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Ancient document referencing Jesus’ wife may be a forgery

May 4, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
In April, scientific dating confirmed that papyrus containing references to Jesus having a wife were from ancient times. But new information has emerged to suggest this document could be a forgery. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Michael Peppard of Fordham University about these new findings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We return now for the latest on a story that we brought you several weeks ago. The debate about the authenticity of a document that suggests Jesus was married. For more, we’re joined once again by Michael Peppard, he is professor of religion at Fordham University. So, we were in these exact chairs just before Easter, talking about this potential document that could have huge ramifications for the church. So first of all, if people didn’t watch that episode or didn’t see it online, what’s the document?

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Well the document was offered to Harvard University, Professor Karen King, a while back — a year and a half ago. It’s a small fragment, a Coptic papyrus that talks about Jesus’ wife or Jesus referring to a wife.

What we talked about last time was scientific dating, right, that was putting this in kind of the 7th or 8th century and so we talked about the ramifications of that. What we’re talking about today is really more old fashioned analysis. Old fashioned analysis of handwriting, paleography stuff like that. Because what happened is that there were other documents in the collection that were offered to Harvard, and we knew that a year and a half ago, but we didn’t really know what they were.

We were told they were just kind of run of the mill Greek, Coptic, Arabic papyri, stuff like that. One of these other ones is a fragment of the Gospel of John, a canonical text from the new testament that’s in Coptic, in this fragment. Now, when they scientifically dated to do the Jesus wife papyrus, they also scientifically dated this Gospel of John fragment, as a kind of control group. In the course of doing that, then they put the image of that other fragment up online, on an updated website at Harvard Divinity School.

Okay, so now people had access and they could see that other one as well. Well, now here’s the news, two scholars working in Germany, one American and one Romanian, Christian Askeland and Alin Suciu, they both in analyzing this other fragment — the Gospel of John fragment — have definitively shown that that one is a forgery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay, and so if this is in the same batch, likely both of them are forgeries.

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Right, so this other one was lending credibility that this was a kind of normal collection of someone who just happened to find a blockbuster little scrap of Jesus’ wife. But if this other one is a forgery it takes everything that was initially dubious about the Jesus wife fragment and amplifies our dubiousness I would say. To the point that I have not been able to find really many scholarly defenders of the Jesus’ Wife fragment after the news of this week.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So there were defenders a few weeks ago. How did all these scholars, we’re talking about the Harvard Divinity School, get hoodwinked or bamboozled?

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Well, I think it’s important not to pile on, not to pile on in criticism of professor Karen King. Other scholars saw it as well, it wasn’t just her. The truth is–

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well we all believed it too, don’t get me wrong…

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Right, right. I think in documentary papyri, meaning things that are not Homer or you know, Plato. Things that are handed down that are not literary, there’s a lot more mistakes, there’s a lot more bad grammar and there’s a lot more confusion about authenticity sometimes. And it’s very difficult to sometimes determine what is real or what is not.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So is Harvard standing by this?

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Harvard Divinity School as of last I checked, has not made a statement. Yes, so I mean this is pretty newsy news. This is only a couple days since this has really broken. So I was looking around, I was not able to find a statement by Harvard or by any of the other professors who had seen it with their own eyes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Michael Peppard, professor of religion at Fordham University. Thanks so much.