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Photo of the scrap of papyrus mentioning Jesus's wife

Posted: 05 December 2013

Fifteen months ago, in September 2012, a small piece of ancient papyrus (pictured above) caused controversy when a Harvard scholar claimed it was part of a lost Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. The writing on the papyrus contained a conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus said, ‘My wife…’

The announcement, by Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, kicked off a media stir, since her announcement was timed to publicise a TV documentary about the discovery. And it also stirred up a scholarly debate conducted online.

Just three days after publication, Francis Watson, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, argued that the papyrus fragment might be a modern fake. ‘Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas,’ he said.

Professor Watson wrote a technical article on the issue, but also an introduction and summary for general readers. In addition, he produced a longer piece on the wider significance of the story, Inventing Jesus’ Wife.

The screening of the documentary was quickly postponed, as was publication of an article about the papyrus in the prestigious Harvard Theological Review. In January 2013, Karen King said that the papyrus was undergoing tests and that when that was complete the results would be published.

But since then… nothing.

Two scholars, Larry Hurtado and Mark Goodacre, have today asked what is happening, after 11 months of silence.

Says Hurtado in his blog: ‘if the weight of scholarly opinion is largely that the item is not a genuine text from some ancient Christian person/circle but instead a modern fake, shouldn’t that be registered properly? Having publicized the item to the roof, shouldn’t Harvard Divinity School now update things a bit and indicate whether the institution still affirms Prof. King’s initial proposal or recognizes the widespread scholarly judgment that it is an unsafe item?’

Mark Goodacre, writing on his NT Blog, adds: ‘I think the case for forgery is overwhelming. But this does not mean that there is any shame in the early advocates of its authenticity explaining now that the case may not be as strong as they had originally thought.’

Until Harvard Divinity School clarifies the situation, the suspicion must be that the tests announced almost a year ago showed the papyrus fragment was a modern fake, and that everyone involved is just hoping it will all quietly go away.

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan