The Jesus’s Wife Fragment: End of Story?


The Jesus’s wife fragment debate has entertained us since 2012, but it seems time to let it go. In a piece of great investigative journalism published yesterday on The Atlantic Ariel Sabar recounts his meeting, after following many leads, with the owner (and possibly forger?): Walter Fritz.

I recommend reading the article in order to enjoy the entire story, its many shadows and implications, and its disquieting protagonist. Here I just want to comment briefly about what I have been mainly interested in so far: provenance, provenance, provenance, as my colleague Carrie Schroeder has entitled her blog post on the recent developments of this saga.

I never stepped into the authenticity debate simply because I am not competent enough in Coptic papyrology; I was rather worried, however, about two main points: 1) the dangers academics inevitably encounter when publishing texts in the hands of anonymous collectors and lacking secure, documented provenance (= collection history, including archaeological finding circumstances when known); 2) the risks academics take engaging with the media, especially in the current University system which prizes media exposure.

The Jesus’s wife fragment posed a number of challenges since its appearance. I explained in an old blog post (Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter) that even if professor King in her publications was making an effort to give account of the provenance documents produced by the anonymous owner, that dossier was far from satisfactory for reasons ranging from the acquisition dates, to the quality of the scripts themselves (scanned copies of letters and statements, from what we were told). Well, we now have the proof that the doubts some of us has had were reasonable.

Some of King’s statements in the article (e.g. “I haven’t engaged the provenance questions at all” is the reaction to Saber’s first discoveries on Fritz) and her post-article interview which has just appeared (Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelieveable Tale of Jesus’s Wife) demonstrate a shocking unawareness of the importance of verifying the collection history of an object before publication. (I should say this is at odds with a brief exchange of emails I had with her in the past). What is even more disconcerting is that as rightly recalled in a post published by Christian Askeland, hints and doubts about Laukamp and the source of the papyrus and its companion fragments were already circulating since the appearance of an article by Owen Jarus; the fact that even Askeland, who I am sure just made some searches through Google or similar tools at his desk, had already a clue about the profile of the people involved, while King and the Harvard Theological Review seem to have underestimated if not ignored the entire question tells us that something went seriously wrong.

But I am not entirely surprised. The Jesus wife fragment is not the only Egyptian manuscript to have raised questions of provenance recently. As I have already written in the above mentioned old post and elsewhere, and repeat here again since nothing has changed in the meanwhile despite following publications, I still have my own reservations on the quality status of the provenance provided for another recently emerged fragmentary papyrus, the new Sappho owned in part by a London anonymous collector and in part by the Green/Museum of the Bible collection (Washington).

To sum up: are simple statements of academics, dealers and collectors, eventually accompanied by unchecked and/or not publicly available documents, sufficient to prove provenance in scientific publications of recently emerged texts? Personally, I do not think so, especially after what we have been seeing in recent years and in the wider context of a market inundated by an increasing stream of objects coming from Egypt (You want number and graphs? Then read e.g. D.W. Gill, ‘Egyptian Antiquities on the Market’, in: The Management of Egypt’s Cultural Heritage, edited by F. A. Hassan, and al., vol. 2: 67-77. London 2015).

This story invites all of us – members of editorial boards in particular – to reflect very carefully on documenting provenance. Imagine a different, and more sinister scenario, one involving someone who smuggles a papyrus, or buys it illegally, and then offers it to an academic so desperate to publish to avoid checking provenance in depth: in this case, if the academic is based in the United Kingdom, he can risk to be charged with an offence under section 328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 connected with money laundering, because his publication or opinion facilitates exchanges of criminal property. (You don’t believe me? Then read J. Ulph and al., The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities. International Recovery and Criminal and Civil Liability, Oxford 2012, esp. pp. 110-111).

Now, my fellow academics, ask yourself once again: would you publish a papyrus without solid, documented provenance for a flashy appearance on the media and one more article out?