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Vatican dismisses papyrus referring to Jesus’s wife as ‘clumsy forgery’

Paper says fragment referring to wife is ‘clumsy forgery’

The controversial papyrus fragment contains writing in ancient Egyptian Coptic.

Karen L. King/Harvard University

The controversial papyrus fragment contains writing in ancient Egyptian Coptic.

The Vatican newspaper is dismissing as “a clumsy forgery” the papyrus fragment identified by Harvard professor Karen L. King as a fourth-century Egyptian text portraying Jesus as married.

The current edition of the weekly newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, includes a lengthy analysis by Coptic scholar Alberto Camplani raising questions about the fragment’s unknown provenance and King’s interpretation of its meaning. An accompanying editorial derides King’s argument as “compliant with a contemporary ideology that has nothing to do with ancient Christianity and the figure of Jesus.”

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The development was hardly surprising, given the Catholic Church’s strict adherence to doctrine and tradition and its commitment to a celibate male priesthood. But it drew renewed attention to mounting skepticism among scholars about the fragment’s authenticity.

The Smithsonian Channel said Friday it would postpone pending further scientific testing its premiere of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which refers to the name King gave the fragment. The program was in the making for months and originally scheduled to be broadcast Sunday. A preview for the documentary on the channel’s website called the fragment “one of the most significant discoveries of all time.”

“Our program will take into account the upcoming tests as well as the academic response to the initial announcement,” said Tom Hayden, general manager for the Smithsonian Channel, in a statement. “This will enable us to present a richer and more complete story.”

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A spokesman for the Smithsonian Channel said the decision to delay the broadcast was made earlier this week.

King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, presented a draft paper on the fragment at an international gathering of Coptic scholars in Rome on Sept. 18. It immediately became an international story, the biggest news in early Christian history in recent memory.

King said Friday in a brief e-mail she had no response to the Vatican newspaper’s writings, except to say that “public discussion is continuing.”

Specialists in early Coptic texts are increasingly suspicious about the handwriting, which is wildly irregular, and the content, eight incomplete lines that appear to a number of scholars to be a pastiche of different parts of another early Christian text, the Gospel of Thomas.

Francis Watson, a British scholar who, along with others working independently, has written extensively about the parallels with Thomas, also argues that the broken-off lines are so disjointed that it would be hard to imagine how the missing text could have knit them together.

More likely, he argues, they don’t make sense because they were never part of a larger, authentic text, but rather the work of a forger setting out to create a fragment.

Christian Askeland, a young Coptic scholar who attended the conference in Rome, created a video presentation summarizing the concerns that appears on the blog Evangelical Textual Criticism. Askeland shows close-ups of the handwriting, which he says looks less like the work of a stylus or a calamus, the most typical writing instruments in ancient Egypt, and more like that of a paint brush or marker.

“Something fishy is going on here that we don’t normally see,” he says in the video.

King and two colleagues who worked with her on the initial research, however, have from the outset made some of the same observations as the critics but come to different conclusions.

World renowned papyrologist Roger S. Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, deemed the crude writing the result of a scribe’s “bad pen.”

And King in her paper cited echoes of Thomas as well as other early Christian texts, hypothesizing that they were part of a conversation among early Christians about marriage and celibacy. She also noted last week in an interview that many early gospels repeated and retold one another’s stories.

Bagnall, widely regarded as one of the world’s top papyrologists, and who concluded that the fragment was probably authentic, was traveling Friday and unavailable for an interview, but he said in a brief e-mail that he awaited further testing of the document.

AnneMarie Luijendijk another distinguished papyrologist and professor of religion at Princeton University who also contributed to King’s research and who, like Bagnall, concluded that the fragment was probably genuine, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment Friday.

The papyrus is undergoing carbon-dating, but those tests will not reveal whether the ink was applied in ancient or modern times. The ink itself cannot be carbon-dated because testing would essentially require destroying the fragment, which is just a bit smaller than a business card.

Tests can reveal whether the chemical composition of the ink includes compounds that would not have been available to ancient scribes. Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies will begin performing the tests in mid-October, King said earlier this week. She said it is not clear when the results will be ready.

The L’Osservatore Romano editorial criticized King and Harvard, who offered interviews in advance of King’s presentation to the Globe, the New York Times, and Harvard Magazine, for trumpeting “a world-wide scoop that nonetheless immediately was challenged by specialists.”

King said she was trying to elevate the public discussion of the story by offering a complete picture of her research, which she repeatedly emphasized was not evidence that Jesus was actually married, but rather that some early Christians thought he was.

Camplani, in his analysis, cautioned that because nothing is known about the fragment’s origins — its owner wishes to remain anonymous and claims to know nothing about where it was found, according to King — “it is necessary to take numerous precautions, to establish reliability of it, and exclude the possibility that it is a counterfeit.”

Camplani also takes issue with King’s view that the fragment suggests that a variety of early Christian authors may have seen Jesus as married. “These are entirely metaphorical expressions,” he writes, “. . . which are reflected very broadly in the Bible and in early Christian literature.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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