Given our recent discussions on "How to study History", my students should be able to identify elements of historical methodology in this article. Issues we discussed; evidence, primary sources, and Context are all mentioned in the article in one fashion or another. Fascinating!
A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife
They examined the scrap under sharp magnification. It was very small — only 4 by 8 centimeters. The lettering was splotchy and uneven, the hand of an amateur, but not unusual for the time period, when many Christians were poor and persecuted.
It was written in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses Greek characters — and more precisely, in Sahidic Coptic, a dialect from southern Egypt, Dr. Luijendijk said in an interview.
What convinced them it was probably genuine was the fading of the ink on the papyrus fibers, and traces of ink adhered to the bent fibers at the torn edges. The back side is so faint that only five words are visible, one only partly: “my moth[er],” “three,” “forth which.”
“It would be impossible to forge,” said Dr. Luijendijk, who contributed to Dr. King’s paper.
Dr. Bagnall reasoned that a forger would have had to be expert in Coptic grammar, handwriting and ideas. Most forgeries he has seen were nothing more than gibberish. And if it were a forgery intended to cause a sensation or make someone rich, why would it have lain in obscurity for so many years?
“It’s hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this. The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists,” Dr. Bagnall said.
The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom — most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit, Dr. Bagnall said.
Much of the context, therefore, is missing. But Dr. King was struck by phrases in the fragment like “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it,” which resemble snippets from the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. Experts believe those were written in the late second century and translated into Coptic. She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second-century Greek text.
The meaning of the words, “my wife,” is beyond question, Dr. King said. “These words can mean nothing else.” The text beyond “my wife” is cut off.
Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition.
Dr. King submitted her paper to The Harvard Theological Review, which asked three scholars to review it. Two questioned its authenticity, but they had seen only low-resolution photographs of the fragment and were unaware that expert papyrologists had seen the actual item and judged it to be genuine, Dr. King said. One of the two questioned the grammar, translation and interpretation.
Ariel Shisha-Halevy, an eminent Coptic linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was consulted, and said in an e-mail in September, “I believe — on the basis of language and grammar — the text is authentic.”
Major doubts allayed, The Review plans to publish Dr. King’s article in its January issue.
Dr. King said she would push the owner to come forward, in part to avoid stoking conspiracy theories.
The notion that Jesus had a wife was the central conceit of the best seller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” But Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the code or its author: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”