The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: Fact or Fake?

Joe Nickell

On September 18, 2012, Harvard history professor Karen L. King presented a papyrus fragment penned in ancient Coptic that is the only known such text to quote Jesus referring explicitly to having a wife. Originally a l ate–nineteenth-century notion (Polidoro 2016), the trope of Jesus’s wife had become a thesis of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1996), a pseudo-historical work alleging that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene (a Galilean follower of his; see John 19:25, 20:1 and 18). The thesis had become even more widely circulated in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code (2003), indeed being central to its plot. The papyrus fragment, however, which King named The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW), did not give the wife’s name.

Unveiled at an international congress on Coptic studies held in Rome, the fragment—only about four by eight centimeters (or approximately the size of a business card)—stirred controversy about its authenticity (Figure 1). While King and a few other scholars believed the scrap genuine, others raised questions. For example, Stephen Emmel, a Coptic scholar, stated, “There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow.” Papyrologist Alin Suciu was more emphatic: “I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic,” he said, in comparison with the script of genuine fourth-century Coptic papyrus texts.

For their part, those favoring authenticity appeared to be glossing over the question of provenance (on which more presently) and rationalizing a number of other problems—as if such an artifact is presumed genuine unless there exists some piece of evidence fatal to authenticity. In fact, as in other scholarly, scientific, and legal matters, the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on someone else to prove a negative. I followed the case with interest—and extreme suspicion—from the outset.

Provenance

The term provenance refers to the origin or derivation of an artifact, that is, to its being traceable to a particular time and place. A missing provenance in the case of a sensational work is problematical. Worse, as the late manuscript dealer Mary Benjamin commented in her Autographs (1986), “Where there is secrecy on matters which cannot be substantiated by records, suspicion is inevitable.” While a missing or even suspiciously missing provenance may not be fatal, one ignores the lack of one at his or her great risk.

Works with missing, doubtful, or suspicious provenances often prove to be forgeries. A good example is the notorious Shroud of Turin whose owner, a man of modest means, never explained how he acquired the most sensational relic in Christendom. It can be traced back no further than to his ownership in the mid-1350s when, according to a later bishop’s report, it was central to a faith-healing scam and was the work of a confessed forger. Confirmation came from radiocarbon dating done by three independent labs that showed the linen originated between ca. 1260 and 1390 CE—the time of the reported confession.

Other examples of sensational artifacts with questionable provenance that subsequently proved to be fakes are the Vinland Map, the Hitler diaries, and several old masters’ paintings by Han van Meegeren. Among those that I personally examined and exposed are the scandalous Jack the Ripper diary, the alleged reading copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, two supposed Daniel Boone rifles (old firearms with fake carved inscriptions), an alleged jail notebook with purported writings of Billy the Kid and his nemesis Pat Garrett, a dictionary with notes supposedly penned by Charles Dickens, and numerous others.

In the case of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, there is no provenance for the fragment; in addition, the current owner desires to remain anonymous, a fact that raises suspicions of forgery or theft. Allegedly, Mr. Anonymous bought it from a dealer—as one of six papyrus fragments—and he offered an unsigned, undated note in German mentioning a “Professor Fecht” who referred to a fragment that is surely the GJW. Fecht may be Gerhard Fecht, a professor of Egyptology in Berlin who died in 2006. Of course, these representations do not constitute provenance and do not even rise to the level of what is known as “dead man’s provenance.” (For example, the Ripper diary was allegedly a gift from a man who had since died.)

Sensational Scrap

Forgers have many problems to attend to, and that is why I recommend a “multi-evidential approach” to detecting forgeries: the faker is apt to make some mistakes, and the more things the document detective considers (ink, grammar, and so on), the more likely he or she is to find a telltale error. (See my Detecting Forgery, 1996.)

One of a forger’s first concerns is obtaining suitable writing material (paper, parchment, papyrus, and the like). Sometimes, stated Charles Hamilton in his Great Forgers and Famous Fakes (1996), forgers are forced to “write on scraps that have the cringing and unkempt look of beggars.” For example, a forged George Washington receipt of 1767 was not only incorrectly penned on vellum rather than paper, but Washington would never have used “such a small and damaged piece,” states Kenneth Rendell in his Forging History (1994). Is the GJW another forged scrap?

One has to consider how likely it is that, given the very small size of the portion we have, it included the very words that would create such a sensation: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife … / … she is able to be my disciple… .’” What are the odds on those particular words coming to light on such a little scrap of papyrus?

Papyrus, Ink

Scientific analyses were carried out on the fragment. The papyrus was radiocarbon tested, giving a mean date of 741 CE. To rationalize this late eighth-century date, King postulates that the fragment is a copy of a fourth-century manuscript that was in turn taken from a composition of the second century.

