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QUESTIONS ABOUND: Papyrus fragment.
Karen L. King/Harvard University/AP
QUESTIONS ABOUND: Papyrus fragment.

Real or fake fiction?

Science | Dating tests fail to resolve dispute over papyrus alleging Jesus had a wife

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

New dating tests rekindled debate last month over the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a pretentiously named shred of papyrus first announced in 2012. At that time, Harvard Divinity School historian Karen King said the fragment dated from the second century and was the only example of ancient writing in which Jesus claimed to be married: In part, the 1.5-by-3-inch fragment reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” and “… she will be able to be my disciple.”

Enough people questioned the authenticity of the Coptic fragment, which belongs to an anonymous owner, that King submitted it to research teams to have its age tested. She published the results this year in an April edition of Harvard Theological Review. Using carbon dating and spectroscopy techniques, the teams concluded the papyrus is indeed centuries old, and that the soot-based ink shows no signs of being recently forged. They placed the papyrus between the sixth and ninth centuries—several centuries later than King first concluded. 

The test results don’t definitively rule out the possibility of forgery (someone could have carefully written on an old scrap of papyrus). King and others believe the artifact is genuine. She doesn’t take it as evidence the historical Jesus was actually married, but believes it points to a debate among early Christians over celibacy and the role of women.

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Many remain unconvinced. Leo Depuydt, a Brown University Egyptologist who wrote an accompanying critique of the fragment in Harvard Theological Review, said he was “100 percent certain” the fragment was “a forgery, and not a very good one at that.” Depuydt said the Coptic text contained “grammatical blunders” an ancient author wouldn’t have made. “There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind personally that … the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ is a patchwork of words and phrases from the published and well-known Coptic Gospel of Thomas.”

Michael Kruger, an expert on New Testament texts at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., agrees with the forgery conclusion. But even if it’s genuine, it doesn’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus, he told me: “The fragment is a late production. … It’s well after the time of Jesus, and well after the time of the apostles.”

Another possibility, said Kruger, is that “wife” in the text is supposed to be a metaphorical reference to the church, not Jesus’ actual wife. (King herself concedes that possibility.) “There is no historical evidence anywhere in early Christianity that Jesus was married,” Kruger said.

Boat that floats

Paramount Pictures

Just in time for the Hollywood thriller, a group of physics students from the University of Leicester in England decided to prove whether Noah’s ark could have carried all those animals without sinking. Based on the Bible’s description of the ark as 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 tall, the students calculated it could have carried about 56,000 tons. That’s equivalent to 2.15 million sheep, which represent the average size of the world’s animals. They wrote in the Journal of Physics Special Topics, a peer-reviewed student journal, that since other researchers have calculated only 35,000 or fewer animals needed to be aboard the ark, “we believe the ark to be of sufficient buoyancy.” —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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