How to scam a scholar – the ps.Gospel of Jesus’ Wife affair

I expect many of us have watched the story of a papyrus fragment purporting to reveal that Jesus had a wife.  Coptologist Christian Askeland discovered clear proof of forgery, thanks to a bit of carelessness by the forger, and the story is now history.

Peter Head has an article here which is so useful that I will file it on my hard disk: Pseudo-Gospel of Jesus Wife as Case Study.

He asks the sensible question: now that we have evidence of a forgery which passed the science lab tests, what can we learn for next time?

The article is full of good points, but the first paragraph makes an unusual, and very interesting point (I have over-paragraphed it):

It is possible for a forger to get hold of papyri, mix ink according to ancient conventions, compose a semi-plausible pastiche of a text, and mislead scholars, academic institutions, the media, and the public. Exactly what he (or she) hoped to gain from it is not clear, but if it was simply mischief, then he has probably far exceeded his wildest dreams.

Given this possibility it is important that if someone approaches you with an unpublished text which meshes in with your own academic interests, then critical skepticism rather than credulity should control your responses. Nothing is innocent until proven guilty in this scenario.

Also the forger will target a scholar who he thinks is persuadable, not a manuscript expert, and who has wider credibility to make the discovery known (remember that in this case Prof King at first didn’t respond to the invitation, but the forger didn’t go to some other scholar, he waited a year and then went back to reel in Prof King).

In patristics, fortunately, there is no money to be made.  If someone turned up with “fragments” of Marcion’s Antitheses or a lost work by Justin Martyr, it is unlikely that it would atttract attention.

But one point is clear: we have a capable and determined forger out there, who is aware of what tests are likely to be applied, and how to fool them.

What can we tell about the forger?

  • He has some knowledge of Coptic, probably to undergraduate level, but is not an expert.
  • He has had a western education.
  • He has access to textbooks on Coptic (not too easy to obtain).
  • He has access to ancient papyri.
  • He has some sort of lab training.
  • He might be a Muslim – the forgery would be convenient to Muslim polemicists.
  • He is probably not a Copt – the forgery is a bit anti-Christian.

The motive was probably money; to create a sensation and then monetize it, as they say in the computer games industry.    I infer, therefore, that this is not a rich man.

This text acquired quite a following.  It nearly worked.  So I think we must expect more attempts at forgery.

In this light, I do hope Harvard involve the police.  This was an audacious fraud, and if it had succeeded would have garnered the author some real money, in sales,and with film rights, etc.  It would be very useful to have the author behind bars where he can do no more harm.

UPDATE: All of which makes the questions that Roberta Mazza is asking about the supposed NT papyri from mummy cartonage very pertinent.

5 thoughts on “How to scam a scholar – the ps.Gospel of Jesus’ Wife affair

  1. Items 1, 3, & 4 seem fairly certain. I think the other items could have alternatives. If the other papyri that accompanied GJW and the Coptic John piece were made public, more could be known.

  2. Actually, Harvard has money, and even a Harvard professor has more money than the average US professor (and a tenured professor makes good money). So it’s quite possible that it got acquired for some reasonably serious cash. Even if you only made a thousand bucks, for example, you’d hardly have paid that much for old papyrus and soot.

  3. Copies of Coptic textbooks are not that hard to obtain for the entrepreneurial forger. Even without much money, someone willing to surf the Russian interwebs can find all the basic Coptic resources they need to teach themselves just enough. (Don’t worry, Dr. Layton, I paid for my copy of your excellent Coptic grammar.)

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