Divorcing Mrs. Jesus

by by Mary-Evelyn Farrior

illustration by by Mary-Evelyn Farrior

In 2010, a private antiquities collector approached Dr. Karen L. King at the Harvard Divinity School and asked her to investigate a small piece of papyrus that was in his possession. She initially declined the offer, fearing it might be a forgery. The collector, whose identity has not been publicly revealed, persisted and eventually hand-delivered the papyrus to King’s Cambridge office in December 2011.

The anonymous collector’s motives remain unclear­­—no one is certain why he selected King specifically, or why he wanted the papyrus examined at this time. However, this is not the first time the fragment has been given serious consideration by academics. A letter that accompanied the papyrus revealed that in 1982 a professor of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin used this specific fragment as possible evidence for the marriage of Jesus.

Despite its murky past, the papyrus has captured headlines worldwide this month when King officially announced her findings at the 10th International Congress for Coptic Studies in Rome on September 18, 2012. After months of studying the fragment, King believes it to be authentic. Rather than focusing on King’s report that is set to print in The Harvard Theological Review, the world descended upon one line of the papyrus that reads, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’.”

The New York Times and The Boston Globe quickly picked up the story after King’s announcement, and the article was at the top of the ‘most emailed articles’ list of the Times within hours of publication. King referred to the fragment as the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,’ for ease of reference. Soon, that title would headline stories in the nation’s premier papers, with little explanation as to the artificiality of its name. No scholars, not even King, take the papyrus as evidence against Jesus’ celibacy. Instead, King claims, the papyrus shows that some group of Coptic Christians in the fourth century CE wanted to attribute a wife to Jesus.

Yet after the Times article, the scholarly rebuttal had no chance of keeping up with the impossibly fast escalation of the story. Leading Coptic grammarian and Brown University Professor Dr. Leo Depuydt said, “The evening before, when I saw it online [on the Times website] before it was in print, I already knew it was a fake.”


The tiny, golden-hued papyrus in question resembles a flattened piece of shredded wheat. The edges are frayed, and the cacographic letters are fading. The papyrus, measuring a mere four-by-eight centimeters, contains eight incomplete lines on the front and six illegible lines on the back, all written in Coptic. Coptic descends from hieroglyphic Egyptian and more immediately from Demotic Egyptian, which is written in extremely cursive hieroglyphs. Coptic itself, however, is written with the Greek alphabet plus a few characters derived from hieroglyphs. Coptic literature flourished in the time between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, approximately 300 CE to 800 CE. Used throughout Egypt during the rise of Christianity, the language was often a popular choice for Christian texts.

King, who earned her doctorate in Religious Studies from Brown University, specializes in the history of Christianity. Being neither a coptologist nor a papyrologist, she was not able to confirm the authenticity of the papyrus on her own. Once the fragment was in her possession, she started consulting specialists. She began with Ann Marie Luijendijk, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University who studies early Christian papyri. Luijendijk, in turn, contacted eminent American papyrologist Roger Bagnall at New York University. “I have an informal papyrological seminar that meets in my house every two or three weeks, and Ann Marie Luijendijk is a regular member of that seminar,” Professor Bagnall said. “She brought the photos [of the fragment] one evening and asked, ‘What do you think?’ We all sort of stared at it, and our first reaction was, ‘Wow. This is really ugly. Can this be real?’ But as we looked at it in more detail, we came to the conclusion that the handwriting was actually perfectly explicable. It was the handwriting that you could find in a real text of that period.”

After seeing a photo, Bagnall, whose stance on the matter remains of key importance for King’s argument, concluded the papyrus could be authentic. “The papyrus, I think, is surely ancient, but, the thing is, because there are lots of blank papyri in collections around the world, that in itself does not really prove anything,” said Bagnall, who also handled the fragment in person once King carried it to New York in her pocketbook. The ink, he said, was battered and faded and seemed as though it could be thousands of years old. “It would be impossible to forge… A fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap like all the earliest scraps of the New Testament,” Luijendijk told the Harvard News Office.

The three professors thus reached a conclusion. “Our lengthy discussion about the characteristics of the papyrus concluded with the judgment that the papyrus was very likely an authentic ancient text that could be dated on paleographical grounds to circa 4th c. CE,” King wrote in her report.


