Papyrus fragment makes international news

Photograph by Karen L. King. Reuters 2012.

In the past week one story seems to have been popping up all over the place; newspapers, blogs, my email inbox… even on the newsfeed of a certain social networking site!

The story in question is, of course, the “Wife of Jesus” papyrus fragment recently bought to light by Harvard Divinity School (http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife).

The content is probably largely responsible for the unusual amount of mainstream media attention. Such fragments are not usually substantial stories in multiple national newspapers (though what an improvement it might be if they were!). These reports have for the most part been concerned with the religious implications of the find but it is the authenticity, not the content, of the papyrus that has sparked the most vociferous debate in the academic community.

The fragment does have an unfortunately vague history. An anonymous private collector contacted the publishing scholar to analyze the ancient text. Its history can only be traced back to the 1980’s through several unverified and as yet unauthenticated correspondences. This lack of evidence for source and original context is a major concern. There is apparently no information on the circumstances of its discovery.  I’ll be interested to see what, if any, further information emerges on the origin of the fragment.

It has been argued that, without provenience, this fragment should not have been published in the first place. In this particular case I’m rather inclined to agree with the general consensus; there is simply too much doubt surrounding the authenticity of the fragment to actively incorporate it into scholarly work.  With further investigation it may warrant greater attention but I remain somewhat unconvinced.

I’ll certainly try and post a follow up on this specific story at a later date but I’d also like to use this story as a startup piece for a series of entries on the authentication of pieces from private collections. Having spent a great deal of time recently assessing the evidence provided by coinage, another body of material rather prone to lacking provenience, I have a particular interest in how, and if, we can use such objects in scholarly work.

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