A Fragment Is a Fragment
  • Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By A.K.M. Adam

Season after season brings change and surprise, but a canny gambler could do well by betting that after any protracted silence on the “sensational news about Jesus” front, another shattering announcement is right around the corner.

In mid-September Karen King — the eminent and highly respected professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School — announced to startled fascination that she had been entrusted with a very small scrap of papyrus in which Jesus is quoted as referring to “my wife.” News spread like wildfire, fueled (it must be said) by her injudicious decision to label the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Larry Hurtado of Edinburgh University has more neutrally dubbed it the “Jesus’ Wife Fragment.” Headlines blared and reporters queried, and observers from outside the networks of academia wondered what to make of the whole furor.

The controversy should be parsed into two distinct questions: First, is the papyrus fragment an artifact from antiquity or is it the work of a modern forger? Second, assuming the fragment to be a genuine ancient manuscript, what does it tell us about Jesus?

The first question seemed simpler to answer at the outset of the news cycle. King is a scrupulous scholar of unquestioned integrity. She holds views inimical to those of many traditional Christians, but mean-spirited attacks on the integrity of her scholarly judgment reflect only on the ignorance of the accuser, not on the validity of King’s analysis. King showed the fragment to two outstanding experts, who together confirmed the likelihood of its authenticity, and she has submitted full and careful documentation of her analysis to the public for examination — not the typical actions of a duplicitous fraudster. Initial findings from King and her consultants made a quite plausible case that this was actually an ancient document.

Since then, a number of features of the papyrus have occasioned skeptical questions. Most prominently, the fragment is of unknown provenance, a very significant warning sign when evaluating sensational archaeological finds. Second, the lettering of the fragment seems unusually thick; King attributes this to the use of a dull pen, but some scholars find that suggestion unconvincing. Stephen Carlson, a specialist on literary forgery, notes that so far the fragment seems to have been studied only for physical signs of antiquity, not for the characteristics that might betray a forger’s activity, and Francis Watson of Durham University has produced an ingenious comparison of the lines of Coptic in the Jesus’ Wife Fragment with other known Coptic and Greek sources, reaching the conclusion that the fragment is most likely a pastiche of other previously known texts. Moreover, if the fragmentary lines were fully written out, they would not fit on the typical size of columns of Coptic text. Of course, these challenges do not themselves decide the case, any more than King’s positive analysis demonstrates the genuineness of the fragment. In all likelihood, there is a long way to go before the preponderance of scholarly judgment weighs on one side or the other.

Another question, though, concerns the implications of the papyrus if it be found to be the true record of a fourth-century scribe. On that score, exciting as the discovery undeniably would be, the answer is relatively less dramatic. We already know that some Christians from the late second century onward may have thought Jesus had a wife. Although this would be a solid confirmation of what we already have reason to believe, it would not change the status of that point. As King herself emphasizes, it tells us nothing whatever of Jesus’ marital status; on that count, the situation remains that we know of no reason to think that anyone before the late second century thought Jesus was married. Jesus was strongly associated with two other apparently celibate men (John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul), and he was remembered as having relativized the importance of marriage in a number of his sayings. This papyrus fragment — dated by King to the fourth century, and including a fragmentary saying that she dates to the second century — does not constitute the faintest evidence concerning Jesus himself, even if the fragment be genuine. And in showing that a fourth-century scribe, or a second-century author, thought Jesus had been married, it does not tell us anything we did not already have grounds to imagine on the basis of texts we know.

Though I was initially inclined to trust King’s judgment on the dating of the physical manuscript, Watson’s thorough and intriguing counterargument has persuaded me that the fragment is probably a forgery. Further, if the fragment were genuine, I couldn’t be confident about her ascription of the fourth-century fragment to a second-century source; might not a later scribe have introduced Jesus’ alleged marriage into an argument as well as an earlier one? On such an inference, the best argument will nonetheless remain highly speculative.

Even if the papyrus fragment be genuine, however, and even if it reproduces an otherwise unknown text that one could confidently assert belonged to the late second century, we would still know only that we had further data to support a conclusion for which we already had ample evidence: namely, that some late second-century Christians supposed that Jesus was married. The overwhelming testimony from almost every other source, however, shows that Jesus was not remembered as having been married, and many sources record him as having been single. One small, unprovenanced scrap of papyrus will not overturn the weight of that testimony.

The Rev. A.K.M. Adam, lecturer in New Testament at the University of Glasgow, is author of Faithful Interpretation (2006) and coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church (2006), among other books.

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