Larry Hurtado Provides an Excellent Summary of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Results in Harvard Theological Review

The so-called

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, a Coptic papyrus fragment whose authenticity is in dispute. Harvard Theological Review has recently dedicated an entire issue to the issue of the fragment’s authenticity.

Please make note of Dr. Larry Hurtado’s post, entitled, “Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts“, which provides an excellent summary of the recent tests published in Harvard Theological Review.

Do read his post. I’ll provide a few snippets from his post here, specifically those concerning the scientific results, and one summarizing what this all means.

On the scientific tests:

As for the scientific tests, those on the ink produced results consistent with the item being old, not modern.  The two radio-carbon tests, however, are both a bit puzzling and interesting.  The proposed dates of the two tests are out from each other by several hundred years.  The one report (by Hodgins) notes the curious date-result (405-350 BCE and/or 307-209 BCE), about a thousand years earlier than the date from the other carbon-dating test (659-969 CE), and Hodgins suggests some kind of contamination of the sample.  But I’d assume that a contamination would come from something later than the ancient setting, and so skew the date later, not earlier.

Note that in Gregory Hodgins‘ report, the AMS radiocarbon results read:

Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination of Papyrus Samples
Gregory Hodgins,
NSF Arizona AMS Laboratory, University of Arizona

Sample Gospel of John  (for comparison purposes)
δ13C −9.2‰
Fraction of modern carbon: 0.8568±0.0033
Uncalibrated Radiocarbon Age: 1242±31 14C yrs BP
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 681 cal c.e. to 877 cal c.e.

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife
δ13C −14.3‰
Fraction of modern carbon: 0.7526±0.0035
Uncalibrated Radiocarbon Age: 2283±37 14C yrs BP (before present) 2 sigma,
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 405 cal b.c.e. to 350 cal b.c.e., OR
95.4% Calibrated age ranges: 307 cal b.c.e. to 209 cal b.c.e.

Thus, the calibrated AND uncalibrated ranges place the sample to 400-200 yrs BCE.

Note that Dr. Hurtado also points out Dr. King’s note on the later, less ancient dating of the fragment.

To come to Prof. King’s article (the main piece in the issue), I think she takes a careful line, seeking to defend her view that the item on balance seems authentic, but trying to take account of data that require some modification of her earlier judgements, and granting in the end that complete certainty is not possible.  Prominent in the modifications of her earlier view is the intriguing statement in the appended note at the end of the article that the carbon-dating (taking the dating by Tuross) now seems to demand a date sometime in the 8th century CE (not the 4th/5th century CE dating in her earlier paper).  As she notes, this takes us well into the Islamic period of Egypt, and so raises the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.

And what does this all mean? Hurtado states:

Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studiesContrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.

I’d also draw your attention to Dr. Leo Depuydt’s rebuttal, which was first outlined at Dr. Mark Goodacre’s blog here.

The fact is, the results of the scientific tests are highly inconclusive, and even if the ink and the papyrus are “ancient”, the dates on the scientific tests range from a period from centuries before the time of Christ, written by a poorly trained scribe with a bad hand, all the way to a period “well into the Islamic period of Egypt”, raising “the question of whether, in fact, the fragment might reflect in some way the influence of Islamic ideas about Jesus.”

Add this to the possibility that a forger scraped ink from an ancient inkwell (these things exist – see the final paragraphs of Dr. Jim Davila’s post here) and rehydrated the ink, and wrote it on an ancient fragment of papyrus from a different period, copying onto it text from a pdf of the Gospel of Thomas available online, which preserved errors present in the pdf. (See Francis Watson’s article on Dr. Goodacre’s site.)

See also Dr. Chris Rollston’s post about this process, especially where he states:

Also, it is also possible for someone to scrape off (e.g., from a papyrus) ancient ink from the words of some mundane ancient inscription….and then add a little water to the dried ink which had been scrapped off and then resuse the ink. Some people (including some scholars) assume that modern forgers are not all that bright (and thus would not be that clever in forging something). In contrast, I believe that modern forgers (at least from the final quarter of the 20th century and on) are quite sharp…..and for good reason they try to be very clever: after all, there is much money to be made and modern forgers knows this….so, as for this piece, I remain very suspicious of its authenticity. Perhaps it’s ancient….but I doubt it.

