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.


  1. Chiroptera says

    The clincher in this case seems to be that on close examination of the actual text….

    …it was written on official Dukes of Hazzard stationary.

    (My apologies to Berkeley Breathed.)

    I remember a couple of decades ago reading about a pretty infamous account of forgeries of documents relating to the founding of the Mormon church. As Mano states, the forgers are often so good they can fool laboratory forensics. One thing that I took away from that book: provenance (the known history of everyone who ever had possession of the document) is extremely important.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano, did you ever see the episode of Law and Order: CI in which Stephen Colbert played a forger of ancient (well, old) documents? Apparently his character was based on Mark Hofmann, Mormon forger/killer.

  3. Mano Singham says


    No, I did not see it. But thanks for the link. Quite a fascinating story.

  4. says

    A document indicating that Jesus was married, and someone authenticated this.

    Um, there are just so many things to check there, how can one ever authenticate such a thing? I mean, was it signed with Jesus’ known signature, with a matching social security number and place of residence that could be looked up it the Ancient Roman Hall of Records Archives™? (Assuming no identity theft and such…)

  5. says

    The forging methods for the papyrus are exactly the same as what Oded Golan used when he forged engravings on the ossuary. He added engravings to what already existed, then filled the grooves with dirt from the same place the ossuary was found, giving the false impression of being that old. And just like the papyrus, it was the poor translations and text of the ancient language that gave it away.

    When it comes to frauds like the papyrus, the ossuary and the fraud of Turin, the true believers won’t be swayed by fact. When “god” and “cheezus” are involved, science stops working normally, and what matters is belief or what someone wants to be true (e.g. “carbon dating doesn’t work on artefacts!!!”).

  6. Irreverend Bastard says

    A fairy tale scientifically authenticated to have been written thousands of years ago on ancient papyrus is still a frickin’ fairy tale.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    This forgery was detected not through lab analysis but through good old-fashioned humanities-based detective work. This was Sherlock Holmes, not “CSI.”

    1) Holmes was fictional. It’s easy to make the endings come out right when you’re making it up.
    2) Some of the techniques used by Holmes have not stood the test of time and are not scientifically validated, like phrenology.
    3) This person needs remedial instruction on “Science” vs. “science.”

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