Tuesday, September 25, 2012

More Thoughts on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife

A lot can happen in a week.

Last Thursday, I posted a few words on the recent "discovery" of a Coptic papyrus fragment (erroneously dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife") which purportedly suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was hitched, most likely to Mary the Magdalene.

Since then, I have received several comments on my opinions presented in my last post. Most of those comments have suggested that my previous post lacked one of the primary objections that many people have against the idea of a married Jesus: that is, the notion of sexuality's inherent "dirtiness." How could Jesus have participated in a sexual relationship and yet remained sinless? This is a question for more advanced theologians than myself, but it is duly noted and certainly worthy of consideration. However, I would caution against applying Augustinian sexual ethics to first century Jewish practice. In short, if Jesus was married, it would have been nothing out of the ordinary for him to have engaged in sexual intercourse—in fact, custom would have demanded it for the sake of the continuance of the Jewish people. He would simply have been fulfilling his role as a good husband and a loyal Jew.

In addition to these comments, there have been further developments in the whole discovery saga. A recent post by Craig Evans on the biblioblog Near Emmaus has reported that the Harvard Theological Review has opted not to publish Dr. Karen King's paper on the fragment, presumably amid increasing debate regarding the artifact's authenticity.

I need to reiterate here that I am no papyrologist, nor even a textual critic. My experience in this field is extremely limited. However, that being said, I believe that it is possible for the careful observer to note some physical characteristics of the artifact that might serve as cause for suspicion, or at the very least extreme caution in making any definitive claim regarding the authenticity of the piece. Among the fragment's most notable critics is Francis Watson, Professor of New Testament at Durham University. A few of the objections to the artifact's authenticity listed below have been gleaned from several recent essays by Watson, all of which can be found via Mark Goodacre's blog here.

1. Note the nearly perfect rectangular shape of the fragment. This is unusual—papyri rarely deteriorate in pristine angles. The fragmentation of various samplings of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri or Chester Beatty Papyri (to name a couple of the most well-known ancient papyri sources) indicates that papyrus tends to crumble and tear and develop holes in odd places, possibly due to the initial process used to produce the material. While it is certainly not unusual for whole pages of papyri to remain intact, the shape of fragments is another matter.

2. The calligraphy is shoddily done. Like other writing materials in the ancient world (such as parchment or vellum), manuscript papyrus was not given to any old amateur calligrapher to doodle on. The scribes who painstakingly copied texts took great care in their work. The fragment in question looks as if it were written by a fifth grader with a cheap watercolor brush. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the word tazime, or tahime, which has been translated as "my wife" or "my woman," is instantly recognizable, as it is suspiciously bolded.

3. If one looks closely at the edges of the fragment, as well as the leading and kerning of the text itself, it appears that the text was written on the papyrus after the papyrus was already a fragment. In other words, the text seems crammed into this small piece of material, with very few of the words being sacrificed in the split. In fact, the last couple lines appear to end with the contour of the piece itself. If a papyrus fragment that was part of a larger page of text was to be ripped, it seems unlikely that at least one or two lines would remain uninterrupted by the tear.

4. To my knowledge, the German collector who gave the fragment to Dr. King remains anonymous.

5. Finally, perhaps the most damning evidence of the fragment's forgery is that it appears to be an amalgam of numerous phrases or sentences from the Gospel of Thomas. Further information on this problem can be found among Watson's essays and Craig Evans's recent post on the subject.

Every year, it seems that we are bombarded with new and fantastical information by the media: some new "discovery" of a "Lost Gospel" or a reported "Family Tomb of Jesus" ekes its way into the public forum, and battle lines are quickly drawn between those who are all aboard with the find (who are perceived as exciting and progressive) and those who either require more information to make a solid decision or remain skeptical of the whole thing altogether. The latter are often perceived or portrayed in the media as being traditionalists who cling to outdated beliefs, who let their personal faith or dogma impede their judgment. However, it remains incredibly essential that scholars look upon such sensational claims with a keen, suspicious eye and a level head. It is not a matter of disregarding new information because it conflicts with tradition. It is simply a matter of practicing good scholarship.

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