the other for a broader audience, but I offer it here for those interested.

Margaret Barker Manufactures a Goddess in Isaiah 7

I really enjoy Margaret Barker’s work. For those unfamiliar with her, she’s a scholar in the fields of biblical studies and Second Temple Judaism. I interacted with her work as part of my dissertation. Unfortunately, Barker is often accused of over-reaching the data and drawing conclusions that are too speculative. That’s fair–you read Barker because she asks questions no one else seems to, and argues for connecting dots that most scholars don’t think can or should be connected. In short, she’s stimulating, and well worth reading. But still, the criticisms are fair.

I recently had someone ask me about a claim Barker makes in an online article. Barker claims thatin the Dead Sea Great Isaiah scroll, in the famous virgin birth passage, the prophet says to King Ahaz, “ask for yourself a sign from the mother of Yahweh” (Isaiah 7:11) — thereby suggesting that Yahweh had a wife who would in part be responsible for the messianic child (or perhaps that Yahweh had a mother). Aside from the problems associated with the notion that the original Isaiah 7 prophecy was about the messiah, or Jesus (it wasn’t – it was later used as an example of “analogous prophetic fulfillment” by the gospel writer Matthew), Barker’s notion is misguided — and I’d say even manipulative. (But I still say you should read her stuff — just do it with both eyes open). I’ll try and explain why.

In the image below you have: (1) blue notes about modern handwriting by the scholar who handle the photo of the text – he puts in verse numbers corresponding to the Masoretic text (=MT) versification and finishes lines based on MT. (2) a red line underlining the portion in question, and the Hebrew text from the MT to that corresponding portion (from Isa 7:11). (3) notes / arrows in brown and purple about the way letters are formed.1 Since Hebrew doesn’t come through on the blog page. see this PDF for an explanation of the image and Barker’s manufacture of a goddess here.

  1. First a note for anyone who knows Hebrew to whom you might show this. Qumran hand-writing style at times (not rare) does not make the final “m” of a word look like the final mem of Hebrew look like you’d see it today in print or in other manuscripts.