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April 29th, 2014
12:35 PM ET

New clues cast doubt on 'Gospel of Jesus' Wife'

Opinion by Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss, special to CNN

(CNN) - 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.

Once we started carbon-dating papyrus, forgers started using authentically ancient papyrus. Once we discovered how to identify ancient ink by its chemical composition, forgers started creating precisely the same ink.

Like steroids in sports, it’s safe to assume that the best bad guys are always one step ahead of the science.

And yet, the dating of the papyrus and ink did shift the burden back on to the doubters. And just this past week, they seem to have discovered something as close to proof as we can really expect in cases like this.

Although we knew in 2012 that there were other papyri in the same group that included the “Jesus' wife” fragment – the batch the anonymous donor gave King - none of them had been seen.

That changed with the release of the test results, which used some of these other papyri for the purposes of comparison.

One of those papyri was a fragment of the canonical Gospel of John. For all the uncertainty about the Jesus’ wife papyrus, this text of John evoked no such indecision. It is a forgery.

How do we know? This Gospel of John purports to be a version in a relatively rare ancient dialect of Coptic known as Lycopolitan.

Just such a Lycopolitan version of John was published in 1924 and is now available online. And this newly revealed gospel fragment just so happens to look awfully similar to the 1924 (now-online) version of John. How similar? Here’s how similar:

Herbert Thompson's "Gospel of St John," page 7 (left); Coptic John fragment recto (right), illustrating how a forger could have copied every second line of this text.

Whoever created this new Gospel of John fragment simply copied the beginning of every other line from the online version.

Turns out that if you check the other side of the fragment against its online parallel, the same thing is true (though with the end of every line rather than the beginning, logically enough).

Add to this the fact that the carbon dating of the John papyrus puts it in the seventh to ninth centuries, but Lycopolitan died out as a language sometime before the sixth century. No one wrote anything in Lycopolitan in the period in which this text would have to be dated.

So what does it matter to the Jesus’ wife fragment that this scrap of John is forgery?

Well, it’s never a good sign for a text of doubtful authenticity to be found in the company of a sure forgery.

More directly: Multiple experts agree that the fragment of John and the Jesus’ wife papyrus are written in the same hand, using the same ink and even the same writing instrument.

Simply put: If one is a forgery, they’re both forgeries.

Although 100% certainty is never achievable in such cases, given everything we know now (lab tests included), the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” never existed — or, rather, it never existed, for all intents and purposes, before 2012.

There are no great revelations to be gleaned from this text, no astounding new information about Jesus or Mary.

What the entire episode does, rather, is remind us — scholars included — that science might not always have all the answers.

This forgery was detected not through lab analysis but through good old-fashioned humanities-based detective work. This was Sherlock Holmes, not "CSI."

There remains no substitute for deep, thorough, scholarly expertise in ancient languages and texts.

Even in a case that ended up wasting such time and energy in the academic community, that community, and its collective body of knowledge, have rarely been more valuable and necessary.

Joel S. Baden is an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden and Moss. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: archaeology • Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (1,337 Responses)
  1. Salero21

    emoticons saved time, miss them. Pay day tomorrow, so time for filet mignon again or maybe Lamb chuck..mmm..

    April 29, 2014 at 3:17 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      I didn't think food stamps got you that.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:45 pm |
      • Salero21

        Oh there you go again with the typical NONSENSE [stupidity] of atheism/evolutionism/idolatry. Yours is the stuff of what Charlatans are made.

        April 29, 2014 at 7:44 pm |
        • TruthPrevails1

          Evolution is backed with many many facts and much evidence...can you say the same about your imaginary friends? Speaking of idolatry-isn't that what worshiping a false god (any god including the god of the bible) is? Your hypocrisy and lack of education are showing through your delusional state of mind again.

          April 29, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
  2. Salero21

    OMG more Evidence on top of more evidence of the Absolute, Complete and Total NONSENSE of atheism/evolutionism/paganism/idolatry.

