The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Fiasco Lessons from the headline-grabbing forgery that duped Harvard’s oldest endowed professor and enthralled the media Christian AskelandDan Brown famously spun his Da Vinci Code yarn in which Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor, demonstrated that Jesus Christ actually married Mary Magdalene. In a tale stranger than fiction, Brown’s dream came true through the now-infamous Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which ironically was promoted through a Harvard professor. Inscribed in Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet, this papyrus fragment became the most recent in a series of spectacular fakes designed to shock faithful Christians and churn the mainstream media with fantastic headlines. This is the story of the attempted ruse and what we can learn from it. The Story Breaks In 2012, I attended the International Coptic Congress in Rome, Italy, a normally staid event tragically marred on this occasion by media sensation and disinformation about what came to be called the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment. Public relations staff at Harvard University had coordinated a news blitz at our conference of two hundred scholars without first consulting the conference organizers. No scholar at the conference could produce a viable comparison for the fragment’s ugly writing in a known, authentic manuscript. Nobody wanted to defend its authenticity, and most people ridiculed the thing openly. The Vatican hosted several of our events, and the major theme of the congress suddenly became this obvious forgery of a Coptic fragment in which Jesus alludes to his wife. In English, the fragment reads: … My mother she gave to me L[ife] …… The disciples said to Jesus …… denies. Mary is [not] worthy of it …… Jesus said to them “My wife” …… she will not be able to be a disciple to me and …… Let a man the which bad let no T[?] …… I myself am with her concerning …… an image … The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus was written in a very crude Coptic script. Photo from Wikipedia Because the forger did not employ a modern equivalent to ancient cedar oil, the ink lacked viscosity, running to-and-fro like a failed pastel painting from your childhood. Unlike real papyrus-inscribed text, which is made with reed pens, this writing resembled that of a paint brush. The character forms did not parallel ancient literary styles like one would find in a biblical manuscript or ancient documentary styles like a business document or private correspondence. The papyrus, which could easily have been purchased from eBay, seemed ancient, but the text had all the appearances of a cheap fake. But why let facts get in the way of a good story! None of the reporters seemed to care about our concerns, except to the extent that they had been prepped for a shocked response from religious conservatives. The expectation was that this discovery would potentially overthrow patriarchal views on celibacy and on women-in-ministry, and would further demonstrate that the orthodox tradition suppressed a distinctly feminist Christianity. The expectation was that this discovery would … further demonstrate that the orthodox tradition suppressed a distinctly feminist Christianity. Of the two hundred scholars at the conference, perhaps fifty specialized directly or indirectly in manuscripts and ancient writing. The reporters had not really come to hear our opinions, though, since their articles were already written, based solely on feedback from select sources. The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Smithsonian broke the story, highlighting the Harvard credentials of the lead scholar and the supposed vetting by various other experts. Not by accident, the announcement occurred a stone’s throw away from Vatican City, seemingly with the support of the gathered scholars. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Problems Emerge for Jesus’ Wife In reality, two world class specialists (Bentley Layton and Stephen Emmel) had already identified this papyrus as a probable forgery, formally rejecting an article submitted to the Harvard Theological Review weeks before the Rome conference. The journal editors simply ignored the peer reviewers’ opinions and pushed forward. Within days of the Rome announcement, however, the blogosphere caught on fire with specialized experts from Europe and North America tearing the forgery into metaphorical shreds. Although the forger had not yet been identified, Andrew Bernhard, an independent researcher who had formerly studied at Oxford, created the “Patchwork Hypothesis,” demonstrating that the forgery had created the Gospel of Jesus’ text by using a 2002 PDF of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas he found online. In only a few weeks, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife debacle seemed to have imploded, and authenticity no longer seemed defensible. Headlines from the initial announcement sensationalized the idea that Jesus had a wife. For many, Christmas and Easter involve remembering