So expect to hear those heavily invested in the authenticity of the fragment (e.g., those who really want Jesus to have been married to Mary Mags for various, often financial reasons) to declare victory and that the fragment was proved “authentic”, and those who have no skin in the game to remain highly skeptical about the highly inconclusive results and the persistent problems with the text.

Happy Easter.


16 Responses

  1. […] Be sure to read Jim Davila’s comments as well as the Harvard articles linked above. UPDATE: The blogosphere and news sources have been picking up the story left, right, and center. And so I am adding links as appropriate to further thoughts by Larry Hurtado, Brice Jones, Daniel Burke on CNN’s Belief Blog, Tony Burke, John Byron, Jared Calaway, Chris Skinner, Katie Grimes, James Tabor, and G. W. Schwendner (twice, albeit both briefly). See also now the cautionary remarks of Christopher Rollston, Kushana Torumekia, and Bob Cargill. […]

  2. Why can’t you just admit you were wrong?

    This isn’t a big deal. Somebody in antiquity wrote something that refers to Jesus having a wife. People wrote a lot of things about Jesus in antiquity, most of which can only loosely be tied to the historical figure (if at all). The vast majority of ancient writings about Jesus reflect the authors thoughts, not what Jesus did or said.

    Nobody is claiming that this is proof that Jesus was married. Nobody. Maybe it is evidence that the idea isn’t as unlikely as people thought it was. That can be debated.

    But the way you fight every new discovery as if it is some massive fraud, and how you malign most every person who comes out with a discovery, is truly unbecoming of a scholar.

  3. This is not correct on two levels.

    1) I don’t “fight every new discovery as if it is some massive fraud”. I tout all kinds of new discoveries. I do, however, join the chorus of scholars who are skeptical of sensationalized claims regarding discoveries that are not discovered in situ, came to light through anonymous antiquities dealers, and the scientific analysis on which is inconclusive.

    2) I don’t care if Jesus had a wife. IF Jesus existed, then whether or not he had a wife is not an issue to me. In fact, there are a lot of literary traditions that come long after Jesus that suggest he did.

    The goal is not to debunk every new claim, but rather about applying the scientific method and critical analysis to every new claim. Those that pass are acknowledged as credible by scholarship. Those that do not, however, and cause many to raise eyebrows about, let’s say, the poor grammar used in the fragment, or the fact that it copies typographical errors found in a pdf copy of the the Gospel of Thomas, or that the dates of the fragment date to 200-400 years before, or 7-8 centuries after Jesus, etc. etc., are treated with caution.

    I admit that I’m wrong all the time. But I’ve learned that we shouldn’t take the media’s word for it. Read the actual articles. Read the data. Read the scholarly summaries to see if anyone outside those making the claim are buying the claim.


  4. We are at the point of adding a new item to the collection of items that constitute folklore re: Jesus.

    . . . and that’s about all we can say at the moment, IMO

    This document is perty goldurn old . . . yep yep.

  5. […] XKV8R: Larry Hurtado Provides an Excellent Summary… […]


    I am not convinced and would appreciate any response you might offer.

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Bob, the scientific analysis of this is not inconclusive. In this case, you seem to be unwilling to accept it, and the rebuttal highlighted by Marc Goodacre and published by Havard is notable by it’s focus on grammar.

    It seems to me that you do care if Jesus had a wife, and as much as it is inexplicable it is pretty obvious why. Hint: it has to do with the “chorus.”

    Your focus on “sensationalized claims” is also odd. Sensationalized is of course a subjective, not scientific, term. You seem to equate media coverage with lack of credibility, which has no basis in science or fact.

    First of all, whatever the media as a whole decides is worthy of coverage is not up to the source. Second, some things deserve media attention. The public is largely ignorant about matters of biblical archaeology, coverage in my mind is a good thing. Third, there is no correlation between coverage and truth.

    And who are you to decide what constitutes the proper level of press coverage? That’s the heart of the matter.

