Friday, September 21, 2012

Forging the Gospel of Jesus' Wife

The internet has been buzzing over the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. For collections of links on the topic, consult James F. McGrath's three posts on the subject for more opinions than you can read in an hour.

If you have time for only one link, check out the official research project page from Harvard Divinity School.

Just now Francis Watson, known for the readership of this blog through his article "Beyond Suspicion: On the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark" (The Journal of Theological Studies 61 128-170), has claimed the new Gospel fragment a fake.

Posted on Mark Goodacre's NT Blog (in two parts) is Watson's short analysis titled The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a Fake Gospel-Fragment was Composed. His verdict:

The Jesus of the Secret Gospel [of Mark] likes to consort naked with young men at night, while seeming hostile to women. By contrast, the new gospel fragment has Jesus speak disconcertingly of "my wife". Has this new heterosexual Jesus been created to complement Smith's homosexual one?

Watson's technique in unearthing the text as fake is to find ancient parallels to the words and sentences; in the case of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, these are discovered mostly from the coptic Gospel of Thomas. My own problem with this method is that it looks to be too good for its own good: given the vast amount of ancient texts we have at our disposal (even though they may represent only 10% of all the ancient literature that once existed) any given piece of text could be argued to be "fake" if all it took was to come up with parallels from other ancient texts. I think the real problem is the question of provenance. If the Gospel of Jesus' Wife could be traced somewhere, preferably to an authorized archaeological dig, Watson's analysis would still stand, but his conclusions would end up different.

(Oh right, the youth in the Mystic Gospel of Mark is not naked, there is only one of them present, and Jesus' "hostility towards women" is not apparent in that text either. And Smith's Jesus was not a homosexual.)


  1. This will be an interesting experience, since this time we have access to the actual ms which then can be physically examined. Hopefully this will answer for instance what the chemical composition of the ink is. As King puts it:
    “We are also pursuing chemical testing of the ink. The owner has agreed that the fragment itself will remain at Harvard University for the time being, where it will be accessible to accredited scholars.”

    “We are currently in the process of seeking to havethe chemical composition of the ink tested by non-destructive methods. While this analysis will not yield a specific date, it can indicate whether the composition of the ink corresponds to comparable inks used in antiquity. “

    She also writes:
    “On the other hand, there are a number of other facts that point toward authenticity. Most notably, it would be extremely difficult to forge the way the ink has been preserved on the writing material. As mentioned above, the ink on the verso has faded badly, an unfortunate characteristic shared with many ancient papyri, but an indicator of a long aging process.”

  2. Tony Burke, York University18 October, 2012 14:07

    Timo, did you notice that the revised version of Watson's paper does not include his mischaracterization of Secret Mark?

    1. No, I didn't. But... the version at still has the section I quoted above. Was it revised somewhere else?