Christ’s Advent and his resurrection. For the secular media, these seasons too often represent an occasion to float absurd theories about Jesus. The Harvard Theological Review partnered once again with the Smithsonian, The New York Times and The Boston Globe to resurrect Jesus’ wife fragment from the dead. How, you might ask, could they do such a thing, when the papyrus had so conclusively been proven a forgery? In the context of a dedicated issue of the Harvard Theological Review as well as a professional webpage, Harvard PR executed a two-fold strategy. First, the publications completely and totally ignored the Patchwork Hypothesis just as they had previously ignored the peer reviewers. Second, the scholars used their various networks to produce a variety of scientific results which in retrospect were misconstrued to demonstrate authenticity. Two weeks before Easter, the world would see a Smithsonian documentary demonstrating that science had validated the scholarly opinions from Harvard. Although carbon dating did place the papyrus roughly between 600–800 AD, skeptics had never argued that the papyrus material was anything other than ancient. Ultra-high resolution showed that the character Alpha which represented the my in “my wife …” was not altered, yet no scholar had ever suggested as much. Raman spectroscopy demonstrated chemical similarity between the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ink and the ink on a Gospel of John fragment from the same collection. It showed the presence of soot (or graphite) in both inks, a feature expected in the case of a modern forgery. Somehow, several pictures of this Gospel of John fragment, later known as the Harvard Lycopolitan John, appeared on the Harvard website, and, because of these pictures, Jesus’ Wife was once again proven a forgery. Cracking the Related Case Because I wrote my doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge on the Coptic versions of John’s Gospel, I’ve had a longstanding interest in this accompanying John fragment. Harvard did not respond to requests for an image of the Coptic John fragment which had been mentioned in the original presentation. The fragment would have been useful to a colleague of mine who was constructing a critical edition of the Sahidic Coptic gospel of John. When the pictures appeared on the website, naturally my interest was piqued. The vowels were all wrong, immediately alerting me to the Lycopolitan dialect of the Coptic. Normally, one expects the Sahidic dialect in Coptic papyri, and only two papyri preserve John’s Gospel in Sahidic. The Qau Codex contains most of John’s Gospel and is easily accessible online, especially if one googles “earliest Coptic manuscript.” The Lycopolitan John fragment showed even clearer signs of forgery. Image source This new forgery, the Harvard Lycopolitan John, had been directly copied from the internet PDF of the Qau Codex, duplicating every line break and erring conspicuously at the turn of a digital page. Where the editor of the Qau codex had restored text with impossible suggestions, the forger reproduced these same impossibilities. The Harvard Lycopolitan John preserved the same ink and the same handwriting as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. None of this had occurred to the scholars affiliated with the Harvard publication, nor had they considered that Lycopolitan had disappeared no later than the sixth century. Lycopolitan should not appear on a piece of papyrus harvested in between 600–800 AD. If this second papyrus was a fake and used the same ink and scribe, then most papyri must be fakes. Other scholars rightly referred to this new discovery as the “smoking gun.” In 2016, Ariel Sabar identified the forger in an explosive piece for The Atlantic. His subsequent book tells the whole sordid tale in gripping detail. Lessons Learned According to satirical comedian Stephen Colbert, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Conservatives, the feeling sometimes goes, rely on pseudo-science and are skeptical of climate change, evolutionary theory, and big government’s role in solving society’s problems. Liberals, however, are thought to act as servants of reason and the envoys of human progress who advance their mission for the common good, even the good of those conservatives who tragically cannot accept reality. This is, at least, how some present the matter. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife story is a tragic tale of confirmation bias, this time on the liberal side. Colbert’s notion arose as a joke at the 2006 Correspondent’s roast of President Bush, but today it has too often metastasized into overt policy at secular colleges in North America which are designed to exclude conservatives by painting them as beyond the pale. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife story is a tragic tale of confirmation bias, this time on the liberal side. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the larger echo chamber of liberal apologetics at secular private and public colleges that too often marginalize religious and social conservatives.