Friday, May 02, 2014

A couple of years ago, a Respected Harvard ScholarTM turned up a document that the media said had the potential to Fundamentally Alter Our Understanding Of The Christian ReligionTM because it suggested that Jesus Christ had a wife.  I wrote about the controversy here.
Opinion went back and forth on it.  Initially, most people doubted its applicability to anything at all.  It’s a fragment of papyrus with the words “Jesus” and “my wife” on it.  Exactly what is it a fragment of?
Then Real Scientific TestsTM were performed on the papyrus which determined that the fragment was Really, Really Old.  Whereupon stupid people who write for a living while I have to blow through my inheritance in order to make ends meet began once again to think you know what?  Maybe this little piece of papyrus might just Fundamentally Alter Our Understanding Of The Christian ReligionTM after all.
But other scholars kept looking and discovered two things.  Some Respected Harvard ScholarsTM are awfully gullible.  And for all practical purposes, this little fragment of papyrus is the theological equivalent of Piltdown Man:
Once we started carbon-dating papyrus, forgers started using authentically ancient papyrus. Once we discovered how to identify ancient ink by its chemical composition, forgers started creating precisely the same ink.
Like steroids in sports, it’s safe to assume that the best bad guys are always one step ahead of the science.
And yet those papyri was a fragment of the canonical Gospel of John. For all the uncertainty about the Jesus’ wife papyrus, this text of John evoked no such indecision. It is a forgery.
How do we know? This Gospel of John purports to be a version in a relatively rare ancient dialect of Coptic known as Lycopolitan.
Just such a Lycopolitan version of John was published in 1924 and is now available online. And this newly revealed gospel fragment just so happens to look awfully similar to the 1924 (now-online) version of John.
Whoever created this new Gospel of John fragment simply copied the beginning of every other line from the online version.
Turns out that if you check the other side of the fragment against its online parallel, the same thing is true (though with the end of every line rather than the beginning, logically enough).
Add to this the fact that the carbon dating of the John papyrus puts it in the seventh to ninth centuries, but Lycopolitan died out as a language sometime before the sixth century. No one wrote anything in Lycopolitan in the period in which this text would have to be dated.
Well, it’s never a good sign for a text of doubtful authenticity to be found in the company of a sure forgery.
More directly: Multiple experts agree that the fragment of John and the Jesus’ wife papyrus are written in the same hand, using the same ink and even the same writing instrument.
Simply put: If one is a forgery, they’re both forgeries.
Although 100% certainty is never achievable in such cases, given everything we know now (lab tests included), the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” never existed — or, rather, it never existed, for all intents and purposes, before 2012.
There are no great revelations to be gleaned from this text, no astounding new information about Jesus or Mary.
What the entire episode does, rather, is remind us — scholars included — that science might not always have all the answers.
This forgery was detected not through lab analysis but through good old-fashioned humanities-based detective work. This was Sherlock Holmes, not “CSI.”
If this subject interests you, Mark Shea has a neat piece up at The Real NCR about other Ancient DocumentsTM that also have the potential to Fundamentally Alter Our Understanding Of The Christian ReligionTM and why they’re stupid.

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