The “Jesus’ Wife” Forgery and the Limits of Knowledge

It seems that the media is starting to realize that the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus is likely a hoax. This should not surprise us. As soon as we heard that spectroscopy had somehow offered the “definitive” proof (and not coincidentally, just before the annual spate of Easter “who was Jesus” articles), it should have sent up a serious red flag.

Layman who don’t understand textual scholarship (study of books, scrolls, handwriting, etc) typically have an unrealistic sense of what these sorts of physical tests of the artifacts can tell us. They generally aren’t as precise as what we can gather from other types of evidence, such as internal references, linguistic structures, and handwriting styles (I’m talking about paleography here, not the pop culture “Oh, if you make big loops in your handwriting you have an assertive personality” stuff). We can gather information that is both more accurate and precise without ever whipping out a microscope. Usually those sorts of physical tests just work as part of a basket of data confirming what we are already pretty sure of.

But even then, understanding what the information MEANS confuses the general public. For the moment, let’s take out the issue of intentional forgery (which we may have in this case), and assume that we have a legit artifact. And let’s further go into some science fiction universe where we can put the artifact under a microscope and know with 100% certainty that the papyrus was harvested Saturday, May 2nd, 314 AD at 10:52 AM exactly. That doesn’t tell us that the writing comes from that date — it tells us that it could have come from NO EARLIER THAN that date, since it might have sat around for years or even centuries before anyone wrote on it. And since it may be a copy of another text (as was common in pre-printing press days), even if we know that at that very moment a scribe took quill to papyrus, it might be a copy of something first drafted the day before, the year before, or a millennium earlier. Without the other linguistic information, it doesn’t tell us much at all.

But let’s go even farther into the realm of science fiction. Let’s say that we know with 100% certainty that the author of the text first wrote it down on that Saturday morning in 314 AD, and that he was not copying from anywhere else. That would tell us … what, exactly? That some dude in 314 thought Jesus might have had a wife? Heck, I can point to some dude in 2014 who thinks Jesus might have had a wife. Dan Brown made a fortune off that idea — yet it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the historical Jesus had a wife or not, nor is it even an accurate representation of general 21st century belief (let alone 4th century belief).

My point here is not to beat up people who were taken in by a hoax; who hasn’t been tricked at some point in their lives? Instead, it’s to offer a caution — the next time you read a headline saying that some sort of scientific test “proves” something about an ancient, classical, or medieval text: that the Beowulf manuscript was written four centuries earlier than we thought, or that Edward DeVere was really Shakespeare, or that Emperor Shun flew with reed hats — take it with the biggest grain of salt you can find.

Professor Awesome, PhD