Vatican conclude “Jesus’ wife” papyrus fragment is fake

In a followup to this story, the Vatican throws cold unholy water on the Mrs. Jesus papyrus.

“Gospel of Jesus’ wife” fragment is a fake, Vatican says

An ancient papyrus fragment which a Harvard scholar says contains the first recorded mention that Jesus may have had a wife is a fake, the Vatican said on Friday.

“Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery,” the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial by its editor, Gian Maria Vian. “In any case, it’s a fake.”

Joining a highly charged academic debate over the authenticity of the text, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, the newspaper published a lengthy analysis by expert Alberto Camplani of Rome’s La Sapienza university, outlining doubts about the manuscript and urging extreme caution.

[University of Durham Professor Francis] Watson, who has previously worked on identifying forged gospels, said it was likely to be an ancient blank fragment that was written over in the 20th or 21st century by a forger seeking to make money.

Watson argues the words on the fragment do not fit grammatically into a larger text.

“It’s possible to get hold of an old bit of un-written on papyrus and write some new stuff on it,” Watson said. “There is a market for fake antiquities throughout the Middle East … I would guess that in this case the motivation might have been a financial one.”

Yeah, we pretty much figured that this was not going to stand up to scrutiny. A great discussion about why took place on this last episode of Virtual Skeptics where Eve tells us why we should be skeptical of such claims. You can also read her take on it here at Skeptical Humanities.

Many of the scholars at the Coptic conference where King revealed the fragment have also questioned its authenticity, suggesting that neither the handwriting nor the grammar looks right. Indeed, the backlash has been so immediate and so widespread that the Harvard Theological Review has walked back its commitment to publish the article in the January edition. On Friday, one of the co-editors said that they had only “provisionally” accepted the article for publication, pending the results of scientific tests and “further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

So, it seems King’s announcement may have been premature, but she notes that she was looking for comment and criticism. In the draft of her article, she freely mentions the reservations of her readers.

EDIT (29-Sept-2012): Title changed. The Vatican newspaper is reporting this. Take that for what it’s worth. It does not appear they had their own specialists examine it, however. Thanks to commenters for pointing that out.

  14 comments for “Vatican conclude “Jesus’ wife” papyrus fragment is fake

  1. Xenolan
    September 28, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    Even if it were genuine – which is a ridiculous idea on the face of it, don’t get me wrong – is there any question that Vatican scholars would have come up with any other result? Here we have a document which flies in the face of everything they’ve been preaching for two thousand years… somehow, I seriously doubt they would announce to the world that it was genuine even if it were.

    Again, I’m not saying that they’re lying. There was little chance that this piece of papyrus was anything but a fake from the beginning. I’m just saying that IF something along these lines were found that WAS genuine, the last people we could expect to be honest and objective about it would be the Vatican. They shouldn’t even have been involved in testing it.

  2. Gary
    September 28, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    People are very confused about this. I have not see one scholar claim that this would be evidence that Jesus had a wife. The only issue is whether it is modern or a piece of an ancient document. The earliest date I have seen guessed at is that it was maybe a 4th century copy of a 2nd century document. There are known writings from that time that say that Jesus was married and many other things but they are not considered to relate to any historical facts about Jesus, just the history of what some early Christians believed.It’s just too far from the time that they are writing about.

  3. oldebabe
    September 28, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    Just another thing, that makes no difference whatsoever, that some committed religious/Christians can argue and fight about – no news there.

  4. Ryuthrowsstuff
    September 29, 2012 at 3:03 AM

    The Vatican’s archivists are actually pretty well regarded in terms of document authentication and ancient languages. Like wise they have little problem with the existence of, and don’t deny the authenticity of other early Christian texts they disagree with religiously. You don’t find them claiming the Nag Hammadi texts are hoaxes because they don’t accept the Gospel of Thomas. They study it all the same and leave it as non-canonical.

    That said you’ll also notice, from the links provided the, that the Vatican isn’t the only one calling foul.

  5. Zink
    September 29, 2012 at 6:08 AM

    You seem to have misread the piece, which merely states that the Vatican newspaper is reporting on the story, which is of obvious interest to its readers. Ryuthrowsstuff is correct. When it comes to scholarship, whether scientific, historical, or otherwise, the official Vatican position is very open-minded. They do not vet researchers on their religious beliefs before admitting them to its archives. I’ve worked in them myself, and I met all manner of scholars there, from all faiths including no faith. Nor are they obsessed with biblical literalism, unlike their evangelical critics. If you don’t believe me, consider that they sponsor academic conferences on topics like the possibility of alien life:

    If you check, you will also find that catholic teachings have no issue with the theory of evolution, among others.

    You haven’t hit a nerve or anything like that, but fair’s fair. There is a lot of room for dialogue.

  6. xxicenturyboy
    September 29, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    The Vatican was quick to respond about this fake, but why are they not quick to respond to crying statues in India or the Turin Shroud which have also been scientifically debunked? Could it be that they pick and choose which to support according to how it affects their beliefs? Say it isn’t so Joe!

  7. One Eyed Jack
    September 29, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    The Catholic church still claims that the Shroud of Turin is genuine despite overwhelming evidence that it is a fake.

    I’m not saying that the papyrus is genuine, but it’s naive to pretend that the Catholic church doesn’t have a bias here.

  8. Zink
    September 30, 2012 at 3:54 AM

    Talk about naive–put down the Dan Brown. It’s unclear, at least to me, from your reply how this supposed “bias” poses a threat, when the “Vatican” didn’t conduct the research in question, and particularly when the fragment does, in fact, appear to be a fake. That according to independent scholars, as the article says. You may as well have objected based on their continued belief in god! My point here is that in order to argue on behalf of rationality, you have to be rational yourself. It’s obvious that your own biases are preventing you from doing that. You aren’t going to win many people to the cause, friend.

  9. September 30, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    Isn’t the Vatican believed to have tried its own hand at forgery in its youth? Likely, I too am just recalling Dan Brown, but I’m thinking of the end of Mark, the Donation of Constantine, and most of the epistles.

  10. Ryuthrowsstuff
    October 1, 2012 at 2:12 AM

    Although the last 2 popes and The Vatican’s newspaper have expressed a belief in the shroud, the church has never taken a position on its authenticity. And despite Benedict’s apparent obsession with the thing they still refuse to do so. This exactly what they do for almost all reliquaries and miracle claims.

    And who do you think it was that allowed access to the shroud so scientists could conduct the experiments that most firmly debunked it? I’d have to say The Vatican given that they own the damned thing. Yes it spineless not to accept the clear results. But staying the hell out of it allows them to avoid embarrassment with out pissing off their most devote members.

  11. Guastafeste
    October 2, 2012 at 2:35 PM

    The Donation of Constantine and the other Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals were certainly forgeries. They were often used by the popes and their legates, but they probably originated in southern France or Spain, not in central Italy.

  12. One Eyed Jack
    October 4, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Slow your roll, friend.

    I don’t dispute anything the Catholic church has reported about this papyrus. My only point was to highlight that it is not the completely unbiased body that Zink portrayed.

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