    April 29, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
    • moxrox84

      Yes, because what makes more sense is that you, of all people, have somehow picked the only right religious belief possible out of the thousands of religions known to man. Oh yes...that makes far more sense, right?

      April 29, 2014 at 3:21 pm |
      • Salero21

        If it was only me then I would be the Greatest Genius EVER in the History of mankind. Unfortunately for you and Fortunately for me I'm not alone but actually in surrounded by a Great company. See... you're a Prime example of the Total NONSENSE of atheism/evolutionism.

        April 29, 2014 at 7:42 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      I see that you still haven't managed to locate a dictionary. You can find one at http://www.merriam-webster.com. Once you get there, look up the word evolutionism, you'll soon find that much like your god it is made up and not actually a word.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
      • Salero21

        HAHAHA!!! Funny how many words are in that Dictionary that weren't 10, 15, 20 years ago, and how many more will be there 10, 15, 20 yrs. from now. Funny how the Spell Check of Internet Explorer among others don't find it incorrect. Among those "others" Google – Princeton site and Wikipedia – And of course only a fool atheist/evolutionist finds it wrong. See... that's why I must keep saying that atheism/evolutionism are Absolute, Complete and Total NONSENSE [stupidity]. JAJAJA... oops... pardon me please.... I meant to say HAHAHA

        April 29, 2014 at 7:37 pm |
  3. zieroh

    "What the entire episode does, rather, is remind us — scholars included — that science might not always have all the answers."

    It's sad that Mr. Baden hasn't figured out that science is not a source of answers, but a *methodology* for discovering those answers. And in this case, science most certainly did have an answer. The answer just happens to be that this bit of papyrus is a forgery. That's still an answer, and it was still scientific principals that allowed us to determine this fact.

    The attempt to twist this bit of news into an anti-science statement is disgusting and clearly demonstrates the authors irrational bias.

    April 29, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  4. shehar39

    of course it is a fraud

    April 29, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
    • Salero21

      Yup! It was from the beginning.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
      • moxrox84

        Just like the Bible.

        April 29, 2014 at 3:23 pm |
  5. new-man

    Jesus Christ IS the Word of God.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
    • igaftr

      Allegedly...but likely not.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:40 pm |
      • new-man

        your opinion is noted.
        you clearly have no experience with the living Word; and since He is neither your Lord, King, nor Savior, your conclusion of doubt is meaningless to me.

        April 29, 2014 at 2:53 pm |
        • samsstones

          new-man
          But you still love igatfr even though you diss his opinions, you are so fvcking cool.

          April 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm |
        • igaftr

          newman
          And your belief in a man made story is also noted. You also have no experience with the "living word" since words do not live. How can you believe in the bible, when so much of it is clearly wrong?
          Du hast nicht.

          April 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm |
    • samsstones

      new-man
      Coming from a fundie jesus freaking nutter that is a real revelation.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:43 pm |
    • zieroh

      Prove it.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:02 pm |
    • devlsadvoct

      your opinion is noted.

      April 29, 2014 at 4:04 pm |
  6. SarahSmiles

    Jesus Christ Himself can come down and say He was married and it would not make one iota of difference to those who cling stubbornly to their interpretation of the Bible is the "inerrant Word of God."

    April 29, 2014 at 2:31 pm |
    • shehar39

      it's a fake

      April 29, 2014 at 2:54 pm |
      • SarahSmiles

        Okay. That doesn't refute what I said.

        April 29, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
    • danielatlanta

      If Jesus really was married, his wife would have nagged him into coming back to say so long before now. Fortunately, this forgery has been laid to rest, although I have a feeling the feminist Bible scholars will find a way to keep it in the news forever.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm |
      • Salero21

        Yup HAHAHA!

        April 29, 2014 at 3:12 pm |
      • SarahSmiles

        Completely dismissing that Candida Moss co-wrote this article, your derision at the thought females could possibly be a Biblical scholar is noted in coloring your entire opinion.

