What About the Back of the So-Called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

BACK

There has been a lot of chatter over the last week about the new Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, originally announced here.  So much so, that it is quite difficult to keep up with the rapidly changing discussion about this text.  Scholars all over the globe have chimed in, most questioning the authenticity of the fragment (see my original assessment here).  Most recently, Francis Watson of Durham University has offered two short articles (here and here) which strongly suggest this fragment was a modern fake.

But in all of this discussion, I have noticed that far too little attention has been given to a very important piece of evidence: the back side of the fragment.  Now it is certainly possible that this has been a major topic of conversation and that I have simply missed it (who can possibly keep up with all the internet articles?).   But, my cursory perusal of the discussion suggests this topic has not been front and center.

What is notable about the back side of this fragment (known as the “verso”), is that it contains a faded Coptic script.  This faded script has been mentioned as a sign of authenticity because it would be quite difficult to fake.  However, this is only a sign of authenticity if the script on the verso is the same as the script on the recto.  If they are not the same, then this lends credence to the possibility that the script on the recto about Jesus’s wife was added at a later point to an ancient fragment with faded writing on only one side.

In King’s original paper, she indicated that the scribal hand on the front and back were the same.  I do not have access to high resolution photos by which I could render an opinion on this.  So, she may well be correct.  However, there is something about the back that, in my mind, is problematic.  When we examine the verso more closely, it seems clear that the spacing between the lines is greater than the spacing on the recto.  Notice the pictures of the recto and verso side by side:

Papyrus fragment: front. Karen L. King 2012Papyrus fragment: back. Karen L. King 2012

According to King’s reconstruction, there are 9 lines of the front and 7 on the back.   That may not seem like a big difference at first, but it must be remembered that this difference occurs over the space of only 4cm.  We don’t know how big the original page of this fragment might have been, but if it was as long as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (approx 27 cm. in length), then the difference in the number of lines between the front and back would have been more considerable.

But, more than this, even a casual glance at the photographs shows the lines are much more condensed on the recto than the verso. It is clear that the first 6 lines of the recto cover the same amount of space as the first 4 lines on the verso.  In percentage terms, the front has 50% more lines than the back over this same portion of space.

Of course, it is difficult to know what we can conclude from this.  It is well known that scribes were not always consistent in the number of lines they put on each page.  They might begin a page with more space between lines and then become cramped as they move toward the end of the page. So, this disparity between the recto and the verso could just be due to the sloppy and inconsistent habits of our scribe. It is noteworthy, however, that the disparity of line spacing in this fragment takes place in the same portion of the page.  So, it is not the same as comparing the line spacing at the bottom of a page with the line spacing at the top of the same page.   We are talking about a notable difference in spacing in the same area of the page, front and back.

While the difference in line spacing between the front and back does not prove that this fragment is a modern forgery, it is certainly consistent with that hypothesis. If this story is the result of a modern forger who crafted his story onto an ancient piece of papyrus with faded writing already on the back, then this would account for the difference in line spacing between the two sides. Given the many other problems with this fragment, already noted by Watson and others, the disparity in line spacing must be a factor that is considered.  [1]

If Watson is correct that this is a forgery, then I think we may have a possible scenario for how (and why) this story was composed.  On the back of this fragment, in faded ink, one can make out the Coptic word for “mother.”  Could it be that this word inspired someone to create a story of Jesus on the other side of the fragment that dealt with the rest of his family, namely his “wife”?   Perhaps.


[1] Of course, there is another explanation for the disparity in line spacing. This story of Jesus’s wife could be the result of a fourth-century author who reused a fragment that already had unrelated writing on the back (and it so happens that the side about Jesus’s wife is left unfaded).

 

Comments

What About the Back of the So-Called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife? — 4 Comments

  1. It drives me crazy when people do that! Here at work at the Southern Seminary library, I’ve had to correct old boxes of journals that have two labels, one on each side of the box. Great observation!

  2. Thoughtful reflection…with excitement & haste the simplest of things can be momentarily missed. It seems so often the way in a fast paced & busy life. It happens in all areas of life, great detective like work….

  3. Michael, Great observation! Francis Watson has done some quite exhaustive examination and concludes it is a pastiche of phrases much like Morton Smith’s lost gospel of Mark. I also think that the edges have been trimmed. That doesn’t give me much confidence in this being anything other than a forgery made on old papyrus.

  4. The first question that comes to my mind is, Why is the writing on one side so faded and the other not? If they were written by the same person at the same time, I’d expect both sides to fade at the same rate. I’m rashly assuming the verso wasn’t left in the sun for some crazy reason or other.