The owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus unmasked!

Back in 2012 a Harvard “religious studies” academic named Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment containing a Coptic text which referred to Jesus having a wife.  It takes little knowledge of the methods of commercial forgers to see why someone would forge such a thing.  Nor is it hard to see why a US leftist academic with a background in “Womens’ studies” would promote it.  I was certainly sceptical.  More learned people pointed to the small problem that the text reproduced a typographical error from an online edition.  At that point pretty much everyone – aside from Dr King – felt the story was over.  It was never clear just where the thing had come from, or who owned it; Dr. K. professed that she was sworn to secrecy.

Via Alin Suciu, today, I learn that in this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine contains a monster piece of investigative journalism that unmasks the owner, and probably the forger, of the papyrus.

The article is written by Ariel Sabar, who dedicated months of investigation to tracking down the background of this dubious item.  He discovered the owner was a silver-tongued salesman named Walter Fritz, and eventually got an admission out of him that he was indeed the owner of the papyrus.  Fritz had studied Coptic, had a grudge against scholars, and is, seemingly, a bullshitter extraordinaire.  He is also an admirer of – guess what – the Da Vinci Code, and all the stuff about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ Wife.  He was also in financial trouble at the time when he produced the thing.

I will not attempt to summarise the article here.  It is, necessarily, a story of the process of discovery, and inevitably reads like what it is, a magazine article.  We need not agree with every opinion expressed in it, though, to see that a great deal of real hard information has emerged here.  Read it.

The conclusion seems convincing to me: the papyrus was forged by Fritz.  In fact Fritz has not admitted to composing it, but he has the skills, multiple motives, and the opportunity.  Few, I suspect, will now doubt that he did so.

Karen King does not come out very well from the article, and perhaps does not deserve to.  But let us be fair, and treat her as we would wish to be treated in such a case.  A bit of careful reading of Sabar’s narrative suggests that she was just a dupe – duped by Fritz.  In fact, Sabar suggests that she was chosen by him as a “mark”, precisely because he believed that she would be predisposed for ideological reasons to believe his nonsense.  He was probably right.  We can hardly blame Dr King for being persuaded by a man who, like all salesmen, was a professional persuader.  It could happen to most of us, I suspect.

It is a warning to all of us, always to be suspicious of what seems convenient to us.  “This is a benefit … it may be a bribe” is always a good thing to remember, in scholarship as in life.

This is one of the rare pieces of journalism that justifies all the claims that are made for the importance of a free press.  Few academics could have done this piece of investigation.  Well done, Mr Sabar.  You have done us all a favour.

A first century fragment of Mark’s gospel? Some thoughts by an outsider

An article in Live Science two days ago:

Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published. …

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy.

Some sensible words of caution are here; and here at ETC, where it is suggested that the article at Live Science may be entirely derived from some public presentations.  There has also been some curious snarking from one or two papyrologists, who are not involved in the discovery, presumably out of sour grapes.

Is this a genuine discovery?  Who knows?  But I have some concerns about all this, even based on the story as we have it.

Mark’s gospel was completed ca. 70 AD, in Alexandria, according to the ancient literary sources, and to me there seems no pressing reason to suppose that they are wrong.  So it is possible, in principle, that a piece of an early copy could be found in waste papyrus in Egypt.  There’s no real reason why not.

But … surely it is somewhat improbable that one of the few copies of this text in existence at that date should happen to turn up in the limited amount of mummy cartonnage that has so far been dismantled?  Isn’t it?  Consider the vast output of papyrus made every year in ancient Egypt, of which a certain proportion ended up as waste papyrus.  What, statistically, are the chances of a 1st century copy of Mark being in that proportion?  They must be slim.

We’re told that portions of Homer have turned up, and this is not a surprise.  Likewise that documentary texts are found: this too does not surprise.  But something that must always have been a very rare item?

Of course probability is just that; a calculation based on averages.  All the same, it’s troubling.