        April 29, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
    • devlsadvoct

      Which bible? there isn't ONE. Every time someone says that "the bible is the inerrant word of god" they are revealing that they know nothing about the history or development of the christian bibleS. They cannot all be inerrant, as they conflict with each other.

      Which then shifts the debate: WHICH bibles (if any) are "inerrant"? Many will say the King James. But here's the thing: what rational evidence can anyone provide that the King James version is inerrant, but the others are not? If it's just going to be someone's opinion or the force of tradition, then I'm sorry, that aint evidence.

      April 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm |
  7. Doris

    David Wood destroyed by Bart Ehrman

    Bart Ehrman, from the video [regarding the Gospel of Mark]: "These lots and lots of copies are from many centuries after Mark was written. How could we know that these copies stemmed from a correct copy, instead of an errant copy? Our earliest ones are all highly errant."

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-IG05dQ88Y&w=640&h=390]
    Published 04-14-2014

    NT scholar Bart Ehrman holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary (magna cum laude). He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently serves as co-editor of the series New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents (E. J. Brill), co-editor-in-chief for the journal Vigiliae Christianae, and on several other editorial boards for journals and monographs.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
    • Salero21

      Pro 14:1 The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:20 pm |
      • SarahSmiles

        Proverbs 17:28 NIV
        Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

        April 29, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
        • Salero21

          Pro 14:1 The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands. Read, believe, obey and learn.

          April 29, 2014 at 7:47 pm |
    • matterofact1

      Nice video...Here's Ehrman getting destroyed by Stephen Colbert (of all people). I've followed Ehrman for years and have come to conclude he's more biased than the fundies he critiques. Read "The Heresy of Orthodoxy" by Kostenberger.

      http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/lywaay/bart-ehrman

      April 29, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
  8. Salero21

    OMG more Evidence on top of more evidence of the Absolute, Complete and Total NONSENSE of atheism/evolutionism/paganism/idolatry.

    How big is the Evidence?
    1) As big as Earth.
    2) As big as the Sun.
    3) As big as the Solar system.
    4) As big as the Universe.
    5) All of the above.

    Atheist do your best to answer the quiz, of course you know your "best" is the WORST that mankind has to offer.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      don't feed the trolls.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:10 pm |
      • Salero21

        So that's your best?

        April 29, 2014 at 2:23 pm |
        • seedenbetter

          You didn't deserve that much.

          April 29, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
        • Salero21

          HAHA that's worse than rabid dog!

          April 29, 2014 at 3:08 pm |
    • devlsadvoct

      form a coherent question if you want an answer.

      How can evidence be "big"?

      April 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm |
  9. jaydavid666

    Discussion of Jesus remind me of a headline I once saw in the National Enquirer about "an authentic drawing of a photograph of Elvis". Jesus, like Elvis, left the bulilding a long time ago. But unlike Jesus, Elvis actually existed.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:08 pm |
  10. lewcypher

    "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."

    Funny, they think this scrap of paper is too good to be true but believe the 1000 other pages of nonsense.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
    • seedenbetter

      Even though they tout faith as something admirable and all they need, they would give anything to have some kind of tangible proof that this Jesus character even existed.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:29 pm |
      • reason4thehope

        As a believer, I completely agree with you. It's a natural thing to want, but I still shake my head at how much time and energy some of my fellow believers spend in trying to produce airtight proof. Sometimes I wonder if they're trying to convince unbelievers or themselves. There is more evidence than you think, but if you're looking for an open-and-shut case, you'll search in vain. I don't believe God wanted it that way. There's a reason it's called faith.

        April 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm |
        • lewcypher

          You can say you gods motives are unknowable then say something like you don't believe your god wanted this or that.

          regardless..... faith is not truth

          April 29, 2014 at 5:16 pm |
        • LinCA

          @reason4thehope

          You said, "There is more evidence than you think [...]"
          Please provide anything that can pass the sniff test for being evidence.

