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Oct 24 2012

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

The latest analysis has all but confirmed the recently announced “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a modern forgery. See Mark Goodacre’s summary in Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery or go look at Andrew Bernhard’s latest analysis directly: How The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Might Have Been Forged: A Tentative Proposal. Bernhard is the renowned author of Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts (2006).

Photo of the so-called Gospel of Jesus' wife papyrus fragmentFor background (in case you hadn’t heard about this new find or want to know more) see the Wikipedia page on the new gospel fragment and Harvard University’s official page on it.

Very early on several scholars pointed out that all the words in the fragment come from the late Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas, and suggested this indicated forgery because such an agreement would be improbable. But in fact those agreements were not established as improbable; almost all consisted of single words, not phrases, and none of any extended length, and dependency on or similar origin to GThom could have been at play. Indeed this could even be a fragment from a redaction of GThom. In Bayesian terms, critics were saying this feature was improbable (had a low likelihood, or consequent probability) on the hypothesis of authenticity, but the fragment’s content was probable on a hypothesis of forgery. (And the prior probability is always dangerously high, owing to the fact that biblical and apocryphal texts, especially on recently fashionable subjects like whether Jesus was married, are prime targets for forgery, and like most forgeries, this fragment’s exact provenance was unknown or unverifiable).

However, this estimate of improbability (of a low likelihood) was not soundly based. Moreover, there are improbabilities also on the forgery hypothesis: forgers would more likely have attempted to create a Greek fragment to market it as earlier and more authoritative (and thus more valuable); would more likely have made the text clear rather than ambiguous; the forgery is in most respects physically excellent; etc. Whereas the fact that it had words shared by GThom is not sufficient to lower its consequent probability, because of the danger of the multiple comparisons fallacy: of all Coptic texts one could find such a match with given such a small scrap of so few words, what are the odds one will match by accident? Probably not as low as you think [as Timo Pannanen demonstrated by parody]. So the critics did not yet have a good argument for forgery. They established only its possibility, not its probability.

However, a new analysis just came out that shows features that actually are very improbable on any other hypothesis but forgery, and in this case that conclusion is self-evident even before we attempt any kind of exact mathematical calculation. These features include the repetition of typos and other mistakes from an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, which are extraordinarily unlikely, unless the text was being reproduced using that online resource (which would date the forgery to after 1997, when that resource first appeared online). Defenders of authenticity (if there even are any left at this point) have not yet responded to this evidence. But I think the odds of authenticity are pretty low at this point. The only way it can be rehabilitated is if proponents can show the coincidences with the online source are highly probable, or at least not very improbable, and I cannot presently imagine how they could do that.

There is one last question. Chemical tests on the ink are still underway. And whether those could be fooled will depend on exactly which tests are done (and no one has specifically said). A mere chemical composition assay could presumably be fooled by a forger simply composing a realistic ink. But isotopic tests can more likely establish a post-Hiroshima date, since any biological materials in the ink, such as oil, gall, or soot, will carry trace signatures from nuclear fallout. Only inks that set before 1945 will lack those trace signatures. (And an ink made without biologicals will fail to pass a standard assay, since no such ink would be realistically ancient.) Carbon dating would be fruitless in this case since an actually-ancient scrap of blank or washed papyrus was most likely used. Faded ink on the reverse, which does not align with the formatting on the front, is in fact already suspicious. It has been suggested that the ink on the back was washed off and reused on the other side to produce the forgery, and if that’s the case, it’s possible even an isotopic test could be fooled.

When the results of the promised chemical tests are announced I’ll add an update here and in comments below. But in the meantime, the authenticity of the fragment is already highly doubtful.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Roo Bookaroo

    To a layman about forgery in manuscripts, but one much more familiar with forgery in art and paintings, the lack of provenance, the refusal to identify the names of the providers of the fragment, constitute the most powerful index of the highest likelihood of forgery.

