The Latest Twist on the Jesus “Wife” Fragment: A Smoking Gun for the Forgery Case?

There is a really fascinating exchange going on at Mark Goodacre’s blog regarding whether Karen King’s “Jesus wife” papyrus fragment is a fake or not, see here. For a bit of background see my late September post “Is the ‘Jesus Wife’ Text a Fake?” here.

Goodacre’s post, titled “Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery,” offers what he calls an “executive summary” of a new paper by Andrew Bernhard, “How The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Might have Been Forged: A Tentative Proposal.” Bernhard suggests that our hypothetical forger of the fragment made use of Michael Grondin’s on-line interlinear version of the Gospel of Thomas that contains a certain typo–and lo and behold–that very typo mysteriously ends up on the supposed forged fragment. Goodacre is convinced that this is surely a smoking gun if there ever was one when it comes to such bloodless crimes as forgery:

Is this the smoking gun?  It certainly looks like the author of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment betrays his or her knowledge of Mike Grondin’s interlinear by reproducing this one, rare typographical error, resulting in strange Coptic.

The discussion is more than a bit technical for those who do not know Coptic but the bottom line is the argument that it is just a bit too coincidental that the various phrases of the eight line fragment all appear in published versions of the Gospel of Thomas, including this typo “mistake” based on Grondin’s on-line version of Thomas. You can see the back and forth exchanges in the comments at Goodacre’s post, including updated input from Bernhard and Grondin. I will wait for those more versed in Coptic than I to weigh in but I don’t find the missing direct object marker so “odd” from what little I know of other similar texts. I have found the detailed analysis of the fragment by Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to be convincing, including this issue of the missing “direct object,” which he addresses, see the draft of King’s paper here. Prof. Shisha-Halevy is convinced the fragment passes the test of authenticity based on language and grammer.

What this suggestion would require, however, is that the forgery would have to have been done rather recently, certainly after November, 2002 when Grondin put up his version of Thomas with the typo on-line, but more likely as recently as 2009, notice:

Among the papers the collector had sent King was a typed letter to Laukamp from July 1982 from Peter Munro. Munro was a prominent Egyptologist at the Free University Berlin and a longtime director of the Kestner Museum, in Hannover, for which he had acquired a spectacular, 3,000-year-old bust of Akhenaten. Laukamp had apparently consulted Munro about his papyri, and Munro wrote back that a colleague at the Free University, Gerhard Fecht, an expert on Egyptian languages and texts, had identified one of the Coptic papyri as a second-to fourth-century A.D. fragment of the Gospel of John.

The collector also left King an unsigned and undated handwritten note that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence—this one concerning a different gospel. “Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage.” ((“The Inside Story of a Controversy” in the Smithsonian, see complete article here.))

Since this account as well as the “undated handwritten note” and other correspondence would also be part of the forgery deception package, our forger could only put out his story when Laukamp, Munro, and Fecht were were no longer around to falsify his concocted story. Peter Munro apparently died in January, 2009 whereas Laukamp and Fecht earlier, in 2001 and 2006 respectively. The collector first approached Prof. King at Harvard in July 2010, which pretty much leaves 2009 and early 2010 as the window for the date of the alleged forgery.

For reasons I covered in my previous post, “Is the ‘Jesus Wife’ Text a Fake,” I remain unconvinced of these forgery charges, see the various links here. I continue to trust Roger Bagnall’s good eye and sharp judgment and Prof. Shisha-Halevy’s analysis.  I don’t find the argument for the fragmentary “parallels” from Thomas convincing. I also think that the verso side of the papyrus, which has not received much attention as of yet, argues against forgery. It would be hard to explain how any forger would have produced this reverse side of the text–much less why. After all, this “foolish forger” with his blunt and drippy ink pen could simply copy more scrambled lines from his on-line copy of the Gospel of Thomas, and produce a proper codex fragment.

What I had not realized until Goodacre’s latest blog post was that regardless of the “typo” argument, as Andrew Bernhard pointed out in the comment section of the post, any forgery would have like taken place after Munro’s death–which puts us into 2009–just months before the collector approached Prof. King. Looks like the ink would have hardly been dry and again, that very worn and faded verso side of the papyrus would have had to have been somehow doctored to look old as well. Further, for a 2009 forgery one has to assume an entire “package” of concomitant circumstances, including the forging of the modern documents as well. Although that is not impossible, it seems to me far from demonstrated. I think the verdict is still out on this one and I look forward to further discussion.