In general, when a discovery is made which bears on matters of current interest or controversy (rather than something which was controversial in antiquity), it is wise to consider the possibility of forgery.   In the renaissance people forged stone monuments supposedly from well-known figures of classical antiquity, in order to make money.  Forgeries of papyri are not at all unknown.

There is a fingerprint for forgery, noted by Stephen C. Carlson.  By its very nature, a forgery must be of something which is exciting to people in the period in which it is “discovered”.   That’s where the money is.  Nobody is going to forge something that nobody is interested in.  But it is often the case that this modern excitement is over something that would not have been exciting in antiquity.  It is this dichotomy that marks out a forgery.

So any “discovery” that is of current interest, that fits squarely into a matter of current agitation, or fits the political or religious views of the discoverer particularly well, must be scrutinised with rational but exceptional caution.  Otherwise we will all be hoodwinked by those enterprising gentlemen in Turkey and Palestine whose attempts at forgery regularly attract interest from specialists.

A discovery of a first century fragment of a gospel fits that profile squarely.  A first century gospel could not have been of special interest in antiquity, when they were composed, but it would be very interesting today!

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to do things right; to establish the provenance of the item, to look for signs of forgery, to get a range of experts involved, and, above all, to shed as much light as possible on the item.

When P52 was identified in the 1930s, the discoverer, Colin Roberts, proceeded with extreme care.  He did not publish, nor did he announce his find, until it had been examined by all the leading paleographers of the day, and a consensus reached.  The wisdom of his approach is evident: his result has not been seriously questioned in 80 years, even though it contradicted the established wisdom of biblical studies at the time, and reinforced the fondest wishes of Christians.

By contrast the way in which this supposed first century fragment is being made known raises in me the worst suspicions.

The papyrus trade is a secretive one, partly because of the foolishness of the Egyptian government in declaring all finds the property of state officials, and partly because of the stupidity of western activists, who harass those involved in the black market that has inevitably arisen.  It is, therefore, entirely understandable that nothing should be announced until everything is ready.  And if that silence is used, as Colin Roberts did, to determine the facts and build consensus, then well and good.  That’s one way to publish.

The alternative is better.  It is to shine a bright light on everything.  Publish the fragments now, without any very firm attributions, as soon as possible, with the provenance, and crowd-source an examination of every element of it.  The truth will out, and a consensus will come into being rather rapidly, as it did for the forgery known as the “gospel of Jesus’ wife”.

Either approach is acceptable.  But we seem to have neither.  Instead we have the worst of both worlds.

On the one hand we have a drip-drip of non-academic reportage, excitedly making all sorts of claims, possibly based on no more than a video by somebody who may (or may not) be involved in the project at all.  This feeds the fever of speculation; which, of course, increases the price that may be asked for publication, and generally increases the commercial value of the property.  It seems to benefit nobody in any other way that I can see.

On the other hand, we have an entire silence on all the matters that would allow professionals to form a judgement.

It is reminiscent of some of the hype around the Coptic Gospel of Judas.  That was a genuine text, and this mixture of whispers and real information is what we tended to get.  I suppose, in fairness, that this may be how Americans do things, for all I know.

But it is also reminiscent of how forgers operate: people whose sole aim is to boost the value of their merchandise and make a quick buck while the going is good.  For all I know, there is some Turkish forger at work, using some clever Swiss lawyer (or whatever) to control the whole process via “confidentiality agreements”, and manipulating the scholars at the far end who seek merely to recover knowledge.

If the discovery is genuine, then it is wonderful.  Any recovery of lost texts from antiquity is a joy, and any very early witness to any important text is to be treasured.

But is it genuine?  We cannot say.  But the manner in which it is becoming known to the public does nothing to give me confidence.

So I think we need to hold our horses, and await proper publication.  To me, all this is too good to be true.  But let’s hope not.

Academic hoaxes, academic feuding – an article in the Oldie

The Oldie magazine is probably read by few of us, being mainly for people who are, well, old.  A correspondent has sent me a copy of an article in this week’s issue, written by the editor, Richard Ingrams.