    Any finder of such a gem, if it were authentic, would be immensely gratified to trumpet his luck and contribution to the world. The willful silence on the provenance will make a skeptic of the best experts, and will counterbalance, even overcome, any beneficial result from the scientific tests.

    In this kind of high-stake game, clarifying the sources, describing the full itinerary of the fragment from its place of initial discovery, and naming all the intermediaries involved in the transit to the US, are mandatory.

    1. 1.1
      Richard Carrier

      To a layman about forgery in manuscripts, but one much more familiar with forgery in art and paintings, the lack of provenance, the refusal to identify the names of the providers of the fragment, constitute the most powerful index of the highest likelihood of forgery.

      Unfortunately, though, in papyrology that’s common. Because most papyri are in places with little in the way of effective law enforcement or even personal safety, a large quantity of papyri is (or has been) recovered illegally by looters and sold on the black market. There has been a huge debate going on for years whether universities and museums should buy such materials, but the consensus more or less is, if they didn’t, we’d lose vast quantities of historical materials (looters would just sell it to private collectors and it would disappear since there would be no other market for it, or they’d just destroy what they found if they couldn’t sell it). This makes the prior probability of forgery for unprovenanced ancient papyri much lower than it does for, say, art work. But for papyri of this specific kind, it’s still high enough to always be concerned.

      (Note that there is a claimed trail of evidence for the fragment that dates it pre-1980. But that trail itself may be based on forged documents. And right now, that even seems likely.)

  2. 2
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    ROFL … from Goodacre’s blog: places where the fragment might show knowledge of Grondin’s Interlinear, including the dropped ⲙ̅ (M+supralinear stroke) before ⲡⲱⲛϩ (PWN2, “life”) on the first line of the fragment.

    He got PWNed!

  3. 3
    kyoungers

    I’m wondering a couple of things about this. First: If this really were absolutely genuine, how likely is it that it would contain grammatical errors? Several of Bernhard’s points rely on grammatical evidence, which makes perfect sense to me until I recall that writers of modern English make grammatical errors with some regularity. Were those kinds of errors just uncommon in texts like this one (or like this one purports to be)? Second: If this is a forgery, someone went to a hell of a lot of effort. What’s their motivation? – I’m genuinely curious.

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      Grammatical errors as such are not uncommon (depending on the quality of the scribal product); it’s grammatical errors that just happen to exactly match typos in a modern text that is very improbable.

      As to motive, it’s often unfathomable. Money, perhaps. But it could be like computer hackers who do it just for the thrill, or to create a headache for the Vatican and its celibacy policy (Morton’s Secret Gospel of Mark is deemed a forgery by most, who suspect it has ideological purposes along similar lines, to embarrass the Vatican’s anti-gay policy), or to prime the market for something else (keep your eye out for new books etc. that would benefit from the publicity this fragment has already created).

      The motives can often be clever. It could also be a test run for a planned forgery of greater potential value (e.g., possibly a forger is being tested by his client by trying to pass off something relatively minor like this to prove he can do it, or to smoke out the methods of detection so they can be thwarted better when the real prize gets made, a forgery of more substantial significance).

      Typically, though, it’s money in some way. For example, the James ossuary forgery was probably a money scheme, but the real dollars were probably in exhibit fees on museum tours, not the sale of the artifact per se, which owners can collect even if it’s declared a forgery, since once it’s famous, people will pay to see it anyway. And in that case the most-likely-forger’s legal team has done a good tobacco-company-style job of obscuring the certainty it’s a forgery anyway; pall of suspicion means nothing when plausible deniability secures the value of the object in the eyes of the faithful. I expect something similar could happen with this fragment, the “authenticating documents” (like that dead professors letter) being used to muddy the waters of certainty.

  4. 4
    Sili

    It has been suggested that the ink on the back was washed off and reused on the other side to produce the forgery, and if that’s the case, it’s possible even an isotopic test could be fooled.

    Ooooh. Clever. Makes me want to get into the business of forgering.