In separate tests, Raman analysis determined the ink to be, appropriately, a carbon “lamp black” variety. This is consistent with ancient inks.

Of course, forgers typically use genuinely old materials for their fakes. (For instance, Van Meegeren cleaned the paint from old canvases and repainted them, making paint from natural pigments and developing effective artificial aging techniques, even simulating the craquelure associated with age.) King concedes that, “Hypothetically, a clever forger could acquire a piece of ancient papyrus and fabricate ink from ancient papyrus fragments or other vegetable matter [by burning to produce the carbon]—both of which would pass” the kinds of tests used on the GJW. In fact, there was nothing hypothetical about the Mormon-document forger Mark Hofmann using just such clever methods for his nefarious productions.

There is also the issue of the fragment’s considerable damage. One scholar, Roger Bagnall (2015), thought its battered appearance a sign of authenticity; another, Anne-Marie Luijendijk (2015), agreed, saying hopefully, “A fragment this damaged probably came from an antique garbage heap.” On the other hand, however, document detectives are all too familiar with the forger’s technique of “distressing” (as it is called in the antique business). Of course, although genuine old papyrus would not need to be abraded to make it look old, newly applied ink would.

Although three of the fragment’s edges are tattered, King concedes that “In contrast, the top edge is clean and appears to have been cut.” Such cutting would make little sense in antiquity, but modern dealers often cut papyrus sheets of little value into smaller sections “in order to have more pieces for sale.” Also, a forger could have cut a fragment from the margin of a page of text. The cut edge is therefore another feature inviting some suspicion without, however, being fatal to authenticity.

Uneven Lettering

Others have observed what I did when I first saw the fragment in photos: that it is very poorly rendered. The letters are quite variable in form—“oddly written,” says one divinity professor who thinks they are “probably modern” (Evans 2012)—an inconsistency at odds with a skilled calligrapher’s natural, studied uniformity. As well, the strokes making up the individual letters show—in my opinion as a calligrapher—such an unfamiliarity with the pen as to suggest amateurishness. Some have blamed uneven optical density, smudging, and other faults on possibly “a poor pen and inadequate scribal skill.” Lack of skill is also suggested by the uneven lines of text—sometimes straying apart, sometimes crowding close.

But Karen King acknowledges all this. She describes the script as “crude and unpracticed” and again refers to its “cramped size and crudeness.” She says, however: “Papyrologists agree that the clumsiness of the script indicates an unprofessional hand but differ in their evaluation of whether it is due to the elementary education level of an ancient writer or a forger’s inexperience writing on papyrus.” However, this amateurishness does not exist in a vacuum, and considering it with other features strongly suggests forgery.

For example, the “cramped look” of the text on the “front” (or recto) may be, King concedes, “due perhaps to the need to fit the desired text onto a limited area.” Yet on the other side (the verso), although largely erased, the letters are larger and the spacing wider. Thus the crowding of the recto text into a “limited area” suggests nothing so much as a forgery on an available small fragment.

Moreover, as I observed early on, the first few characters of the text are much, much larger than the rest, and this raises certain issues. First, it suggests that the writing began on the fragment, thus indicating forgery, and that the putative forger saw the need to reduce the size to accommodate the desired amount of text. Also, the shift in size does not suggest the work of a trained scribe. Finally, I note that the writing becomes large again at the end, further suggesting that the text was fitted onto a blank fragment.

King falls into an old trap after observing that a forger would have to have been very skilled in getting the papyrus and ink right but unskilled with the writing. “In my judgment,” she stated, “such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely.” Actually, just such a combination is a frequent hallmark of forgery, as anyone familiar with the subject should know.

Coptic Grammar

Then there are the problems with grammar. We have already heard Stephen Emmel’s view that the grammar of GJW’s Coptic text is somehow unconvincing.

Leo Depuydt (2015), a Coptic scholar at Brown University, goes even further. Based on the grammar alone, he would say of the fragment, “It stinks! … [Even] as a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical.” He cites what he terms “a couple of fatal grammatical blunders” and insists that the text “is just about entirely a patchwork of words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas,” pieced together by someone with a “fully adequate knowledge of Coptic.”

However, some, including King, are not persuaded that the anomalous grammar is fatal. Also, “Both his certainty and dismissive—even disrespectful—tone toward other scholars brought widespread incredulity to his [Depuydt’s] claims” (Shanks 2015).