  8. Paul,

    This is simply not true. The Arizona AMS radiocarbon lab resulted in dates from 400-200 BCE. The Harvard lab resulted in dates from the 8th-10th C. CE.
    EITHER WAY, the text, while made of ‘ancient’ products, is nowhere near to the date we’d expect a ‘gospel’ of Jesus’ wife.

    Larry Hurtado has already said all of this. Read him there.

    Second, why would I equate media coverage with lack of credibility? This makes no sense (although you do hedge a bit with ‘seems’). I do TV. I have no problem with TV. Or media coverage. I have a HUGE problem with bypassing the peer review process. All of these tests should have been done over the last two years – before they announced it and signed the documentary deal. Otherwise, it’s just some pseudoarchaeologist like Simcha making ridiculous claims and selling books and documentaries. Dr. King is well respected. She brought to light a new fragment. And now, a few years later, we’ve begun the process of the analysis. And the results are all over the map.

    But I love media coverage of archaeology. I just want them to get it right. And I want them to report it properly. Head Larry Hurtado’s post. The results are inconclusive. Note the weasel words on the part of the media (therefore the press release and interviews). The document (i.e., the materials) are ‘ancient’ (that is, dating somewhere between 400 BCE and 900 CE). And we’ve said all along that the materials appear to be authentic.

    Besides, at the end of the day, even Dr. King says that the fragment speaks to nothing about the historical Jesus, whether or not he had a wife, nada! Even if it’s authentic, and some ancient 9th C dude wrote it, it’s a subsequent legend.

    But methinks it’s a fake. You can conclude that it’s ‘ancient’. Either way, it tells us nothing more than during the Islamic period, someone attributed to Jesus the sentence, “my wife…”.

    cheers, bc

  9. See also


    It’s not just me, it’s most scholars. And it’s not about being part of the ‘chorus’, it’s about the scientific method.

    Many of Dr. King’s original claims are now dead. The mss. is likely much later than originally thought (if it is authentic).

    Again, it’s not about debunking sensational claims. It’s about submitting ALL claims to the same process that ALL scholars should submit ALL claims.

  10. Dear Bob,
    Thanks for the link! On the matter of the ink, I will post next week. I am convinced that the tests actually prove the opposite of what they suggest. Pure carbon ink is exactly what a forger would use. What forger would buy commercial carbon ink?! We have ancient lists of ingredients for the process, as well as all the basic ingredients. Falsifying the ink would, in my opinion, have been simple. I think that the spectroscopy evidence has been overplayed. (The forger really should have put a bit of iron in somehow!)

  11. It’s pseudoarchaeology. Look who wrote it. He’s neither a scholar, nor an archaeologist. His claims are full of holes. It’s utter nonsense. Do you hear any other scholar making this claim? Anyone else rallying to support it? This is the same guy who claims to have discovered the nails of the cross, Atlantis, the route of the Exodus, the tomb of Jesus (with Jesus inside), etc. Ignore it.

  12. Bob, I think there is a huge gap between what you think you are saying and how it comes across to someone on the outside of all this.

    You are right, it makes no sense that you equate media coverage with lack of credibility (don’t you appear on “Ancient Aliens?”), but, believe me, it comes across that way very strongly.

    Your last post you repeated almost exactly what I said about the significance of the fragment, and made it sound as if I was arguing the opposite position. Again, I said nobody has claimed that this fragment is dispositive. I don’t disagree with the substance of your position on that, so why do you make it sound as if I do?

    Also, you dance around the word “ancient.” To me, any time between 400 BC and 900 AD is ancient. I don’t think it is controversial to think this fragment is ancient, but maybe you can enlighten me about whether that word has a specific time period associated with it in scholarly circles.

    You say you want the media (which, as you know, is a broad term that includes a huge variety of outlets) to get it right. But what’s right? I’ve been reading this stuff for decades. Nobody in archaeology agrees on much. In context, you want them to report only your opinion, which you assume to be right.

    Another thing: you link to like-minded scholars as if the number of people having the same opinion is meaningful. C’mon. There is a relatively small group of scholars who link to each other and quote each other. The fact that a bunch of people cite the same source doesn’t give that opinion more validity. In reality, it is only one or two opinions getting passed around. The vast majority of scholars don’t have blogs nor get publicly involved in Internet spats. Even if you truly were in some large bloc, truth is not about majority opinion.

