The truth may be finally emerging about the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," a highly controversial papyrus suggesting that some people, in ancient times, believed Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. New research on the papyrus' ink points to the possibility that it is authentic, researchers say, while newly obtained documents may shed light on the origins of the business-card-sized fragment.
Debate about the credibility of the "gospel" began as soon as Harvard University professor Karen King reported her discovery of the papyrus in September 2012. Written in Coptic (an Egyptian language), the papyrus fragment contains a translated line that reads, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife …'" and also refers to a "Mary," possibly Mary Magdalene.
King had tentatively dated the papyrus to the fourth century, saying it may be a copy of a gospel written in the second century in Greek. [Read Translation of Gospel of Jesus's Wife Papyrus]
Analysis of the papyrus, detailed last year in the Harvard Theological Review journal, suggested the papyrus dates back around 1,200 years (somewhere between the sixth and ninth centuries) while the ink is of a type that could have been created at that time. These findings have led King to support the text's authenticity.
However over the past year many scholars have come to the conclusion that the papyrus is a modern-day forgery, though King and a few other researchers say they are not ready to concede this: "At this point, when discussions and research are ongoing, I think it is important, however difficult, to stay open regarding the possible dates of the inscription and other matters of interpretation," wrote King in a letter recently published in the magazine Biblical Archaeological Review. King has not responded to several interview requests from Live Science.
Now, researchers at Columbia University are running new tests on the ink used on the papyrus. Initial tests published by the Columbia University team in 2014 indicated the ink could have been made in ancient times. Researchers are saying little until their report is published; however they did talk about one finding that could provide some support for its authenticity.
A gospel steeped in mystery
The current owner of the papyrus has insisted on remaining anonymous, claiming that he bought the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, along with other Coptic texts, in 1999 from a man named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. This person, in turn, got it from Potsdam, in what was East Germany, in 1963, the owner said.
Laukamp died in 2002, and the claim that he owned the text has been strongly disputed: Rene Ernest, the man whom Laukamp and his wife Helga charged with representing their estate, said that Laukamp had no interest in antiquities, did not collect them and was living in West Berlin in 1963. Therefore, he couldn't have crossed the Berlin Wall into Potsdam. Axel Herzsprung, a business partner of Laukamp's, similarly said that Laukamp never had an interest in antiquities and never owned a papyrus. Laukamp has no children or living relatives who could verify these claims. [6 Archaeological Forgeries That Tried to Change History]
Over the past few months, new documents have been found that not only reconstruct Laukamp's life in greater detail, but also provide a new way to check the anonymous owner's story.
King reported in a 2014 Harvard Theological Review article that the anonymous owner "provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of '6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel' from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated Nov. 12, 1999, and signed by both parties." King also notes that "a handwritten comment on the contract states, 'Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).'"
After searching public databases in Florida a Live Science reporter uncovered seven signatures signed by Laukamp between 1997 and 2001 on five notarized documents. Anyone can search these databases and download these documents. These signatures can be compared with the signature recording the sale of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife — providing another way to verify or disprove the story of how the "gospel" made its way to Harvard.
While Harvard University would have to work with forensic handwriting experts to verify the signature, the fact that these notarized documents exist, and are publicly available, presents the opportunity to see if Laukamp really did own the Gospel of Jesus's Wife. Forensic handwriting analysis, while not always conclusive, has been used to determine if signatures made on documents or works of art are authentic or forged.
If Laukamp did own the papyrus, authentic or not, then the origins of the enigmatic text lie with him. The new Laukamp documents allow the story of his life between 1995 and 2002 to be told in some detail. However if Laukamp didn't own the papyrus and the anonymous owner has not been truthful, then further doubt would be cast on the papyrus' authenticity, and information leading to the identity, motives and techniques of the forgers could be found.
Authentic or forged?
One important find, which indicates the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a fake, was made last year by Christian Askeland, a research associate with the Institute for Septuagint and Biblical Research in Wuppertal, Germany. He examined a second Coptic papyrus containing part of the Gospel of John, which the anonymous owner of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife had also given to Harvard. This text was likewise supposedly purchased from Laukamp, and radiocarbon testing of that papyrus similarly found that it dates back around 1,200 years. [See Images of the Ancient Gospel of Judas]
Askeland found that the text and line breaks— where one line of a text ends and another begins — are identical to those of another papyrus, published in a 1924 book. That second papyrus was written in a dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which went extinct around 1,500 years ago. Askeland concluded that the John papyrus is a forgery. Furthermore, it shares other features with the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, Askeland said, suggesting both are forgeries.
"The two Coptic fragments clearly shared the same ink, writing implement and scribal hand. The same artisan had created both essentially at the same time," Askeland wrote in a paper recently published in the journal New Testament Studies.
King objected to this conclusion in her Biblical Archaeology Review letter, noting that the John fragment could have been copied in ancient times, long after Lycopolitan went extinct, from a text that had similar line breaks.
In addition, James Yardley, a senior research scientist at Columbia University, told Live Science that the new tests confirm that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife holds different ink than the John papyrus. This could undercut Askeland's argument that the two papyri were written by the same person.
"In our first exploration, we did state that the inks used for the two documents of interest [the John papyrus and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife] were quite different. The more recent results do confirm this observation strongly," Yardley told Live Science.
He added that until his new research is published in a peer-reviewed journal, he doesn't want to say anything more publicly. And once it's published, Askeland and other researchers will have a chance to respond.
Askeland's find is far from the only argument that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a fake: A number of scholars have noted that the Coptic writing in the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is similar to another early Christian text called the "Gospel of Thomas," even including a modern-day typo made in a 2002 edition of the Gospel of Thomas that is available for free online. That typo indicates the forgers copied from this modern-day text. King disputed this assertion in 2014, saying that ancient scribes made grammatical errors similar to the modern-day typo.
King and communications staff at Harvard Divinity School have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.