Textual Revelation

It remained for Coptic scholar Christian Askeland to discover even more convincing evidence of forgery. As explained in Biblical Archaeology Review (Shanks 2015), “What Askeland found was astounding.” He compared one of the other fragments that had accompanied the GJW, a fragment of a Coptic Gospel of John (CGJ), with another such Coptic Gospel of John known as the Codex Qau. The comparison revealed that the CGJ fragment had simply been derived from the Codex Qau by copying every other line! The forger even included a typographical error in transcription that was in the online edition he or she used for the copying!

Therefore, because the GJW and the fragment of CGJ are written in the same hand, with the same writing instrument, and in the same Coptic dialect, “If one is a forgery,” concludes Biblical Archaeology Review, “the other is a forgery.”

Lessons Learned

It appears that this more skeptical view may prevail. It contrasts with the earlier, naïve assertion of Roger Bagnall (who heads New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World) that the GJW “would be impossible to forge.” These may be famous last words. King herself now concedes, regarding the new evidence for forgery: “[T]his argument is substantive. It’s worth taking seriously. And it may point in the direction of forgery.” As if much did not already point in that direction.

The so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment constitutes a lesson-book in judging the authenticity of alleged finds. Here are ten lessons learned:

  1. Provenance matters, especially in the case of a sensational work.
  2. A suspicious provenance should be particularly alarming.
  3. The burden of proof remains with the advocate, not on anyone else to prove a negative (that is, that the work is not genuine).
  4. Suspicions are due any “discovery” that seems too neatly to fit a popular theory of the time in which it appears.
  5. That the materials of an artifact appear to be credibly old is not proof of authenticity, as many forgers have shown by using genuinely old materials for their nefarious art.
  6. When any artifact is questioned, it should be examined from multiple standpoints: historical context, provenance, materials composition, style, and so on.
  7. What is right about a work generally matters less than what is wrong about it. It can pass many tests and still succumb to a fatal piece of evidence.
  8. One should beware of beginning with a belief and working backward to the evidence, thus engaging in confirmation bias (that is, seeking only evidence that supports one’s conviction).
  9. One must also avoid the frequently expressed but faulty argument that no one brilliant enough to have done A would be so inept as to have done B. Forgeries are typically characterized by a mix of cleverness and carelessness.
  10. Occam’s razor—the rule of thumb that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be preferred—should remain a guiding principle.

Remembering these basic precepts is not a protection against all error but should help guard against folly the next time an artifact that seems rather too good to be true is presented.

Author’s note: While the article was in press, we learned of a revealing investigation of the GJW’s provenance and the indentification of a possible forger—forthcoming in the July/August 2016 Atlantic.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for research assistance from Center for Inquiry Libraries Director Tim Binga and CFI staff member Melissa Braun.

Further Reading

  • Bagnall, Roger. 2015. Quoted in Shanks, Hershel. “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June: 56.Baigent, Michael, and Henry Lincoln. 1996. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. London: Arrow.
  • Benjamin, Mary. 1986. Autographs. New York: Dover.
  • Brown, Dan. 2003. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday.
  • Depuydt, Leo. 2014. “The Alleged Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity.” Harvard Theological Review 107: 2.
  • De
    puydt, Leo. 2015. Quoted in Shanks, “Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’”: 57.
  • Evans, Craig A. 2012. Quoted in The Huffington Post, September 26, and cited in Gospel, 2015.Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. 2015. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Jesus%27_wife; accessed September 28, 2015.
  • Hamilton, Charles. 1996. Great Forgers and Famous Fakes. Lakewood, Colo.: Glenbridge Publishing.
  • King, Karen L. 2014. “Jesus said to them, ‘My Wife …’: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” Harvard Theological Review 107 (2): 131–59.
  • King, Karen. 2015. Quoted in Shanks, “Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’”
  • Luijendijk, Anne-Marie. 2015. Quoted in Shanks, “Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’”
  • Ngowi, Rodrique. 2012. “Professor Says Papyrus Fragment Quotes Jesus Referring to ‘My Wife.’” Associated Press, in The Buffalo News, September 19.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1996. Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.Nickell, Joe. 1998. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Nickell, Joe. 2009. Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  • Polidoro, Massimo. 2016. “In Search of Mary Magdalene.” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April.
  • Rendell, Kenneth W. 1994. Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Shanks, Hershel. 2015. “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June.
  • Winfield, Nicole. 2012. “Scholars Skeptical of Jesus’s ‘Wife’ Find.” Associated Press, in the Buffalo News, September 20.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, PhD, is a former investigator with a world-famous detective agency who has been consulted in homicide and questioned-document cases. Among his numerous books are Relics of the Christ and The Science of Miracles.


“The forger even included a typographical
error in transcription that was in the online edition he or she used for the copying!”

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