The must publicized “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, which certain scholars claimed was an authentic ancient record of Jesus having been married has been shown to be a forgery. The document also notes how Saint Mary Magdalene was “worthy” of being a disciple alongside the all male 12 Apostles. In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of the small scrap of papyrus and immediately conjecture spread in the media about the ramifications of Jesus having been married, including the hot button issue of priestly celibacy and female priest.

[Note: I always thought it was convenient 6th century Copts were so in tune with the same hot button issues that would be important to say, I dunno, a 21st century female divinities scholar at a liberal institution, and that this small fragment so succinctly addresses these issue, but I digress.]

Shortly after the announcement, the scrap was widely declared by scholars as a clear, even ham handed, forgery, even so far as having been observed to preserve ‘typos’ that matched up with other known documents. But then, perhaps not surprisingly, just in time for Holy Week and Easter, results were announced that claimed to show that the papyrus amd ink where ancient according to Carbon dating.

The news was everywhere, and again raised those same questions about sex and gender that are so near and dear to those who champion the authenticity of the papyrus.

However, experts are now showing that the scrap can conclusively been tied to another lot of known forgeries. The other known forgery, an excerpt from the Gospel of St. John, uses the exact same ink, with the same implement, and in the handwriting.

In a blog post on CNN, Joel S. Baden – an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School – and Candida Moss – a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame – said: ‘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.’

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.
Herbert Thompson’s “Gospel of St John,”  (left); Coptic John fragment (right), illustrating how a forger could have copied every second line of this text. (via CNN)

Christian Askeland, a Coptic specialist and assistant research professor at Indiana Wesleyan University told Charlotte Allen of the Weekly Standard: ‘The fragment [of John] contains exactly the same hand, exactly the same ink and has been written with the same writing instrument [as the ‘Jesus’ wife’ fragment].

The papyrus was examined by electrical engineering, chemistry and biology experts from Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who declared the parchment was indeed several hundred years old.

The study, published in the Harvard Theological Review, revealed the document was found to date to eighth century Egypt, around 400 years later than Professor King originally thought.

According to a U.K. Daily Mail article

“Additional tests showed that the ink’s chemical composition is consistent with other inks used by the ancient Egyptians, while microscopic imaging found no suspicious ink pooling that critics of the papyrus said was evidence of the ink being applied in more recent times.”

“At the same time, other papyri from the collection were tested for means of comparison. One of those was a fragment from the canonical Gospel’ of John written in a rare ancient dialect of Coptic known as Lycopolitan. A Lycopolitan version of John, which was first published in 1924, is now available online.”

“Cross comparisons show the online John text was very similar to the ‘ancient’ papyrus. Furthermore, carbon dating of the John fragment suggests it was from the seventh to ninth centuries. The Lycopolitan dialect died out as a language sometime before the sixth century – a great deal of time before the papyrus was written. Experts are now saying this is evidence that the whole collection is a fake.”

Although the debate will probably continue about the authenticity of the document, it will likely be more because of the wishful thinking of proponents of novel ideas in Christianity trying to claim ancient credence , and less to do with actual scholarly expertise and scientific fact.

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