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Scholar questions authenticity of ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’

New theory raises doubts on historian’s relic

NEW YORK — New evidence discovered by a skeptical young scholar has raised fresh doubts about the authenticity of the scrap of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a relic that has provoked fascination and fury since it was unveiled nearly two years ago by an eminent historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

The latest finding comes only weeks after the Harvard Theological Review published a long-awaited lineup of articles by experts reporting that scientific testing and close examination of the papyrus had found no apparent evidence of forgery.

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But detractors of the Jesus’ wife fragment remained unconvinced, and the contents of those articles gave them new material to investigate.

Even the historian who first brought the papyrus to public attention, calling it a valuable clue that some early Christians believed Jesus was married, said this latest forgery accusation, by an American professor teaching overseas, raises significant concerns and merits further examination, but is only one scenario and is not conclusive.

“This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery,” Karen L. King, the historian at Harvard Divinity School, said in a phone interview, her first since the recent developments. “This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.”

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King first presented her blockbuster paper on what she called the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” at a conference of Coptic scholars in Rome in September 2012. The faded scrap, smaller than a business card, contained two phrases that upended traditional Christian beliefs in its eight lines of text on the front side: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . ’ ” and “she will be able to be my disciple.” King said it was dated to the fourth century.

In an adjacent room at the conference, a young American named Christian Askeland says he was presenting his paper on a Coptic version of the Book of Revelation.

After buzzing with colleagues about the Jesus’ wife papyrus, Askeland returned to Germany, where he is an assistant research professor at Protestant University Wuppertal, and began examining the images King had posted on the Internet in the hope that other scholars would indeed weigh in.

Askeland is an evangelical Christian who is also affiliated with Indiana Wesleyan University, an evangelical college in Marion, Ind., and the Green Scholars Initiative.

That organization was founded by the Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores to study a collection of biblical artifacts amassed by the family for display in a Bible museum they plan to build in Washington.

But Askeland said his doubts on the Jesus’ wife fragment were not prompted by concerns about the content because “there are many gospels, many texts, that say all kinds of things about Jesus.”

Instead, it was the appearance of the fragment — the handwriting, the ink, the letter forms: “Whoever wrote it had different ways of writing the same letter,” he said.

During 2013 and into 2014, as a steady rumble of skeptics kept posting concerns about grammatical anomalies in the Jesus’ wife fragment on the Internet, King escorted the fragment, encased in glass, to the University of Arizona, Columbia, Harvard, and MIT for testing on the papyrus and ink.

Last month, the Harvard Theological Review published the results, saying that radiocarbon tests produced a date of A.D. 659 to 859, and tests using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy found that the ink matched other papyruses that were dated from the first to the eighth centuries.

Askeland discovered among the papers published in the theological review a photograph of a small tattered square of papyrus called the “Gospel of John,” which features strikingly similar handwriting in Coptic to the Jesus’ wife fragment and was tested alongside it. Both fragments were given to King by the same owner.

It happens that Askeland wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge on the Coptic versions of John’s gospel, so he decided to compare this square fragment with another John text called the Codex Qau, an authentic relic that was found in a jar in an Egyptian grave site in 1923.

Amazingly, the text of the small John fragment replicated every other line from a leaf of the Qau codex, and for 17 lines the breaks in the text were identical. It “defied coincidence,” he said.

His theory is that a modern-day forger copied from a photo of the Qua codex off the Internet. If the John text is forged, he reasons, so is the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which seems to be written by the same hand.

Not only that, but he found that both these John texts were written in the Lycopolitan dialect, which experts believe died out before the seventh or eighth century — when the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was supposedly written, according to radiocarbon testing.

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