Sometimes it seems that it takes a certain level of educational attainment to reach astonishing levels of gullibility. And the rub of it is that the unscrupulous among us are more than willing and prepared to take advantage of that.
This has been brought to bear upon the years-running Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fiasco, which has now officially reached official fiasco status. I have written about this topic a couple times before, initially highlighting both the initial doubts concerning its authenticity and then the near irrelevance of anything contained within, as well as potential interpretive possibilities were the unlikely authenticity of it to have been confirmed. Be sure to check out both posts for some background on this.
In my initial take on this I expressed doubts (for numerous reasons) that this particular find was authentic. In my subsequent post, however, I allowed that there existed a possibility that it was authentic, although nearly twice as old as Professor King originally dated it. This cautious openness was actually only because the scientific tests of the fragment itself seemed to indicate all the right markers for an ancient date, which, it should be noted, only establishes that the fragment and ink themselves date from that period, without necessitating that the content is.
Well, it turns out that the initial skepticism was almost certainly spot on, as it has been determined (with as much certainty as can be had with these sorts of things) that not only is it a forgery, but it is a forgery made out of another forgery. Which, to be sure, takes some gumption.
But wait, didn’t Science!™ tell us that the fragment was authentic? Yes, yes it did:
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. (Belief Blog, New Clues Cast Doubt On ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’)
The difficulty, of course, is that, as highlighted in the opening paragraph, not everyone in the ancient documents business is in it for the academic rigor. And for every higher level of sophistication that we bring to bear upon determining authenticity, the more those determined to deceive and make a profit double down on making their forgeries more convincing:
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. (ibid.)
The real smoking gun turned out to not be something in the purview of Science!™ but rather in some comparatively old fashioned textual comparison and linguistic sleuthing. One of the most damning pieces of evidence turned out to be the other documents included in the sale, one of which is a known forgery since it is basically a copy of another forgery from 1924 (it even used the same line breaks!). It seems that the author of this piece took every other line (from a Gospel of John) and copied it. The dead giveaway is that the forged Gospel of John from 1924 uses a Coptic dialect that simply wasn’t used in the period in which the papyrus was dated.
Now, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment would not necessarily be guilty simply by association, but that is the least of its problems since the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment seems to be written in the same hand as the forger who wrote the Gospel of John fragment which is a copy of the 1924 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. (ibid.)
And while I would be the first to have such a sentiment, this article sums up the fiasco well:
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. (ibid.)
Again, as I took pains to mention in both of my previous posts on this subject, none of this should be entirely surprising, since, as far as the historical aspect is concerned, there is absolutely no corroborating evidence for something like this fragment, or, as may be more accurate, no corroborating evidence for the implications of which this fragment purportedly possesses.
Here’s the thing I keep coming back to. One of the major motivations for many of these types of ‘discoveries’ is the notion of ‘alternate Christianities’ (yay!) that differ from the stuffy old oppressive orthodoxy (boo, hiss!). All of the Gnostic sects of the early period of nascent Christianity serve as fodder for this type of program, which, in the case of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, seems to have allowed the potential narrative (some early Christians were having discussions about whether Jesus was married or not) to override the pesky historical reality that we have no evidence that anything of the sort actually occurred.
The reality is this: even if this fragment was not a forgery, and was a fragment of some text written in the 8th century, the actually implication for any sort of ‘alternate Christianity’ is practically non-existent, for the sheer fact that this would be the only piece of evidence in the ancient world that anybody maintained such a notion. And, as my last post demonstrated, even such a statement within a Gnostic text would by no means necessitate understanding the author or sect as even thinking Jesus was married in a literal sense.
But let’s go further and say that there was some sect that wrote about Jesus being married and that actually thought he literally was. Again, the implications for this demonstrating some question or discussion about Jesus being married is nearly nonexistent for the simple reason that even if such an idea existed, it was so far outside of even what we might consider ‘fringe’ groups so as to not even merit consideration. After all, any belief system or ideology is going to have a lot of things written and said about it, some of which are more reflective of the belief in question than others. To merely find a context-less statement that is only obliquely related to that belief or ideology and which has no other corroboration vis-à-vis that belief or ideology, and take it as representing anything more than that is fatuous.
It would be like a professor with an ideological commitment to discovering alternate Christianities buying a collection of texts with dubious provenance accompanied by a note that says it contains a fragment with content indicating Jesus was married and then dubbing the fragment the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.
What could go wrong?
Indeed, it raises the possibility that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment was the “bait” intended to motivate scholarly (and popular) interest, its contents sufficiently sensational to distract scholars from the possibility that it and at least some others in the cache of papyri were fakes… The increasingly likely thought that somebody may have managed to ensnare Prof. King (and the Harvard Divinity School press office) in a cruel hoax. That is, the “story” now may well be how this happened, how the hoax was perpetrated and why it succeeded in this ensnarement. (Larry Hurtado, “Jesus’ Wife”: What’s the Story Now?)
The irony is that for all of the seeking to find alternate Christianities, the reality of the situation is that the only evidence that exists (in all of the thousands of texts from antiquity) that ancient Christians (whether of the orthodox or gnostic flavor) thought that Jesus was married is from a forged papyrus fragment probably intended for the very persons intent on finding them. It would seem that Jesus was absolutely correct when he said (in one of the non-forged gospels):
Seek and you will find.