Lessons from the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Affair

This post is not about the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Wife: it’s been fairly clear for some time, even leaving aside the multiple issues that have been raised about the GJW itself (especially, though not only, through Andrew Bernhard’s tireless efforts), that the accompanying Gospel of John fragment has multiple contraindications of authenticity; given that they appear to be in the same handwriting, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to construct a narrative in which the GJW is not also a modern forgery.

Rather, this post is about some the implications of the entire ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife affair’ which have become apparent since the public revelation that Walter Fritz was the owner of these papyri in the splendid piece by Ariel Sabar in the Atlantic.

Acquisition History, Provenance, and Ownership

This is something which Roberta Mazza has long been stressing, and which Carrie Schroeder highlighted immediately in the wake of the Atlantic article. This is a key lesson, but it’s important not to apply it only to papyri of disputed authenticity, but also to all papyri that do not have a clear archaeological provenance, especially those acquired after 1972 (the date of entry into force of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property). There must be as full as possible transparency about how, and from where, papyri (and related textual artefacts) were acquired.

In her publication of the GJW in the Harvard Theological Review, Karen King provided far more information than most editors of papyri ever do: at most, editors have in the past usually only mentioned basic data, such as the date at which a papyrus entered the collection, and perhaps the dealer from whom it came. More frequently they have said nothing whatsoever about the artefact’s acquisition history. They have not usually included the text of relevant correspondence, or the descriptions of sale contracts; they certainly have not made such documents themselves available for public scrutiny. It is only in cases where the authenticity of a papyrus has been questioned, such as with the Artemidorus papyrus (which most scholars now think is genuine) that such details have been made available. In the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, there was consistent pressure for Karen King to release the scans of the accompanying documentation provided by Walter Fritz to authenticate the collection history of the Gospel of Jesus Wife: once they were available for checking, Ariel Sabar was able to show that, – as suspected by Christian Askeland and others – they actually raised further problems, as at least one of these documents appeared to be itself forged.

So, the lesson should be that all such material that establishes or speaks to provenance or acquisition history should be both detailed in editions, and made publicly available: maximum transparency is required. Yet not everyone is following this. The Museum of the Bible, for instance (which houses the ‘Green collection’ of textual artefacts), has consistently refused to release such documentation, claiming they are commercial-in-confidence, and that doing so would to damage their relationship with their sources. They are saying, in effect, “Trust us”: but many do not, and many will continue to not extend this trust while such information is not released. The Museum of the Bible is not alone in citing such considerations: The British Library once refused to show me an expenditures register that was over 100 years old, which showed not only the dates of acquisition (which are available in other registers on open shelves) but also the names and/or details of the sources of the papyri in it: this was withheld, I was told, because the Library does not say  how much it paid for items or to whom. Some collecting institutions now either make this information available, or provide it readily when asked: this should become standard practice.

Considerable criticism was leveled at Karen King for declining to identify the owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: yet when Geoffrey Smith presented an unpublished papyrus of the Gospel of John at the 2015 SBL Annual meeting, while rightly presenting images of the documentation which established the collection history of the papyrus, he also granted the owner anonymity, as did Dirk Obbink to the owner of the Sappho papyrus he published in 2014. Either granting an owner anonymity is OK, or it isn’t: it’s not only OK when it suits someone to argue it is, and not in other cases.

Ideally, there would be no anonymous collectors: if a collector wishes to have a papyrus published, then s/he should be prepared to be identified as its owner. Ideally too, there should be full transparency of acquisition history, with all the relevant documents available to anyone who wishes to check them. If anyone wants to collect papyri, they should be prepared to say how they acquired them, and allow people to check supporting documentation. Commercial considerations cannot be an excuse for obfuscating or refusing to release such material. And crucially, these considerations relate to all papyri, not just those of disputed authenticity, and all collections, not just private collections.

