Gospel of Jesus' WifeI blogged about the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” back when it hit the news four years ago. Since then, tests on the fragment showed it could have come from an actual classical manuscript. As I said both times, whether or not the fragment is “real” doesn’t really present any substantial challenge to anyone’s Christianity. The most it would have told us is that one group of Christians, in 4th century Egypt, thought Jesus had married. That’s all. Nothing more. Even so, traditionalist Christians raged and fumed about it, as though someone had tried to kill them or something. (That would be your Christian martyr complex at work.)

Well, Ariel Sabar of The Atlantic has done some investigating — not on the fragment itself, but into its provenance — and offers compelling evidence it was a hoax (WebCite cached article):

[Harvard professor Karen L.] King has steadfastly honored the current owner’s request for anonymity. But in 2012, she sent me the text of e-mails she’d exchanged with him, after removing his name and identifying details. His account of how he’d come to possess the fragment, I noticed, contained a series of small inconsistencies. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. But years later, they still gnawed at me.

The American Association of Museums’ Guide to Provenance Research warns that an investigation of an object’s origins “is not unlike detective work”: “One may spend hours, days, or weeks following a trail that leads nowhere.” When I started to dig, however, I uncovered more than I’d ever expected—a warren of secrets and lies that spanned from the industrial districts of Berlin to the swingers scene of southwest Florida, and from the halls of Harvard and the Vatican to the headquarters of the East German Stasi.

Sabar’s revelations are engaging, and I urge you to take the time to read it all. I’ll leave the story as is. The bottom line is that the likely forger was an East German, now living in Florida, who’d studied Egyptian antiquities for a time, and thus was in a position to pull of a hoax of this kind.

Professor King herself, in the wake of this, acknowledges the likelihood she’d been hoaxed (cached):

A Harvard professor who rocked the musty world devoted to studying early Christianity when she presented a tiny swatch of papyrus that referred to Jesus as married now concedes the fragment is probably a fake.

From the very start, she had hedged her bets and suggested it might have been a hoax, but given what she did — i.e. to broadcast it to the world in as public a way as a historian of religion could — belies that. What’s more, her total disinterest in the fragment’s provenance — which normally is of great importance to scholars when reviewing any artifact — suggests she feared it might be a hoax; purposely minimizing her knowledge of it helped her alleviate that fear. In other words, it’s a classic case of Sgt Schultz thinking.

I’m sure conservative Christians who’d been incensed with King’s publication of “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” back in 2012 are now crowing with glee. Bit I bet they weren’t as happy that the so-called “James ossuary” a number of years ago turned out not to be the “proof” of Jesus’ historicity they’d presumed it was (cached) … so I guess turnabout is fair play, no?

The bottom line is that this was a case of people investing more sentiment into something than it deserved. And I say that not because it ended up being a hoax. I say that because, from the very beginning, and without regard to its genuineness or phoniness, too many people made more of GJW than it deserved. Prof King took it too seriously as “proof” of the existence of some feminist Christian sect, and her critics took it too seriously as well, with their sanctimonious outrage that someone might provide potential evidence that early Christianity wasn’t as uniform — and consistent with the Biblical canon — as they’d like it to have been. People really need to fucking grow the hell up already.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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