  13. Again,

    1) You’re essentially saying that you didn’t understand what I was saying. And now that you’re cool with what I’m saying (and you see that MANY other scholars are saying the same thing, despite whatever the press or a few other scholars said), then it’s my fault that you didn’t understand it. Ok…

    2) I don’t dance around the word ‘ancient’. I’m pointing out that some of the HTR articles and the press ‘danced around the word ‘ancient”. So some tests couldn’t find a smoking gun that it was a poorly executed forgery, and that the materials used to make it were ‘ancient’. This means nothing, especially given the fact that ‘ancient’ now apparently means Islamic period, and NOT 4th C. CE like Dr. King originally proposed.

    3) Scholars disagree about a great many things. And there are a great many things we still cannot explain. But that does NOT mean that therefore ANYTHING is possible. We don’t know how gravity works, but that doesn’t mean that a theory suggesting a troll at the center of the earth with a giant vacuum is a valid theory. Scholars may disagree on things, but we do insist that certain scientific and critical methods be followed. This keeps the nonsense from creeping in.

    4) And of course I link to like minded scholars – even to those with whom I disagree on many topics. AND, I’ll take the time to debunk ridiculous claims made by pseudoscholars. This is why we say you can’t always trust what the media says about a film maker’s claims, especially when the film maker used his PR team to release press releases to the media after bypassing the scholarly process of peer-review.

    The fact is, I believe a majority of scholars do not buy the claims of authenticity of this fragment. I believe that number will increase. And even if it IS ‘authentic’ (as defined by what? that it is ‘ancient’…meaning Islamic period??), even those who believe it to be ‘authentic’ state emphatically that it offers absolutely zero credible new information supporting the claim that Jesus was married. The ‘authentic’ camp claims that, not the skeptics. Those who believe the fragment to be ‘ancient’ state that it offers nothing in terms of evidence that Jesus was married.

    So again, we’re about where the original skeptics were two years ago:
    1) It still may be a forgery, even if the materials (as we’d expect from a good forger) are ‘ancient’)
    2) The fragment came to light from an anonymous dealer, therefore the fragment is unprovenanced.
    3) The Sahidic Coptic is not well executed (and appears to follow the G.Thomas, including unique typos extant in a pdf copy of G.Thom. available online).
    4) It’s meaningless in terms of evidence/support that Jesus was married.
    5) The peer-review process was not followed two years ago as it is doing now.

    That’s been our point all along. And what did the scientific results offer? What do we know now about the fragment that scholars didn’t say 2 years ago?

    I refer you to your opening line: “I think there is a huge gap between what you think you are saying and how it comes across to someone on the outside of all this.”

    You are essentially conceding that I am not a lone wolf on all this, refusing to admit that I’m wrong, and not accepting any sensational claim, but as this story develops, you’re beginning to see an increasing number of scholars saying the same thing, and YOU simply didn’t understand it, and therefore *I* don’t realize “how it comes across.”

    I’ve been saying the same thing. And I and a whole bunch of scholars don’t think we’re ‘wrong’ about our objections. (Remember: that’s how this exchange began: “Why don’t you just admit you’re wrong…” Remember?)

  14. Forgery implies an intent to deceive. Who was the author of the fragment trying to deceive in 800 c.e.? This forger used ancient materials knowing sometime in the future carbon testing would be developed?

    Dr. King cannot be faulted for prematurely announcing this discovery because she could not, nor can anyone else, predict what will capture the imagination of us common folk. The media is merely the expression of our limited attention span. This cannot be controlled or manipulated.and to even try is almost megalomaniacal. I wish biblical scholars would have more confidence in our ability to think for ourselves. The scientific analysis has convinced me that this fragment was written in the 8th century and is not a modern forgery. IMO the grammatical error has another explanation that has yet to be uncovered.

  15. It’s probably not easy for an amateur or forger to get access to AMS, but if determined enough it should be possible to get ink/soot dated beforehand. In that case I would ‘just’ get two samples either side of the desired date and mix them in the necessary ratio to match the age of the papyrus.

  16. Upon reading the various opinions of the carbon tests, it appears the results are going to be disregarded.

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