5 Reasons Why the Gospel of Jesus' Wife Is a Fake
Image: Harvard Divinity School

Jesus said, “There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” And behold, one of his disciples who was standing by said to him, “Rabbi (which means ‘teacher’), how can this be if some are toothless?” Jesus replied, “You of little faith, do not be troubled. If some people are missing any, the teeth will be provided.”

Don’t recognize this story from one of the Gospels? Here’s why: The text was published in 1950 by classicist Paul Coleman-Norton. He claimed that he had discovered it on a manuscript in Morocco while fighting in World War II. But it was an open secret that he had invented the episode as well as the Greek text. Late New Testament expert Bruce Metzger noted that Coleman-Norton had already regaled his students with this joke before the war.

This particular fake is probably best described not as a forgery but a hoax. Coleman-Norton wanted to be funny. But other fakes are harder to detect—and have more serious consequences. Left undetected, some forgeries of biblical or early Christian manuscripts could severely distort our understanding of the biblical text and of Christian history.

Enter the much-discussed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript. Over the past three years, since Harvard Divinity School historian Karen King unveiled it, opinion has differed wildly over whether it is truly ancient. But now the controversy is being put to bed: A team of scholars gathered by Francis Watson (Durham University, UK) has produced a series of articles in the journal New Testament Studies (issue 61.3, July 2015) that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript is a modern fake.

Here’s how other scholars and I arrived at this important conclusion.

'Jesus Said to Them, "My Wife..." '

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife manuscript is a piece of papyrus the size of a credit card. It has eight partial lines of text. Line 4 has received the most attention:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ”

Here the line breaks off. The text is copied in Coptic, the language of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, later written down in the Christian era in a mainly Greek alphabet. The text before and after line 4 discusses the worthiness of women and refers specifically to “Mary.” The text is probably implying that this “wife” is Mary Magdalene.

The manuscript came to our attention on September 18, 2012, when King made the announcement. There was no hint of suspicion in her own assessment; indeed, two other scholars had encouraged her to consider it genuine. She claimed that it was probably a 4th-century manuscript, but that this Coptic translation went back to a Greek original from the 2nd century AD. This is the period when many other apocryphal writings were written in Greek.

Almost immediately after the announcement, however, leaders in the field began raising questions. That included Stephen Emmel, one of the leading scholars in Coptic manuscripts. Despite the sceptics, however, King and others maintained that the document was authentic. This resulted in a scholarly stalemate. But encouragingly, King said the manuscript would undergo scientific testing.

In March 2013, the fragment’s ink was analysed and found to be consistent with types of ink from the ancient world. In summer 2013, radio-carbon analysis of the papyrus (more on this later) was conducted at an accelerator mass laboratory in Arizona. This, rather suspiciously, gave a date range of 404-209 BC!

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5 Reasons Why the Gospel of Jesus' Wife Is a Fake