Testing of “Jesus Wife” Coptic Fragment Ongoing

CNN’s religion blog recently posted that testing of the Coptic fragment that includes Jesus referring to his wife has delayed publication of an article by Karen King on the fragment in the Harvard Theological Review. The short piece is a useful one, as it asks some needed questions about the fragment in a concise way for readers.

I’m not sure what the hubbub is about testing the actual fragment. I expect the material itself is very old, but that proves nothing about the authenticity of the text, since all one would need to do to create such a forgery is access to the same material and the “recipe” for ancient ink.  Irving Wallace showed us how to do that decades ago in his novel, The Word. But maybe other scholars don’t read novels. Additionally, genuine physical material won’t answer the syntactical irregularities and borrowed vocabulary in the text that led scholars to think it a fraud in the first place (see here and here).

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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).

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