In August 2012, King submitted a version of her report to The Harvard Theological Review. Despite the evidence provided by King, Bagnall, and Luijendijk, the reviewers questioned the authenticity of the fragment and asked that King have the piece reviewed by an experienced specialist in Coptic papyrology and that the chemical composition of the ink be tested.

King then contacted Coptic expert Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Professor of Linguistics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shisha-Halevy told King in an email, as mentioned in her revised report, “I believe—on the basis of language and grammar—the text is authentic. That is to say, all its grammatical ‘noteworthy’ features, separately or conjointly, do not warrant condemning it as forgery.” The Times used this quote, and included the expert opinion of these four professors as sufficient proof for the authenticity of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.’

The results of the ink test will be revealed in the coming months. Ink tests are the only objective manner of determining the age of the fragment. However, the most accurate kind of test, carbon dating, would cause too much damage to a papyrus of this size. Instead, the only feasible test for the fragment is to examine the chemical composition of the ink with a procedure known as spectroscopy. If synthetic materials are found, then the papyrus is automatically invalidated. However, if the ink is only made of organic materials, then the test remains inconclusive, since ink of that kind could be made during any time period.

In the meantime, King has continued work on her report for The Harvard Theological Review. “Although the authenticity is not absolutely settled beyond any question, we are sufficiently confident to offer our results here,” King wrote in her recently revised report.


Yet, for some, the matter is settled. Professor Leo Depuydt sits in his barren office in the Egyptology Department building at Brown, proud to be playing the role of scholarly detective. Depuydt leaves no room for question. To him the answer is obvious: the fragment is a forgery.  Upon reading the article in the Times, Depuydt cautioned The Harvard Theological Review: “I said literally [in an email to the HTR], ‘The danger of making a fool of oneself is real’.” Taking Depuydt’s comment to heart, The Harvard Theological Review solicited a counter-report from him. Within a matter of days, Depuydt had compiled an independently researched, comprehensive, 14-page report, denouncing any chance of authenticity.  “There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the text … is a patchwork of words and phrases from the published and well-known Coptic Gospel of Thomas… It is therefore clear that the Text is not an independent literary composition at all,” Depuydt wrote in his report. King acknowledged the Gospel of Thomas, but only to the extent that it offers certain phrases similar to those in the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.’

In his report, Depuydt shows, blow by blow, that the vast majority of the text is directly taken from the Gospel of Thomas, and clumsily at that. So careless are the grammatical errors that Depuydt postulates, “An ancient native speaker of Coptic who can select and combine words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas with any understanding could not possibly have produced said grammatical blunders.” Depuydt believes the author is a modern forger, possibly someone intending the controversial marital reference to be tongue-in-cheek. Nothing is known about the forger, but Depuydt suspects the forger may have come out of Germany: “We [Depuydt and a friend] are focusing on Germany and specifically Berlin because that is where the piece first turned up. But no success so far. The forger’s Coptic is not good. So it could be someone in the periphery of scholarship who never became a scholar.”

“I am at peace … I don’t need any papyrus or ink tests. I already know it is a fake,” said Depuydt, but one issue still leaves him unnerved: “The whole problem so far has been that the media has been so much faster on the trigger than the academics and that has not been a good thing.” Depuydt, who was taught by Shisha-Halevy in the ’80s, believes that his former professor’s comment personally confirming the authenticity of the fragment tipped the balance. “[The Times] saw his report as a watershed. You leave the door just a little open, and they blew it open.”


However, the lightning pace that has come to define media today has no prospect of slowing itself down for the sake of scholarship. Within a week of the Times piece that promoted King’s opinion of authenticity, articles have come out from sources such as The Daily Mail and the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano firmly calling the fragment a forgery. Each scholar quoted in the articles-including one from England with whom Depuydt has been in recent contact-reached the same conclusion as Depuydt, albeit less thoroughly. However, these articles are not headlining international news sites with the same intensity as King’s story. “One has the impression that a jet engine just blasted off irretrievably,” said Depuydt. Depuydt’s report is set to print in The Harvard Theological Review in January 2013, alongside King’s report and a rebuttal by King if the ink tests prove inconclusive. It will then be up to the reader to decide whose report is the most convincing.

Mary-Evelyn Farrior B’14 resembles a flattened piece of shreaded wheat.