In September, 2012, a faded fragment of papyrus, which has controversially come to be known as 'The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife', made international headlines when it was unveilled by Harvard Divinity School historian Karen L. King. The announcement, unsurprisingly, was met with both anger and elation, as well as a great deal of skepticism as it contained a phrase never seen before in any other scripture: "Jesus said to them, my wife….", and "she will be able to be my disciple", a phrase that stirred debate over whether women should be allowed to be priests. An editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper declared that the papyrus was a fake, as did a number of other scholars. However, the fragment has now been thoroughly tested by scientists who conclude, in a report published in the Harvard Theological Review, that the ink (actually pigment) and papyrus have ancient origins, and the fragment is not, therefore, a modern forgery.
The papyrus fragment has now been tested by scientists at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), who carried out carbon-dating as well as micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of the ink. The results revealed that: the papyrus can be dated to approximately 700 to 800 AD, it is consistent with other papyri from the fourth to the eight centuries, the carbon black ink (actually a type of pigment) was typical of that used on other papyri of the time, and the text did not show any variations or inconsistencies which would suggest doctoring.
The text is written in Sahidic, a language of ancient Egypt, and the study authors have suggested that it may be a transcription of an earlier Coptic text that was based on a Greek copy made centuries earlier, as many early Christian gospels are. Therefore, a date of 700 to 800 AD does not mean that this was the first time the text appeared.
However, scientific analysis is not always enough to convince some. The Harvard Theological review, is also publishing a counter piece by Egyptologist at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, whose paper predates the scientific analysis. According to a report on the story in the New York Times, Dr Depuydt said that testing the fragment was irrelevant and he saw “no need to inspect it”. He said he decided that it is a fake based on a newspaper photograph of the papyrus in which he saw “grammatical errors”, as well as similarity to writing in the Gospel of Thomas. In a rebuttal, King finds Depuydt’s textual analysis unpersuasive.
Dr King has been quick to point out that the test results do not prove that Jesus had a wife or disciples who were women, only that the fragment is ancient rather than forged. She does hope, however, that the discussion, commentary, and focus can now move on from ‘is it fake?’ to ‘what does all this mean?