bout a year and a half ago, a Harvard University professor announced that a manuscript had been found in which Jesus made a comment about his wife.
The New York Times — followed by other liberal media eager to suggest that the Christian story is full of fabrications instead of historical truth — immediately jumped on the story.
Karen King is the Harvard professor who declared genuine a fragment of papyrus containing lines written in the Coptic language, used by the ancient Egyptian Christian church.
It is said to contain words of Jesus mentioning “my wife ….” Both the Harvard Theological Review and the Times report suggested that the fragment would require a major rethinking of the historical view of Jesus’ life as reported in the New Testament.
Usually, opinions like this one published in Biblical or theological journals just hang out there as odd writings which are soon forgotten, if they attract any attention at all.
But this one, after less than two years, has suffered a sudden death.
On April 24, a specialist in the Coptic language at Indiana Wesleyan University named Dr. Christian Askeland announced that the whole thing is a copy of an Internet post that shared features with a forged document produced in 1924.
The story of Askeland’s work was reported on May 2 by The Wall Street Journal online edition (WSJ.com) written by Jerry Pattengale, a colleague of Askeland at the Green Scholars Initiative.
King’s study might be suspected of having an ulterior motive, from the fact that the Times was given access to it before its publication, giving it some public circulation just before Easter this year. The current issue of the Review containing the defense of King’s nearly two-year-old accouncement and the Times story both came out in March of this year.
But we no longer have to be satisfied with mere suspicions. Askeland shows that the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was released by Harvard along with some other Coptic fragments, including a direct copy of one from the New Testament Gospel of John published originally in 1924 and since proven to be a forgery.
The fragment containing the reference to Jesus’ wife is also a copy, from a PDF file posted on the Internet in 2002. The two pieces of papyrus came from the same source. King did a radiometric test which showed that it came from the A.D. 7th to 9th century.
Askeland says the John fragment was written in a particular dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which died out by the 6th century, and was not even used at the time the papyrus was made.
Not only is the material of the two pieces the same, but so are the handwriting, the ink used and the marks identifiable as made by the point of the writing instrument.
The ink was made from soot, often used by forgers to make ink look older than it is and to fool the spectroscopy tests.
These are the kinds of evidence typically used by scholars to authenticate — or disprove — claims of antiquity.
King may have been deceived when she came across the papyrus fragments, which her tests showed to be old.
But this is hardly an excuse for a university with the stature of Harvard rushing to publish news that Jesus had a wife.
Radical critics of Christianity have in recent decades been trying to revive some of the ideas of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which celebrated the spiritual intuition of women as a valid source of revelation apart from the Bible.
These groups were condemned by the church not only for their teachings, but also for the sexual immorality practiced in their circles.
A certain reading of some of their writings speaks of Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, and claim that they had a daughter who passed on the “holy seed” to descendants who became the Merovingian kings of southern France in later times.
The writers who follow this line have been severe critics of orthodox Christianity, and especially of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which they accuse of suppressing ancient writings in order to solidify its power and to exclude women.
This particular commotion from the same direction appears to be over.
The supporting papyrus documents are proven to be fakes, and the Journal deserves our gratitude for telling the story, on which the Times and its followers have yet to comment.
THE REV. C. ERNEST WILLIAMS is a Paris native and retired Presbyterian pastor now living in Arizona. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.