Harvey’s revenge

We love a spot of academic intrigue and so were delighted to receive an email from one Dr A D Harvey. Harvey, who describes himself as a ‘failed academic’, won notoriety after publishing academic articles under various pseudonyms and inventing a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky that fellow academics accepted as fact for years. American scholars finally uncovered the hoax and Harvey became the subject of a six page take-down in the Times Literary Supplement.

Not content to let sleeping feuds lie, Dr Harvey’s email to The Oldie is a copy of a letter he has sent to the TLS accusing it of running a hoax story in its own pages.  The piece in question, by Janetta Goldstein, is about an alternative ending to the Hans Christian Andersen Story, ‘The Invisible Robe’. But, Harvey writes, ‘The manuscript in Hackney Archives on which it is purportedly based seems to have no more physical existence than the new clothes the emperor was so proud of. I checked. Hackney Archives have a negative of a portrait of Mary Howitt but none of her papers, let alone a manuscript of a Hans Christian Andersen story with a previously unpublished variant ending.’ With some relish, Harvey adds, ‘It makes you wonder how many more bogus contributions have appeared in the TLS in recent months.’

Most would suspect that Harvey himself had a hand in the Hans Christian Andersen hoax, if indeed the alternative ending proves to be fake at all. But Harvey claims it bears none of his modus operandi — not that we can really take his word for that.

One thing we can be sure of: the TLS fact-checkers will be frantically searching for evidence of the Hackney manuscript and hoping that Dr Harvey has not been able to spectacularly settle his score with their scholarly journal.

The urge to twist the tail of the spectacularly aloof and patronisingly self-important is one that is probably common to most of us.  In this sense the activities of Dr Harvey are something that most of us will feel sympathy with.

Until we find that our own research has been compromised by such pranks, at any rate.

Verifying the raw data is never time wasted.

Worrying questions about the supposed new NT papyri from mummy cartonnage

In my last post, I noted that Peter Head pointed out that we have a forger active among us, who knows how to play to the predispositions of scholars.

I have just seen a very sound post by Roberta Mazza, discussing the supposed discovery of a bunch of interesting papyri from mummy cartonnage – papyrus reused to stuff the packing of mummies, and make up the coffins etc in the late period.  No doubt cartonnage contains much of interest.

But Dr Mazza is absolutely right in pointing out that we have NO previous examples of New Testament papyri from mummy cartonage; and noting the rather confused reportage coming out of the Green collection.

These are very sound questions.   Failure to see that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was too good to be true is what undid Karen King and Harvard.

A first century fragment of the New Testament?  Exciting if true.  But … too good to be true?  Quite possibly.  Particularly when we note that the recipient of the material is predisposed to believe that the material is genuine; just as the hapless Karen King was.

At the moment all we have is various bits of excited and not-too-knowledgeable comment from amateurs involved in helping in menial capacities.  I think the Green collection are absolutely right to be open-access with their finds; indeed it is essential to bring all available talent to bear.

We have an enemy of learning active in the world at the moment, remember.  Only a fool would neglect every precaution.  Particularly when a find might be too good to be true.

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.

The “forgeries of the Apollinarians”

This evening I stumbled across a book which few, perhaps, will have read: Georges Florovsky’s The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Centuries.  Fortunately the book is accessible here, for it is otherwise quite uncommon.

What led me here was a question about the “forgeries” of the Apollinarians.  We know that in the 6th century, works were in circulation which were ascribed to Pope Julius I, Athanasius, or Gregory Thaumaturgus, but were in reality by Apollinaris or his followers.  We know this because of a dossier of quotations, assembled by Leontius of Byzantium as Adversus Fraudes Apollinistarum.  Indeed a correspondent kindly translated this text for us all, and it is accessible online.

