Opinion: ‘Jesus’ Wife’ papyrus a forgery? You’re a sexist!

As evidence has mounted that “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” — that tiny papyrus fragment that has Jesus saying, “My wife ... " — may well be a clever forgery, some scholars who study early Christianity have arrived at surprisingly strong agreement about what stance to take on the issue.



An earlier version of this post suggested that Eva Mroczek’s article in Religion Dispatches was printed after Christian Askeland edited the word “ugly” out of his blogpost. In fact, the article appeared first.


And no, their stance isn’t that Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King, to whom the papyrus was handed by a mysterious anonymous donor, was likely bamboozled by some fraud artists using a scrap of old papyrus and mimicking ancient ink to churn out a text in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. Nor is it that maybe the evidence of forgery isn’t so strong as the critics contend, and that we ought to withhold judgment until more evidence emerges or more scholars weigh in to assess what evidence we already have.

No, the stance seems to be that any scholar — no matter how impressive the credentials or carefully supported the argument — who dares to assert forgery with respect to the Jesus’ Wife fragment is a misogynist with an “agenda” for raising the claim. Because, you see, King is a woman, and you can’t criticize a woman, ever.


And that goes double if you, as a scholar, also happen to be an evangelical Christian or any other sort of traditionally believing Christian. I’ve counted 10 different university-level scholars chiming in on two different online sites to heap coals upon the head of anyone who dares to think that King made a mistake, or that she should have consulted a wider range of experts before she helped the Smithsonian turn the papyrus scrap into a television documentary (which finally aired May 5) rather than afterward, as she did.

The main target of the scholarly witch hunt is Christian Askeland, an expert in Coptic handwriting who has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge and is affiliated on a research basis with two other universities. Askeland was one of the first to doubt the authenticity of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, which King had said she believed dated from the 4th century AD. He was quickly joined by other scholars, including Francis Watson, a New Testament professor at the University of Durham, who pointed out that the rest of the crudely written text of the fragment appeared to have been copied from a 1970 published edition of “The Gospel of Thomas,” a genuinely ancient Coptic document. Those criticisms were enough to persuade the Smithsonian to postpone its documentary, originally scheduled to air on Sept. 30, 2012, until Harvard could run some scientific tests on the papyrus and its ink.

The Harvard-commissioned carbon-dating tests revealed that the papyrus was indeed ancient, although not quite as ancient as King had maintained: probably from the 8th century AD, not the 4th. The ink couldn’t be carbon-dated, but its chemical composition seemed authentically old-style. The Smithsonian went ahead with its documentary.

But Askeland, along with Mark Goodacre, a New Testament professor at Duke University, examined photos of a twin papyrus scrap that the anonymous donor had also given King (essentially the same carbon date and “identical” or “extremely close” handwriting, in the words of King’s own expert, papyrologist Roger Bagnall of New York University) and noticed that the twin fragment appeared to have been copied virtually line for line from a Coptic version of the canonical Gospel of John published during the early 20th century.

Cased closed on the forgery issue for Jesus’ Wife, right? Or, maybe, case still open because there might be a plausible explanation for both fragments’ apparent mimicry of recently published texts? Noooo. It’s all about sexism and misogyny directed at Karen King.

On May 5, the online magazine Religion Dispatches, published by USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, featured an article by Eva Mroczek, a religious studies professor at Indiana University, complaining about the title of one of Askeland’s blog posts: “Jesus Had an Ugly Sister-in-Law.” Illustrated by a Walt Disney still of Cinderella’s homely siblings (stepsisters, not sisters, but close), Mroczek’s article took Askeland to task for “the sexist language — the use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppy, forged, worthless text.”

Poor Askeland! Bet he never thought that calling a scrap of papyrus “ugly” was a misogynist attack on women! Even Bagnall had deemed the Jesus’ Wife fragment “ugly” in a 2012 interview in the Boston Globe. Mroczek had earlier taken Askeland to task about the word “ugly” in a comment on his blog post. And after Mroczek’s article appeared, he edited the word out of the post’s title.

But that wasn’t all that Mroczek had to say about either him or the issue. In her article for Religion Dispatches, she griped that the Smithsonian magazine, in a 2012 profile of King, had noted her “gray-streaked hair” and “loose clothing” — as though no journalist in the history of print had ever tried to humanize a subject with telling details about the subject’s personal appearance.

Furthermore, Mroczek highlighted Askeland’s evangelical Christian faith and pointed out that he was part of a “Green Scholars Initiative” funded by Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. That’s the evil Hobby Lobby, with its case before the Supreme Court challenging a Health and Human Services rule requiring employers to pay for contraceptives for their employees that Hobby Lobby believes are abortifacients.

Numerous other scholars have been only too happy to jump onto the smear campaign against Askeland and others who have faulted King for over-eagerness to accept the authenticity of the Jesus’ Wife fragment and orchestration of a Smithsonian documentary before having the fragment fully vetted by a range of Coptic experts. She had revealed the fragment’s existence to only a handful of scholars (one of whom was Bagnall) and didn’t go public with it until after the Smithsonian documentary was made and scheduled to air in 2012. She had seemed to be motivated by a desire for maximum publicity for herself and Harvard.

On a pro-King Facebook thread started by Notre Dame religion professor Candida R. Moss, David Brakke, a history of Christianity professor at Ohio State, denounced the “casual use of misogynistic metaphors and the subtle diminishment of female scholars.” Another religion professor, Carrie Schroeder of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, revealed that “some of us had already been saying this [that King had been singled out for criticism solely on the basis of her sex] on social media or in emails to various people involved.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if some of these professors, instead of expending their time, energy and emails sitting in judgment of the “misogynistic” critics of the professional decisions of a highly paid star Harvard professor, did some actual scholarship that might prove the professors right and the critics wrong?