Monday, October 29, 2012

Why the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a Forgery

In September 2012 Karen L. King announced a scrap of papyrus that she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Professor King argued for the authenticity of the fragment and the work contained therein. In one of the news report, Stephen Emmel expressed uneasiness with the fragment’s authenticity. Others have since expressed various reasons for doubting the authenticity. I will not repeat that discussion here but will give some of my own reasons. This will be a more technical discussion, so if you are not interested skip to the last paragraph.


Although it is not certain because all I have seen is low resolution photographs, the document looks like it is written with a brush rather than a pen (kalamos). The brush fell out of use by the end of the second century B.C. The writing instrument would be anachronistic.

My colleague, Thomas Wayment pointed out to me that the writing is columnar, with each letter taking approximately the same amount of width. This is very unusual in a trained scribe, and even unusual in an untrained scribe.

Wayment also notes that there are five different types of episilon in the document. Normally a scribe will have only one or two forms of a letter.

The djandje at the end of the second line is improperly formed, with rounded corners rather than the marked points typical of Coptic scribes.

Now, lets take a look at the problems in the Coptic, line by line.

Line 1
Odd Syntax
The syntax of this sentence is possible but very rare. The syntax is:

nominal subject + conjugation prefix + subject pronoun + verb

Normally, one would expect one of two types of sentence depending on whether it was a sentence written in Coptic by a native speaker or a sentence translated into Coptic. The native speaker normally writes the following syntax:

conjugation prefix + nominal subject + verb

The translator normally uses the following syntax:

conjugation prefix + subject pronoun + verb + ⲛϭⲓ + nominal subject.

This sentence is neither. If this is a document translated into Coptic from Greek, it is not following the typical syntax for such a sentence.

Lack of a direct object marker
There should be a marker of the direct object before the word ⲡⲱⲛϩ. It should read ⲙⲡⲱⲛϩ. This is bad Coptic. It could also possibly be a scribal error.

Line 3
Impossible sentence endings
The third line of the fragment has a sentence ending in ⲁⲣⲛⲁ. This is not just unusual but unique. The normal use of ⲁⲣⲛⲁ is as follows:

The verb ⲁⲣⲛⲁ may take a direct object marked by the direct object marker ⲛ-/ⲙⲙⲟ⸗.
The verb ⲁⲣⲛⲁ may be followed by a quotation proceeded by the marker ϫⲉ.
The verb ⲁⲣⲛⲁ may be followed by a verb of speaking in the circumstantial followed by the quotation.

No other use of the verb ⲁⲣⲛⲁ is attested. In Sahidic, and in Coptic in general, the verb ⲁⲣⲛⲁ simply cannot end a sentence.

Furthermore, there are only four words in Coptic that have the letter combination ⲁⲣⲛⲁ: They are ⲁⲣⲛⲁ, ⲁⲡⲁⲣⲛⲁ, ⲃⲁⲣⲛⲁⲃⲁⲥ, and ⲕⲁⲫⲁⲣⲛⲁⲟⲩⲙ. The syntax of ⲁⲡⲁⲣⲛⲁ is like the syntax of ⲁⲣⲛⲁ, so even if it were ⲁⲡⲁⲣⲛⲁ it would have the same problems.

Line 4
Missing quotation particle
The verb of speaking ⲡⲉϫⲉ normally starts a quote with ϫⲉ. Again, this could be a scribal error but it would be a rather careless scribe.

Wrong word
By Coptic times, the word ϩⲓⲙⲉ wife has dropped out as a separate lexical entry. It is used as the plural of the word ⲥϩⲓⲙⲉ but usually has the form ϩⲓⲟⲙⲉ. So, either the scribe mismatched the singular definite article with the plural form of the word, or dropped an important letter from the singular form. I suppose we should be calling the document the Gospel of Jesus’s Wives.

Others have pointed to other problems and I will not repeat them here.

While a text may have a number of unusual features, when the unusual features are particularly dense, an explanation ought to be required. An eight line papyrus without a single complete sentence might present some oddities, but how many unusual features should we expect to find? Normally, one expects one or two scribal errors per page. There are more Coptic errors in this eight line fragment than we would expect to find on a page. These errors yield not just bad Coptic but impossible Coptic. There are also anomalies in the writing of the document. The document was written by someone who did not understand Coptic, was not used to writing Coptic, and using an anachronistic instrument, in other words, by a modern forger.