  5. 5
    Reginald Selkirk

    Wow, all this effort, and its directed at finding out whether this is a modern forgery or an ancient forgery.

  6. 6
    aggressivePerfector

    Compilers of mathematical tables, prior to the electronic age, needed to do extraordinary amounts of work to complete their calculations. They gaurded their tables against copyright infringement by adding insignificant errors at e.g. the 10th decimal place, where no large-scale disasters were likely to result. Copying was therefore easy to detect: if a rival producer of tables had done the calculations themselves, then the numbers at these deliberate error locations would differ, but if a table was produced by copying, then the errors would also be copied, establishing firmly the copier’s guilt.

    Clever teachers use the same mathematics to detect cheating in exams.

    1. 6.1
      Paul D.

      Most dictionaries also have a few made-up words added to them in order to catch plagiarists who blindly copy their contents.

  7. 7
    harrysanborn

    Yay, now we can expect the beleaguered Christians to use this as evidence of Jesus’ authenticity. I can’t wait for all the articles to jump up claiming the Bible is true because this thing was a forgery.

    1. 7.1
      harrysanborn

      The textual analysis that we can do with a fragment like this are pretty freaking incredible though. Kudos to the researchers who are digging into this.

  8. 8
    LykeX

    I’ve heard about this from the Bible Geek and he also expressed serious doubts about the authenticity. I wonder a bit about the motive for such forgeries, though.

    Is there a lot of money to be gotten from ancient documents? Or is this simply a matter of desire for notoriety? Alternatively , I could think of people who believe so fervently in their chosen idea that they’re willing to lie to support it or, finally, pure trolling; the pleasure of knowing you managed to trick someone else.

    While those motives might be widely shared by many people, surely this kind of forgery could not be carried out by just anyone. It would have to be a member of the rather small group of people who actually know about these kinds of documents; the texts, the languages, etc.

    I guess I’m just curious about who would actually do this kind of thing. I would think that anyone who had spent the time to actually learn about these subjects would also be a somewhat responsible person.

    It’s one thing to think that Billy-Bob from the trailer park might try to do a forgery. It’s another to think of the senior professor of ancient languages at Harvard doing the same.

    You see what I mean?

    1. 8.1
      Richard Carrier

      I don’t think anyone at Harvard was involved in the forgery. They were just the marks.

      On possible motives, see above.

  9. 9
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    These features include the repetition of typos and other mistakes from an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, which are extraordinarily unlikely, unless the text was being reproduced using that online resource (which would date the forgery to after 1997, when that resource first appeared online).

    More recently than that, even. Mike Grondin (in a comment to Goodacre’s blog post) says that the typo in question didn’t appear on his site until Nov. 11, 2002.

  10. 10
    pneumo

    No provenance = no need for any other tests.

    1. 10.1
      Richard Carrier

      If only that were true. A scandalously huge number of papyri and manuscripts have no provenance, and that will probably always be the case. So that is no longer a reliable criterion for forgery. See my remarks above.

    2. 10.2
      Nathanael

      Provenance breaks in Egyptian history date to the Old Kingdom, since tombs were already being looted THEN. The artifacts of the tomb robbers are now themselves valuable archaeological evidence!

      I don’t know if there are Old Kingdom-era forgeries, but there are Middle Kingdom era forgeries (which are also now valuable historical artifacts in their own right!)

      Kind of extraordinary to think about, really.

  11. 11
    Afzal

    Richard

    re the usual gospels:
    Have you encountered Peter Williams (tyndale House) :New Evidences the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts?

    Thanks
    A

    1. 11.1
      Richard Carrier

      That’s a reference to a lecture (video here).

      It isn’t logically sound. Not only does it ignore all the evidence of fictionalization and gross improbability in the Gospels [and Acts] (markers against a tale having an honest source), but it ignores the fact that a lot of fiction has the very properties he thinks indicate eyewitness sourcing. Thus, Bayesian reasoning takes his argument down quickly. (And that’s even assuming we grant all his premises, and one could challenge many of those as well.)

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