“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife'” highlighted.

The web continues to be abuzz with The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.  So much is being written that it’s hard to keep up!  Here are the latest and most important developments.

James Watson has written two more papers (here and here) further developing his original thesis that The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a collage of various words and phrases culled from the Gospel of Thomas to form a new composition that is supposed to appear like a new gospel.  Andrew Bernhard has also tested Watson’s thesis in two papers (here and here), and agrees that “a modern author could have created the text of GJW simply by using short excerpts culled exclusively from Coptic GTh.”[1]  Both of Bernhard’s papers present an excellent visual and summary of the extensive semantic borrowing of the GosJesWife from the Coptic GTh.  He notes that only 14 out of 139 legible letters on the recto of the GosJesWife do not correspond to the Coptic GTh.  Eight of these 14 letters make up the phrase “my wife.”  Of the other 6 letter differences, they are either due to gender shifts in the pronoun or uninterpretable because they are single letters that come at the beginning or end of the line and lack sufficient context for reconstruction.

Some, such as Michael Peppard, have questioned the significance of Watson’s work. He argues that the identical line breaks in the GTh and the GosJesWife is not that significant since “NAEI” (“to me”) is a very common Coptic word and we would expect for it to regularly be broken up between lines (I have updated my previous article to include additional information on this, including illustrative photos).  As for the shared vocabulary, he claims all of the words shared between the GTh and the GosJesWife are fairly common in gospel literature, with the exception of shafe, meaning “to swell.”  It would not be surprising, then, that two different Gnostic gospels shared much of the same vocabulary.  Peppard seems to have missed the point, however, since the issue is not merely a shared vocabulary, but shared phrases that are nearly letter-for-letter identical with the Coptic GTh.

In Watson’s third paper he develops an argument for the GosJesWife being a modern forgery that I find even more compelling than that the semantic similarities and identical line break.  Everyone agrees that the side margins are missing from the GosJesWife, making the meaning of the extant text difficult to decipher.  The dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is highly disjointed.  Additional context is necessary to understand what is being denied in line 3, and to understand how Jesus went from talking about his wife being a disciple in line 5 to talking about a wicked man in line 6 and back to his wife again in line 7.  But how much additional text could there have been in the original manuscript to close the gaps in the text and present a coherent dialogue?

Using the Nag Hammadi manuscripts as his sample, Watson counted the median number of Coptic letters scribes could fit per line on a manuscript.  He discovered that the mean was between 19 and 26 letters, with 29 being the maximum in any manuscript.  Most lines in the GosJesWife already contain 19 letters (one contains 20, and one contains 17, and line eight only contains 7 because only one word is extant).  Even if we allowed for the greatest number of letters per line – 29 – that would only allow for 5 more letters on the left margin, and 5 more letters on the right margin for each line.  One could not possibly use such few letters to construct the number of words that would be required to create a context that can make sense of the extant words appearing on our papyrus.  This argues strongly for the conclusion that we are not dealing with an ancient text that has been damaged over time – leaving us only with the text we now possess – but a blank papyrus fragment that was used by a modern forger as material on which to copy phrases from the Coptic GTh.  We have not lost the context of the GosJesWife; there was no context to begin with.  As Watson says, “it was designed to resemble or impersonate a damaged fragment. The gaps [in the dialogue] between the extant lines may have been there from the start.”

The last development to note is from Mark Goodacre.  Watson originally saw no similarities between the GosJesWife and the GTh, claiming instead that it was derived from Matthew 28:20b.  Goodacre, however, has pointed out that a nearly identical phrase is found in GTh 30 – a point that was later echoed by Watson himself.

[1]Andrew Bernhard, “Could the Gospel Of Jesus’ Wife Be A ‘Collage’ of Words and Phrases Culled Exclusively from The Coptic Gospel of Thomas?”; available from http://www.gospels.net/gjw/GJW(Bernhard_9-24-2012).pdf; Internet; accessed 26 September 2012.