          April 29, 2014 at 6:00 pm |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    Honestly Christians, don't you feel at all embarrassed that your whole belief system is so obviously flawed on so many levels? How can the bible be the word of your god when it is so obviously flawed historically, scientifically and logically? And if you do accept that there are parts of the bible that are shown to be irreparably flawed historically, scientifically and logically, how can you believe any one part of it over another part of it?

    Denial is one thing. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force. But don't you even question this belief system that seems unable to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny?

    April 29, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
    • seedenbetter

      I've found that most Christians don't even know their own religion past what they were told by their parents or pastor. When confronted with logic they go into ignore mode or simply dismiss any evidence that does not support their already preconceived beliefs.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        cognitive dissonance.

        April 29, 2014 at 2:12 pm |
        • seedenbetter

          Yes, that's the correct term.

          April 29, 2014 at 2:19 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    traveling around the country with his men friends shows us that jesus was gay. Thus, as the Christians say, this papyrus fragment is fake. A gay man would not have a female wife. Simple.

    April 29, 2014 at 2:01 pm |
  13. ddeevviinn

    Meaningless.

    April 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Terrell Pearson

    Jesus went to a wedding but He never got married. Thats all i need to know.

    April 29, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
    • neverbeenhappieratheist

      Always the bartender, never the Groom...

      April 29, 2014 at 1:56 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        always surrounded by 12 boys, never one girl ...

        April 29, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
  15. samsstones

    Did Dan Brown say that it was Jesus that knocked up his wife? She could have been immaculately impregnated like Mary. Jesus was more of a guy's guy.

    April 29, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
  16. new-man

    And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.

    For false Christs and false prophets will arise, and they will show great signs and wonders so as to deceive and lead astray, if possible, even the elect (God’s chosen ones).

    April 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm |
    • samsstones

      nrw-man
      And we all know you are a "special" one. Pompous and arrogant fundie jesus freaking nutter. Time to shuffle off to heaven, choose your own exit method, jesus is awaiting, bye now.

      April 29, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
      • joey3467

        Yep, there is no way new man could possibly be one of the false prophets the bible talks about.

        April 29, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      it would be a pretty basic strategy for the snake oil salesmen who wrote the bible to try and cover themselves by putting in lines like "do not believe he who says this book is false for they are servants of the devil" and "he who questions god is wrong sayeth the lord" and "any man who doubts the word of god as written in this book is a fool and will be punished in the afterlife" and "many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many" and so on, and so on, and so on ...

      it's so obvious and transparent!

      April 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm |
  17. auntiekale

    More proof on the fictional narrative of Jesus, gods, heavens, hells, souls, demons, etc? (yawn)

    April 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
  18. widem1575

    Author, I think you mean Chemistry might not always be the answer.

    You don't need a lab coat and a beaker to use the scientific method.

    TBH, the text hasn't even been proved to be a forgery by your analysis. It definitely raises skepticism of the authenticity though.

    April 29, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
  19. Vic

    That rings a bell:

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/10/study-jesus-wife-fragment-not-a-fake/comment-page-11/#comment-2988226

    April 29, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
    • snuffleupagus

      Vic, you hear ringing in your ears? Is it heavenly. What else do you hear?

      April 29, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
    • samsstones

      Vic
      When you pull your head out of the sand or some human orifice, you should clean the crap out of your ears; that may help stop the ringing.

      April 29, 2014 at 2:38 pm |
  20. colin31714

    Even if true, the doc.ument is of very limited historical worth. At best, it is a (circa) Seventh Century indirect assertion that Jesus had a wife. It is also inconsistent with many earlier historical doc.uments that clearly have Jesus as unmarried. While perhaps great fodder for the conspiracy nuts, this doc.ument is virtually worthless for establishing historical facts, even if it turned out to be genuine.

    April 29, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.