Authenticating ancient documents

Modern scholarly techniques are used to detect which ancient documents are genuine and which are forgeries. In 2012 there reports of the discovery of a piece of papyrus that seemed to suggest that Jesus had been married. The document had been given by an anonymous person to a Harvard scholar who proclaimed it to be genuine. Needless to say, this caused a huge fuss and scholars pored over it and the weight of their opinions went from genuine to forgery, back to genuine, and now back to forgery again.

This article by Joel S. Baden and Candida R. Moss provides a fascinating look at how scholars investigated the authenticity of this document and similar ones. The catch is that as the techniques for detecting forgeries get better, so do the skills of the forgers.

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.

The clincher in this case seems to be that on close examination of the actual text, the new papyrus fragment seems to have been written by the same person who authored a document discovered in 1924 that was determined to be a forgery. The authors conclude:

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.”

There remains no substitute for deep, thorough, scholarly expertise in ancient languages and texts.

This shows the value of close reading of texts, a skill that is not much emphasized these days in education where the volume of material to be learned is so great and skimming for the gist is more emphasized.