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The papyrus that proves nothing, 'resurrected' in time for Easter

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 10, 2014

How can you tell that Holy Week is approaching? Well, I hope that you’ve been observing Lent, and that you always keep an eye on the liturgical calendar. But even if you don’t, you can tell we’re getting close to Easter because a secular publication has given prominence to a flimsy argument against traditional Christian beliefs.

Ordinarily you can count on a few stories about the “Jesus Seminar” scholars, telling us that the “real” Jesus is different from the Jesus of the Gospels. Those stories may yet be coming, but the Boston Globe has struck first with a feature about a tiny papyrus fragment that proves—nothing at all.

Are you already getting a sense of déjà vu? Yes, this is the same papyrus fragment that Harvard professor Karen King introduced to the scholarly world 18 months ago. The text, in Coptic, seemed to discuss a wife of Jesus. But the Harvard Theological Review hesitated to publish King’s article on the fragment, because of the widespread belief that the papyrus was a fake.

Well, testing produced no clear evidence of forgery, so the Harvard Theological Review is publishing King’s article today. Just in time for Easter. Do you suppose that timing is coincidental? The Globe finds the journal article worthy of mention. Is it customary, then, for the Globe to provide coverage of articles in the Harvard Theological Review? Not exactly; not often.

The Globe story quotes at some length a Brown University scholar who remains convinced that the papyrus is a fraud, a forgery “bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish.” But the pronounced skepticism of Professor Leo Depuydt is not enough to subdue media interest in what purports to be, in the Globe’s words, “the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus.”

So who is it, in this papyrus fragment, who is referring to a married Jesus? We don’t know. King originally believed that the text dated from the 3rd or 4th century. If that’s correct, we can conclude that someone, a few centuries after the Resurrection, mentioned the possibility that Jesus had a wife. The Gospels, written by Christ’s contemporaries and eyewitnesses, mention no such possibility. As I said back in September 2012, “It’s difficult to see why this mysterious Coptic correspondent, arriving on the scene a few centuries after the fact, should be taken more seriously.” And remember, that’s assuming the papyrus fragment is genuine: a matter still very much in dispute.

The Globe story mentions that the papyrus fragment has been subjected to two carbon-dating tests. One test found that the text was probably from the 8th century, which suggests that King was wrong by several hundred years. The other test, remarkably enough, said that the text came from 200 to 400 years before Christ’s birth—a result which would, obviously, completely demolish King’s analysis.

So what do we have to go on, really? Well, between those two carbon-dating tests (if they’re accurate), we’ve nailed down the age of the papyrus to within about a millennium (if it’s not a complete fake). That's the level of scientific accuracy that's required of someone who wants to question Christian doctrine as Holy Week approaches.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 14 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 12, 2017 6:28 PM ET USA

    Claude-ccc2991: You have it exactly right. The argument that because a pope is a formal heretic he ceases to be pope fails on two grounds: First, there is no way to make an authoritative judgment of the pope; second, it is completely unnecessary, since—as you pointed out—a pope can spout all kinds of nonsense and still be protected by the Holy Spirit from errors in the exercise of his Magisterium. Yet if it were true that a pope who appeared to some or many to be heretical, or who was secretly heretical, actually ceased to be pope ipso facto, then there would be no guarantees at all, and we would be left unable to distinguish between when the Magisterium is being exercised and when it is not, except according to our own judgment. That would indeed invalidate Our Lord's promises. God forbid that our salvation should depend solely on our own judgment!

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Jul. 12, 2017 4:39 PM ET USA

    Great principle that, no matter the cause, our calling is to suffer well. That doesn't = doing nothing (not that you said so), if there's a specific action that would charitably correct grave injustice. Perhaps I misunderstand, but disagree that the Magisterium of Pope Francis would lose its divine guarantee if he teaches heresy. He could knowingly promote faith-moral errors w/o attaching a declaration of infallibility (other popes have) & retain the divine guarantee on infallible declarations.

  • Posted by: mclom - Jul. 12, 2017 4:23 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. Particularly like the advice to those who break away in despair. Have been tempted myself sometimes, but fortunately, it seems I am doing the right thing by staying :)

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Jul. 12, 2017 3:43 PM ET USA

    I pray the serenity prayer a lot. It always helps. How the church is run at the top is one of those things I have no control over, so why let it disturb my peace?

  • Posted by: johnleocassidy3475 - Jul. 12, 2017 3:27 PM ET USA

    Well said Sir! Let us recall the holy words of Father Faber who pointed out that "Suffering is the greatest of the sacraments".

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jul. 12, 2017 6:25 AM ET USA

    Thank you again, Jeff, for grounding some of my responses. I do sometimes verge on despair of this Pope, and wonder how the Church got here.

  • Posted by: Universal - Jul. 12, 2017 5:14 AM ET USA

    Totally agree, Jeff! When in doubt over somebody, choose suffering instead of self-righteousness. So much unnecessary and painful separation (and i.e. useless suffering) could b avoided.

  • Posted by: normnuke - Jul. 11, 2017 11:34 PM ET USA

    Not long ago in a fit of exasperation over the newest murky embarrasasment coming out of the mouth of our Pope I took my concern to Confession. The priest almost skewered me with the flat statement "The Pope is God's problem, not yours" Helps my prayer life no end.

  • Posted by: bill.mureiko5646 - Jul. 11, 2017 9:22 PM ET USA

    Just read this in de Lubac: "Catholic obedience, in its most common form" is to submit to badly exercised authority within the Church: "its inevitably paradoxical character makes it harder to accept willingly, and it inflicts its pain on us at a far deeper level of our being. Yet it is at the same time a source of joy. By humbling us 'under the mighty hand of God' it prepares us for the 'time of visitation.'"

  • Posted by: jimr451 - Jul. 11, 2017 7:47 PM ET USA

    Perfect response, and good reminder to us all.

  • Posted by: winnie - Jul. 11, 2017 6:31 PM ET USA

    Thid is your best analysis yet-THE alternative, suffering. John Psul ll's: "On the Christian Meanong of Suffering" has helped me appreciate the value of uniting my sufferings to Christ's.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 11, 2017 4:14 PM ET USA

    Amen. Christ gave authority to the Apostles and His Successors knowing all that man would do with that authority, from the most heroic faithfulness to the most base betrayal and yet He did it. He is the Head of the Church. Authority would mean nothing if it could be lost every time someone failed to live up to the demands. It is precisely in living in accord with that authority that helps us prove our faithfulness to the one who gave it, hopefully without conforming to any false witness.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 11, 2017 2:16 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the important reminder about this grace-filled option. "Take up your cross daily and follow me."

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 11, 2014 7:55 AM ET USA

    Hey! Dated to within a thousand years or so? I'd say that sends it right to the top of the "accuracy list" for the Boston Globe! Boston's "premier newspaper" performs for New England Catholics the service Pravda once did for opponents of the Communist regime in Russia: we know that anything we read there about the Church is likely the exact opposite of the truth.