Many of you may not have heard and some that did hear might have forgotten, but in September of 2012 it was announced that the entire landscape of theology and Christian history was changing. It was announced that there was a confirmed discovery and authentication of a Coptic papyri fragment that made reference to the wife of Jesus of Nazareth.
This shocking announcement was made by Karen L. King, holder of the Hollis Chair of Theology at Harvard Divinity School, the oldest endowed chair in the United States. King presented her findings, and we should say some sizable speculations, at a conference of theology and ecclesial history held in Rome.
In the forth coming issue of The Atlantic, Ariel Sabar, who initially broke the story of King’s findings in The Smithsonian back in 2012, presents his investigative journey to uncover the truth about the “business-card-sized papyrus ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife'”. As you might be guessing, after four years of investigation, Sabar has essentially proven the minuscule document to be a forgery. It might seem kind of boring, but consider the subtitle of Sabar’s article for its true intrigue, “A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.” You should read it, as it is indeed a fun story, but if you just want the run down, here is what you need to know:
The name “the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” can be a bit misleading. Mark, the shortest canonical (biblical) gospel usual runs 16-20 pages in a standard Bible. The so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife falls somewhere between the size of a credit card and a personal check. In total the fragment contains eight lines of Coptic text, the fourth of which can be translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife'”. Even before the media sensation took off, the Vatican had declared the document “an inept forgery.
As stated above, the discovery of the manuscript was announced in 2012 by renown ecclesial (church) history scholar, Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School. Of interest for this particular story is that King is well known for espousing a kind of feminist theology that challenges the authenticity and veracity of the Bible, specifically the gospel accounts. She is also known for her work on gnosticism and as a contributing member of the Jesus Seminar group that received much attention in the mid 1990s and 2000s before questions about their historical research methodology and criticism from secular and evangelical groups called much of their project into question.
What we have in King is a well-known scholar who specializes in Coptic/gnostic studies and the role of women in the early church. This manuscript fragment was tailor made for her.
A Series of Developments
A year and a half after the announcement, Harvard officials verified that the manuscript fragment had been authenticated by a series of tests including multispectral analysis and carbon dating. In fact, Sabar reports that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife “had undergone—and passed—more state-of-the-art lab tests, inch for inch, than almost any other papyrus in history.” Score a point for King.
However, when the text of the document was released for analysis to other scholars some noted:
An odd typographical error that appears in both the Jesus’s-wife fragment and an edition of the Gospel of Thomas that was posted online in 2002, suggesting an easily available source for a modern forger’s cut-and-paste job.
As well, the owner of the piece wished to remain anonymous, and when an email exchange between the owner and King was given to Sabar, he noticed a series of inconsistencies. King did not seem to be bothered by these inconsistencies or the difficulty in obtaining the providence of the piece. Sabar, on the other hand, followed his curiosity to a chain of people and mysteries that he recounts in his piece at The Atlantic.
From Fiction to Reality
When the story of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was explained by King it read like a familiar story. As Sabar found out when discussing his research with his wife, it is a familiar story. One, in fact, that spent some time at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. The Di Vinci Code. Here is how it goes:
Christianity, is not really as unified a tradition as conservative theologians and church leaders like to pretend it is. Really, there is a wide swath of beliefs and ideas about the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But when Emperor Constantine found his nation struggling for unity, he made a deal with some church leaders to unify under one set of beliefs. All contrary voices were persecuted and silenced. All texts that claimed other than what was considered orthodox were silenced and marginalized. This vast conspiracy has shaped the Church to this day.
Here in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was confirmation of that very story, what was fiction had become reality.
The (alleged) Forger
Many scholars were aware that it could have been a forgery from very early on, it wouldn’t be the first time a crafty forger had pulled a fast one in the face of experts and scientific testing. But when Sabar tracked down the forger, he was quite surprised. Rather than a smooth Neil Caffery sort, Sabar discovered an elderly south Florida native, with the technical skill and enough academic knowledge to pull it off, who happened to be a pornographer, and maybe consider himself some kind of enlightened religious teacher. No seriously, you should really read the article.
A Quick Take
I was just starting at seminary when the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife story broke. Pretty much none of my professors took the “discovery” seriously and for good reason. This is a sensational tale, but it is a tale of something pretty ordinary when you get to the root of it. It is a story about confirmation bias. We have yet to see what will happen to King’s reputation as a result of new information, but she admits that Sabar’s story “tips the scales toward forgery.”
One of the reasons this story is so fascinating to me is that it combines several threads of thought that I tend to think are rampant problems in today’s society. The first is the lack of critical thinking, even at the University level. Harvard is widely held as the pinnacle of American higher education, yet this story recounts a Harvard professor and endowed chair holder who overlooked doing adequate background research when presenting a deeply controversial document. In another Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind“, the authors report on the declining state of the American university. The main thrust of that article is how students are unwilling to be challenged by ideas that they might find negative or offensive. This is the flip side of the same issue, contemporary college students don’t want to be challenged, they only have room in their mental framework for evidence that confirms the position that they already take up.
A second issue is the sexual revolution. I left out much of the sex and intrigue, but anyone who has read the Di Vinci Code might recall the pivotal scene that recalls a ritualistic orgy. The reason Dan Brown included that scene is the same reason why a pornographer in south Florida has an abiding interest in gnosticism and a manuscript fragment that challenges, not just the veracity of the gospels, but specifically the celibacy of Jesus of Nazareth. As Dr. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary commented:
There’s another ambition behind the claims about these documents, and that has to do with sexuality and in particular with the sexual revolution. The very same argument made by feminists that there was a suppression of the female role in the church was also made by the sexual revolutionaries—that was the claim that there was a conspiracy to suppress a pluralism of understandings about sexuality and gender roles and morality in the ancient church.
Here is where I will leave you, but, again, I want to encourage you to read the article and consider the great lengths opponents of the Bible often have to go to and what they have to over look in order to find “evidence” to challenge the canonical gospels.
Thanks for reading,