The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, a papyrus fragment of Coptic script containing a suggestion that Jesus may have been married, is an ancient document, and not a modern forgery, says a paper published in the Harvard Theological Review on Tuesday.
Tests by teams of engineering, biology, and chemistry professors from Columbia University, Harvard University, and MIT indicate the papyrus dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries, and possibly as far back as the second to fourth centuries.
The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment, about 1 1/2 inches by 3 inches, caused international uproar when it was presented at a conference in Rome in September 2012 by Harvard Professor Karen L. King.
Written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, the fragment appears to be a broken conversation between Jesus and his disciples.
The center of the business-card-sized papyrus, which features just eight lines of text on the front and six lines on the back, contained the bombshell phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’
“She will be able to be my disciple,” said the next line. And then: “I dwell with her.”
Dismissed as a “clumsy forgery” by the Vatican newspaper, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was widely debated by scholars. Skepticism abounded, with several experts arguing over the document’s poor grammar and its uncertain provenance.
But according to Harvard Divinity School, “none of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery.”
“The fragment does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married but concerns an early Christian debate over whether women who are wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus,” King wrote in the Harvard Theological Review.
In addition to radiocarbon testing, microscopic and multispectral imaging, the researchers used micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine that the carbon character of the ink matched samples of other papyri that date from the first to eighth centuries.
“After all the research was complete, King weighed all the evidence of the age and characteristics of the papyrus and ink, handwriting, language, and historical context to conclude the fragment is almost certainly a product of early Christians, not a modern forger,” Harvard Divinity School said in a statement.
The Harvard Theological Review is also publishing a rebuttal to King’s findings by Brown University professor Leo Depuydt, who still maintains the document is a forgery.
“And not a very good one at that,” he wrote.
According to Depuydt, the fragment contains “gross grammatical errors.” Also, each word in it matched writing in the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
“It couldn’t possibly be coincidence,” he told The New York Times.
Depuydt also argued that carbon black ink can be easily created by mixing candle soot and oil.
“An undergraduate student with one semester of Coptic can make a reed pen and start drawing lines,” he concluded.
Photo: Gospel of Jesus' Wife: front. Credit: Karen L. King 2012.