Thursday, September 20, 2012

Possible forgery, possible Gnostic text, definitely late

No doubt many of you have seen the stories about the fragment from “ the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. The CNN story cites Darrell Bock:

"There's no indication we have that Jesus was married," said Darrell Bock, a senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. "One could say the text is silent on Jesus' marital status is because there was nothing to say." …

Bock agreed with the notion that the text fragment shared similarities with those gospels, called the Gnostic Gospels, which were the writings of an early outlier sect of Christians. He said the text could be referring to a gnostic rite of marriage but "it's a small text with very little context. We don't know what's wrapped around it to know what it's saying."

Bock said it's likely to be a gnostic text if it proves to be authentic. "The whole text needs vetting. She's doing the right thing to release it and let scholars take a look at," he said, adding "it's a little bit like trying to analyze the game in the first quarter."

"It's a historical curiosity but doesn't really tell us who Jesus was," Bock said. "It's one small speck of a text in a mountain of texts of about Jesus."

Michael Kruger has provided an article for The Gospel Coalition. He says:

Here are several considerations.

Forgery is not uncommon in the antiquities market. I am not an expert in Coptic palaeography (my work is in Greek manuscripts), but I had concerns about the initial appearance of the manuscript. In particular, the sloppy nature of the scribal hand, and the wide and undifferentiated strokes of the pen seemed problematic. In addition, the color of the ink seems off---it's too dark, almost as if it were painted. Ancient inks tend to be lighter in color, though there are exceptions. This scenario is exacerbated by the ambiguity about the place of its discovery and the identity of its anonymous owner.

However, according to Karen King's forthcoming paper, this manuscript was examined by Roger Bagnall and AnnMarie Luijendijk, two reputable scholars, who both found it to be authentic and attributed the odd style to the blunt pen of the scribe. Other indications of authenticity are the use of the nomina sacra (abbreviations of certain words) and the faded ink on the back of the page (something that would have required considerable time). But my friend and Coptic scholar, Christian Askeland, is skeptical of its authenticity due to, among other things, the odd formation of some of its letters (particularly the epsilon) and omissions in the Coptic text. Other scholars have also expressed skepticism about the fragment.

At this point, there is no way to know whether it is genuine or a forgery. We cannot be certain until more scholars have an opportunity to examine it.

Assuming for the moment that the manuscript is genuine, questions remain about its composition. First, what kind of document are we dealing with here? At first glance, the document appears to be composed as a gospel-like text that contained stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus seems to be doing what he often does in other gospel texts: he is having a conversation with his disciples. Some scholars have suggested this fragment may be a magical text like an amulet, particularly given its small size. However, amulets normally did not have writing on the back of the page (the verso). If the writing on the back of this fragment is continuous with the front (which is unknown at this point) then it may simply be a miniature codex. Miniature codices were popular in early Christianity and often contained apocryphal texts. …

Most important, there is nothing that would indicate that the composition of this gospel should be dated to the first century. It was produced long after the time of the apostles, along with all other known apocryphal gospels.

Historical Value
The key question is whether this particular gospel account can tell us anything about what Jesus was really like. Does this text prove that Jesus had a wife? Does this gospel provide reliable historical information? No and no. There is no reason to think this gospel retains authentic tradition about Jesus. It is a late production, not based on eyewitness testimony, and likely draws on other apocryphal works like Thomas and Phillip.

Moreover---and this is critical---we do not have a single historical source in all of early Christianity that suggests Jesus was married. None. There is nothing about Jesus being married in the canonical gospels, in apocryphal gospels, in the church fathers, or anywhere else. Even if this new gospel claims that Jesus was married, it is out of step with all the other credible historical evidence we have about his life. As King herself noted, "This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married".

Conspiracies and the Canonical Gospels
Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It would certainly be far more entertaining for our culture if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (e.g., Constantine). But the truth is far less sensational. While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books now in our New Testament canon. Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not arbitrarily "created" by the church in the fourth or fifth century. The affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.

When it comes to these sorts of questions I like to remind my students of a simple---but often overlooked---fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century. Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century---but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And only four gospels meet that standard.


  1. Is anyone else bothered by Prof King's comment:

    "Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said in a statement released by Harvard.

    "No reliable historical evidence exists" seems a coy way of implying there is reliable evidence Jesus *was* married or at least the burden of proof is on those who say Jesus was not married.

    1. Hi Bill -- I don't pay too much attention to things like that. We hear them all the time in political contexts. It's pretty transparent what the media are trying to do with this. I think, though, this one smacks of having their hands in the cookie jar too many times (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc.). That is, people are getting wise to this much more quickly than they used to.

      I understand your concern though.

  2. One of Ron Rhodes' facebook posts:

    Was Jesus married?

    Regarding the New York Times article about a Gnostic fragment stating that Jesus was married...

    Here are the scriptural facts:

    * There is no mention in the New Testament of Jesus being married prior to the beginning of His three-year ministry.

    * There is no mention of Jesus being married during His three-year ministry.

    * There is no mention of Jesus being married at the crucifixion.

    * There is no mention of Jesus being married at His burial.

    * There is no mention of Jesus being married at His resurrection.

    In other words, there is no mention of a wife anywhere in Scripture!

    Aside from this deafening silence regarding a wife are theological arguments against Jesus having been married. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:5 the apostle Paul defends his right to get married if he so chose to do so: "Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas?" Now, if Jesus had been married, surely the apostle Paul would have cited Jesus' marriage as the number-one precedent. The fact that he did not mention a wife of Jesus indicates that Jesus was not married.

    Some try to argue that since it was expected of every Jewish man to get married, then surely Jesus must have followed custom and gotten married. Such an argument is unconvincing.

    First, note that a number of major prophets were never married — including the likes of Jeremiah and John the Baptist.

    Second, note that there were whole communities of Jews which included non-married men — such as the Essene community at Qumran.

    Third, note that Jewish leaders often granted exceptions to the general rule of marriage. It was certainly not an unbending requirement, and hence this general requirement does not constitute proof that Jesus must have been married.

    Further, we must note that Jesus' marriage is yet future. He will one day marry the "bride of Christ," which is the church. Revelation 19:7-9 tells us: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) Then the angel said to me, "Write: 'Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!'" And he added, "These are the true words of God."

    Clearly, the evidence is against Jesus having gotten married in New Testament times.

    Still further, the Gnostic fragment which states that Jesus had a wife is dated very late, hundreds of years after the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Therefore, it can hardly be considered a reliable source for information about Jesus.

    Such Gnostic documents have an uphill battle against the incumbant — that is, the trustworthy New Testament documents. [bold mine, AP]