Esteemed scholar Francis Watson of Durham University suspects the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, on which I wrote yesterday, might ultimately prove a forgery. He’s written a brief summary (pdf) of a longer piece (pdf) explaining his suspicions. From the summary:
The papyrus fragment itself may well be very old. The question is whether the ink is also old. If chemical tests are carried out to establish the composition of the ink, these might show that a modern ink has been used and so prove the text to be a modern forgery. Whether tests could reliably show that an ink compatible with ancient origin is actually ancient is less certain. Meanwhile, it’s important to look very closely at the text itself – and especially to investigate how it was put together. [...]
In my article [pdf], I argue that the GJW fragment may be a modern fake. Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas – the best-known and most complete of the ancient gospel texts that have come to light over the past century or so. The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language. [...]
It’s hard to see close ancient analogies to the GJW compiler’s collage technique. The nearest analogy is with the well-known passages from the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, almost certainly composed by an American scholar in the 1950s out of phrases culled from Mark’s Gospel… [The best book on the hoax is this -- LH.] In GJW, it seems that the disinhibited homosexual Jesus of the Secret Gospel has been replaced by a heterosexual figure whose marriage to Mary Magdalene ensures her salvation.
I’ve left out the details in which Watson shows the similarities between the fragment and the Gospel of Thomas; readers can download the pdf file. Karen King and her collaborator, AnneMarie [sic] Luijendijk, dismissed the possibility of forgery out of hand:
What convinced them [the fragment] was probably genuine was the fading of the ink on the papyrus fibers, and traces of ink adhered to the bent fibers at the torn edges. The back side is so faint that only five words are visible, one only partly: “my moth[er],” “three,” “forth which.”
“It would be impossible to forge,” said Dr. Luijendijk, who contributed to Dr. King’s paper.
Dr. Bagnall reasoned that a forger would have had to be expert in Coptic grammar, handwriting and ideas. Most forgeries he has seen were nothing more than gibberish. And if it were a forgery intended to cause a sensation or make someone rich, why would it have lain in obscurity for so many years?
“It’s hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this. The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists,” Dr. Bagnall said.
All it takes is one, however. King has not had the ink carbon dated, but planned to submit it to a different but less accurate sort of testing:
Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition.
Given Dr. Watson’s standing and the potential significance of the fragment for early Christian studies, there may be more pressure to have the ink tested using carbon dating. In the meantime, we should wait with patience as sober scholars sort this out.