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The New York Times broke a story two days ago about Karen L. King presenting a fragment of a papyrus at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in which the fragment reads of Jesus having a wife (you can see the fragment here and read the presentation here). What should we make of this?

First, even King herself states that this find means nothing about the historic Jesus,

“It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” (Karen L. King, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus)

Anyone who is using this fine to try and prove such is going against the publisher herself, let alone all reasonable evidence.

Second, Gathercole states the potential meaning of this find that it,

offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate. If it is genuine.

As Gathercole points out in the post there were debates going on during that time in the early church about the rightness or wrongness of sex and marriage. What this fragment could be is someone trying to say Jesus was married in order to prove that marriage was good. But at the end of the day everything is just speculation since there is no context.

Third, the “if genuine” part is a big part. Over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog the report has been coming out from the ICCS that a lot of scholars are doubting the authenticity of the fragment. Christian Askeland, who is at the ICCS posted several problems he saw with the manuscript. Other scholars have weighted in the comment section. Let me just reproduce what they are saying here:

Christian Askeland:

Consider the following points:
First, the 4th century date is speculation.   I say this based on my own familiarity with similar datable texts (Nag Hammadi, Kellis, Melitian Archive) and with the wider issues of dating in general.  King’s argument’s in her article are based upon other speculatively dated manuscripts which additionally are not similar in appearance or format.
Second, this is not a literally codex leaf.  Everyone to whom I have spoken is agreed on this.  Gregor Wurst has publically noted that this fragment resembles the erratic nature of magical texts.
Third, letter formation is not literary, semi-literary or documentary.  I note only the example of Epsilon which is two strokes (not three) and which does not conjoin.  Contra Bagnall, I have a hard time explaining the script via a dull calamus.  It is not that hard to sharpen a calamus.  This text was painted or markered.
Fourth, if an amateur with a basic knowledge of Coptic were to forge a text, it would look like the text under question.  ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ … “Jesus said …”  Two omissions are bizarre and may reflect a weak knowledge of the language (missing ϫⲉ and zero article).  Most other weird gospel-like texts from the early period have non-Sahidic elements.

Simon Gathercole:

I’m not completely convinced either way, but I am sympathetic to some of Christian’s scepticism. I agree with the point that if one were producing a fake, this is like what you’d make. (1) Jesus said, “My wife” is slap-bang in the middle of page. Also (2) the script is at least fishy. (3) Most of it is paralleled in the Gospel of Thomas, images of which are easily accessible on the web!

Peter M. Head

In addition to the general appearance of the piece and the script and the convenient positioning of the key idea there are also several problems of procedure: a) two external reviewers expressed doubts about the authenticity of the text (King, draft, p. 3) [these are partly fobbed off on the basis of the low resolution of the photos as if that was decisive, p. 4]; b) they suggest investigation by Coptic papyrologists and scientific investigation of the ink (p. 3); c) neither of these things happen!!!; rather d) a Coptic linguist says the language is OK; e) Bagnall apparently says OK; f) no scientific analysis of the ink takes place. 
This procedure is rather curious to me.

Bloomberg is actually picking up the doubts that other scholars have about the fragment.

But what happens if it turns out to be genuine?

Dirk Jongkind points out that nothing in the fragment can really be trusted. The dealer who cut it cut it where he did for a reason,

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the lamentable loss of the words immediately following the famed words ‘My wife’ might not have been accidental, but perhaps made in order ‘to maximize profit’?

At the end of all this I don’t see this fragment amounting to much if anything of worth. But the vote is still out and we will wait to see what develops.


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