Apollinaris of Laodicea lived in the second half of the 4th century A.D.  He wrote an excellent refutation of Porphyry’s anti-Christian work, and, when faced with Julian the Apostate, did what he could to frustrate the latter’s desire to prevent Christians acquiring an education.  However he must have found himself out of his depth in the increasingly vicious theological-political currents of the late fourth century.  The opinion now known as Apollinarism is given by the old Catholic Encyclopedia thus:

A Christological theory, according to which Christ had a human body and a human sensitive soul, but no human rational mind, the Divine Logos taking the place of this last.

“Apollinarism” was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381, or so the CE says.  After this point, it may well have been dangerous to circulate texts under his name.  In the circumstances those who still agreed with him chose to place the other names at the head of his and their works.  This had the unfortunate consequence that monophysite writers such as Cyril of Alexandria found themselves quoting Apollinaris when they believed that they were quoting Athanasius.  In the disputes of the 6th century, the supporters of Chalcedon made use of this to attack the monophysite position.

But did the Apollinarians intend fraud?  or merely to preserve their now illegal belief?  It would be extremely harsh, surely, to condemn them for the latter.  The later use of their works is nothing to do with them.

Another supposed Apollinarian forgery is the long recension of the letters of Ignatius.  Seven letters were interpolated, while a further eight were composed.  The identity of the interpolator is unknown, unless we accept the suggestion that it is an otherwise unknown Arian named Julian of Antioch, whose name appears as author of a Commentary on Job of the same period.  But the author of the long recension is not obviously Arian, any more than he is certainly Apollinarian.  His purpose in interfering with the text in this way is entirely unknown today.  It is entirely possible that it was for dishonest purposes, to put into circulation a text in order to make an argument based on forged evidence; but we do not know this.

At all events, I then came across Florovsky’s work, which includes a discussion of the Apollinarian forgeries:

One work ascribed to Leontius which may actually belong to him and which modern scholarship should consider carefully is Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians. In the history of Monophysitism the so-called “forgeries of the Apollinarians” played a major and fateful role. Many of Apollinarius’ compositions were concealed and “armored” under the forged inscription of respected and honored names. Faith in such pseudo-patristic writings very much hindered Alexandrian theologians in their dogmatic confession — it is sufficient to recall St. Cyril of Alexandria. Even if the work titled Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians is someday conclusively proven to be not that of Leontius of Byzantium, it is discussed here. Regardless of the authorship of this work — and it is very possible that it was Leontius of Byzantium — it was a significant work which deserves attention.

It is difficult to reconstruct the history of these “forgeries” but they became especially wide-spread in the Monophysite milieu. Even Eutyches in his appeal to Pope Leo at the Council of Constantinople in 448 refers to the forged testimony of Pope Julius, Athanasius, and Gregory the Miracle-Worker. He referred to them in good conscience, not suspecting any “forgery.” In his document to the monks of Palestine, Emperor Marcian observed that among the people books by Apollinarius were circulating which were being passed off as dicta of the holy fathers. Justinian also mentions some forgeries. The historian Evragius discusses the influence of these forgeries — the inscription of honorable names (Athanasius, Gregory, Julius) on Apollinarius1 books kept many people from condemning the impious opinions contained in them. At the famous “conference” with the Severians, which took place about 532 (between 531 and 533, in any case), Hypatius of Ephesus challenged a whole series of patristic references by pointing out their spuriousness, their the false inscriptions.

Under such circumstances the uncovering and demonstration of forgeries became a pointed and recurrent task of theological polemics. In performing this task, it is the author of Against the Frauds of the Apollinarians who occupies the most prominent place. The author gathered much material in this work. He adduces the false testimonies, and compares them with the original opinions of those persons to whom they are ascribed. (It is noteworthy that this same procedure is followed in the work Against the Monophysites, a work modern scholarship does not regard as that of Leontius of Byzantium). The author then collates these testimonies with the undisputed texts of Apollinarius and his followers and shows the points of correspondence between them. In this connection the author has to enter into a detailed critique of Apollinarianism. The author’s critical conclusions are distinguished by great precision and cogency.

Interesting indeed.