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 See full bio.

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  • 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.