The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Debunked

Did Jesus have a wife? From a plain reading of the Bible you will understand that there is no evidence of Jesus having a human wife at all. But back in 2012 a discovery of a Coptic fragment was discovered saying, ” Jesus said to them, “My wife…”” This was then quickly proven false by many, but then in Spring of 2014 there was a resurgence of this Coptic fragment in the Harvard Theological Review. Dr. Christian Askeland answers questions refuting this fragment and showing us that he discovered the “smoking gun”.

Much of the New Testament scholarly world is abuzz with a purportedly ancient Coptic fragment, which has been called The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.  Is it truly an ancient Coptic fragment?  A forgery?  The most recent volume of Harvard Theological Review is devoted to this fragment with articles by Dr Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, who has been the driving force behind the announcement and dissemination of this fragment. Dr Christian Askeland, who earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge University while living at Tyndale House, has recently written what Mark Goodacre calls a ‘devastating’ critique of the authenticity of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.  Askeland has helpfully summarized the issues.

We asked Askeland a few questions.

What exactly is The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

Askeland: It is a Coptic fragment which Karen King of Harvard Divinity School has brought to the attention of the public, first announcing its discovery in 2012. Coptic is the latest form of the Egyptian language.  It is written in the Greek script plus seven additional letters ‘borrowed’ from Demotic, an older form of Egyptian. In the fragment it reads at one point: ‘And Jesus said to them:My wife . .’.  While persons interested in ancient documents are always interested in new discoveries and whether they are authentically ancient, the fact that in this document there is a reference to Jesus having a wife, makes it particularly intriguing.

Why do you consider it to be a forgery?

Askeland: Essentially all specialists in ancient Egyptian material culture concluded that the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ was a forgery back in 2012.  Francis Watson, Alin Suciu, Hugo Lundhaug and Andrew Bernhard all contributed to a web-based discussion, which explained a string of grammatical anomalies in the fragment, appealing to an internet-based PDF of the Gospel of Thomas (the only surviving version of the Gospel of Thomas is in the Coptic language).  With The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife the forger had cut and pasted sections from the Gospel of Thomas, and in doing so created several grammatically impossible phrases.  In particular, the forger unwittingly included a typo, which marked the particular source. The idea that both texts could include the exact same typographical error (and this kind of typographical error) is statistically highly improbable.  Although the peculiarities of the scribal hand, which had no parallel among other ancient manuscripts, were damning enough, the textual source theory essentially settled the issue.

Now the entire debate has been re-opened with the publication of the April 2014 volume of Harvard Theological Review.

Askeland: Professor King’s recent seven-article resuscitation attempt has certainly been accompanied by something of a frenzy, both within the scholarly world and in the media. However, the radiometric dating actually falsified King’s paleographic dating. The Raman spectroscopy told us what we already knew, that the ink used was soot ink, an ink which is rather easy to make and use today; and the palaeographic analysis could find no clear parallel for the scribal hand.

What is your key insight? Why have you been credited with finding ‘the smoking gun’?

Askeland: I remember sitting at my desk in Tyndale House one day in 2010, finishing my dissertation on the Coptic versions of John, and encountering an old note concerning Codex Qau, the main Lycopolitan witness to John’s gospel; Lycopolitan is a dialect of Coptic. This manuscript was kept down the street at the Cambridge University Library, to which I went immediately. Fast-forward to the present.  Remember, The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was one of several fragments which were announced by Karen King.  There was also in this group of fragments a fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. Just recently, when I gazed upon Karen King’s Coptic John fragment, what I saw was immediately clear.  Not only were the writing tool, ink and hand exactly the same as those of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment, but also the method of composition was the same. As I looked at Karen King’s Gospel of John fragment, I finally saw that it was clearly copied (by the forger) from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of Codex Qau.  Indeed, the Gospel of John fragment had exactly the same line breaks as Codex Qau – a statistical improbability if it were genuine.

Summary of Askeland’s points

(1) when one looks at King’s Gospel of John fragment together with The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, it is clear that they use the same ink and tool, and that they come from the same hand;

(2) it is clear that King’s Gospel of John fragment was copied/forged from the 1924 Herbert Thompson edition of Codex Qau;

(3) Therefore, it is almost certainly the case that The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment is also a forgery.

Finally, isn’t there also an issue of the radiometric dating of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

Askeland: Yes, King’s radiometric dating for the fragment, that is the papyrus which was written upon, not the date the writing occurred, was 7th-9th century.  But the text was written in Lycopolitan, which had disappeared from use centuries earlier.


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