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Papyrus Mentioning Jesus’ Wife Is Probably a Hoax After All


Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, is interviewed outside the Augustinianum institute where an international congress on Coptic studies is held in Rome, Italy on Sept. 19, 2012.
Image: Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

It turns out that a piece of supposedly ancient papyrus referring to Jesus’ wife is likely a hoax.

Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, published a study in the Harvard Theological Review in April that claimed the document was authentic. (Mashable reported on that in April.) But last week, an American researcher named Christian Askeland, a research associate at the Protestant University Wuppertal in Germany, published a counter-study that even King admits might lead to the conclusion that the text was forged.

King obtained the script referring to Jesus’ wife from an anonymous source, but her study also mentions another document from the same source that became a key factor in Askeland’s subsequent findings. The other text, Askeland says, was clearly a forgery, and the two documents have striking similarities that have become impossible to ignore. If one document is a fake, it’s likely the other one is, too.

“Both of them are in the same handwriting,” Askeland told . “They have the same ink, and they’ve used the same writing instruments.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that scholars say the dialect in the documents was not used during the time King says it was written, and others have called the grammar of the text into question.

Leo Depuydt, a theologian at Brown University, claimed that the text had two important problems in an article also published in the Harvard Theological Review in April.

First, it had two grammatical errors that Depuydt said a scribe would not have made, because the grammatical constructions would not have occurred to him. Second, the phrase “my wife” is written in what appears to be bold letters, which the theologian wrote was strange.

“To be clear, using bold letters for emphasis to my knowledge never occurs in ancient Coptic literary manuscripts; I have never seen it in any documentary texts that have come to my attention,” Depuydt wrote.

But perhaps the single greatest evidence of a hoax comes from what Askeland said is known as the “patchwork theory.”

Askeland said several scholars came to the conclusion that nearly everything written on the Jesus’ wife papyrus was lifted from a 2002 Coptic-to-English translation [PDF] of the Gospel of Thomas, including a typo.

“That really should have ended the discussion, in my opinion, about 18 months ago,” Askeland said.

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