Disputed provenance does not = forgery

While problems with provenance documentation are a strong indicator that something is amiss, such does not automatically indicate that the item itself is a forgery. Papyrology contains many cases in which the acquisition history of a papyrus, or even of a bigger assemblage, is unclear, where multiple versions of the story exist, or where it is suspected that the story offered is not the full or even real story. The Chester Beatty, the Manichaean papyri said to be from Medinet Madi, the ‘Dishna papers’ mostly in the Bibliotheque Bodmer, and the Nag Hammadi library, all have provenance stories which are unclear, disputed, or in some cases probably or demonstrably invented. Provenance stories were routinely fabricated by dealers, looters, or middle-men to protect their source, and forgery of provenance is increasingly common – much more common, perhaps, than forgery of antiquities itself. What it usually indicates is that the item is not in accordance in some way with the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This does not mean such information should not be investigated, or that it is not important: just that it does not automatically mean that the artefact the document describes is a forgery, still less that the authenticity of every item in the collection is thereby under suspicion: nearly every papyrus collection contains forgeries.

Further Research

While the unmasking of the fragment’s owner has been widely heralded as the ‘end of the story’, it is also just the start of several much more interesting stories. Roberta Mazza’s work on provenance and the trade in papyri has been touched on above; Carrie Schroeder has discussed what the affair means for biblical studies and related fields in a forthcoming treatment (which she has kindly allowed me to read[update: now available here]) in a volume from the 2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium also featuring reflections by Mark Goodacre, James McGrath, and Janet Spittler, which promises to be an important contribution to the debate. Liv Ingeborg Lied has already offered valuable reflections on how online discussion affects the way these debates play out, both online, and at a recent conference at the University of Agder in Kristiansand which I had the pleasure of attending. There are many other examples of such self-reflexive research in press and online, and most of it is very valuable.

Along with these necessary discussions about the implications of this affair for the future of scholarship, one of the chief lessons of the entire affair was the necessity for further research on papyrus forgeries. None of the initial discussions of the papyrus (and here I explicitly include my own) compared it in detail to known forgeries. In part this was because the most commonly known class of papyrus forgeries discussed in the few previous treatments of the subject are nearly all nonsense scribbles, not even in real scripts or languages. Few of these treatments even mention the largest collection of forged papyri, those created by Constantine Simonides in the mid 19th century (though he has been referenced extensively in the debate over the Artemidorus papyrus, as its alleged fabricator). Research on forged papyri (including on the Simonides papyri) is now underway in several places, including work by teams from Macquarie University and the University of Agder (along with other Norwegian institutions), as well as Gregg Schwendner, Tommy Wasserman, and others. This research will not only help us understand papyrus forgeries better, but draw research onto forged papyri into alignment with research on forgery and fakes in many other disciplines.

No less than research on the palaeography, collection history, and the historiographical context of forged papyri, this case highlighted the necessity for further collaborative research with specialists in various analytical techniques, especially analysis of ink. One of the surprises for me was just how little we know about the composition of ancient ink: breezy statements such as ‘ink, the easiest thing to forge’, regularly made during discussion of these papyri, belie the fact there are significant gaps in our knowledge about how ancient inks were made. The holy grail is of course a way to date ink, but in advance of that, work from teams and scientists at Columbia University, Copenhagen, Berlin, and elsewhere, using various techniques (Ramen spectroscopy, XRF, SEM and others) promises to teach us much about a subject on which we know surprisingly less than we might have thought.


Finally, among the disquieting aspects of this affair was the tone evident in some of the discussion : language that was variously unfortunately chosen, polemical, hyperbolic, sexist, loaded, and sometimes wholly unnecessarily vicious was used on all sides of the debate. Not always, certainly, and assuredly not by everyone: but with noticeable frequency. The motives, backgrounds, affiliation (in academic, confessional, and socio-political terms) of some of the scholars involved in the debate was subject to imputation, implication, and worse. Carrie Schroder (in the in-press article I referred to above) and Eva Mroczek have highlighted some of these aspects of the debate, and the implications, but they bear further reflection. In part, this tone was a result of the debate playing out across the media and the internet, when anonymous commenting and the ability to say whatever comes into one’s head allow a far less regulated discussion (and here again the contributions of Liv Lied I mentioned above are important). Much of this democratisation of discussion is for the better; but this does not mean that the manner in which this debate was often conducted should model future such discussions.


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