Baker Academic

Friday, April 25, 2014

Interview with Caroline T. Schroeder re: Jesus' Wife Fragment

I have appreciated the friendship and collegiality of Caroline T. Schroeder these past two years. Carrie was among the handful of Coptic experts whom I leaned on. I will also say that it was her idea that we host a public lecture on the "Jesus' Wife" fragment at Pacific in 2012. Carrie is brilliant and gracious and has just won a super-duper fancy grant related to this project. Do yourself a favor and check out her book, Monastic Bodies

Dr. Schroeder could speak with wit and aplomb on any number of topics. In this interview, I've ask her to address the latest developments concerning the Jesus' Wife fragment.


ALD: Carrie, Thank you for weighing in on this topic. I know that many folks will be interested in your perspective. Back when the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" fragment was first publicized, you took a "wait and see" position. Others were quick to claim forgery or authenticity, but you seemed open but cautious. Are you still withholding judgement? And if not, what has persuaded you?

CTS: I am now convinced the fragment is a forgery. Christian Askeland's research discovery on Thursday changed my mind. In a nutshell: the Jesus's Wife fagment (JWF) was written by the same copyist as another papyrus fragment in the same collection, and that other papyrus is a forgery. Ergo, the Jesus's Wife fragment was forged.

The Jesus's Wife papyrus was part of a small collection of six papyri, which also included a fragment of a copy of the Gospel of John. As part of the testing of the JWF, its ink was compared to the ink of several ancient papyri, including of this Gospel of John fragment. (In an attempt to determine whether the ink on the JWF was indeed ancient.) The Gospel of John piece has never been published, so scholars had not seen it or studied it before. Not even photographs. However, as part of the latest issue of the Harvard Theological Review about the Jesus's Wife Fragment, documentation of the ink tests was posted online, which included digital photographs of the Gospel of John fragment. Christian Askeland examined the photographs and compared them to the JWF. He has persuasively shown that the handwriting on the two is the same. Since the John fragment is a forgery, ergo Jesus's Wife is a forgery (same copyist).

Why is the John fragment a forgery? Line breaks on this John papyrus correspond exactly to line breaks of another published fragment of John. On both the recto and verso sides of the papyrus. This is just an impossible coincidence. Anyone who has read Coptic manuscripts and papyri can tell you that we have never seen a case in which two copies of the same text break the lines in exactly the same places so consistently. (And in this case, if you look at the aligned photos provided on Alin Suciu's blog and Mark Goodacre's blog, you will see that the "scribe" copied every OTHER line break of the published John edition, in an attempt to make it look like the new John fragment was twice as wide.) There are also issues of dialect. The dialect of the text in the John fragment died out a century or two before the dating of the actual fragment and Jesus Wife).

Finally, the so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife also contains uncanny resemblances to an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, including replicating a typo in the edition. (See here)

I was willing to consider the possibilitiy of coincidence with just one manuscript. But two out of six papyri in a collection so similar to published editions of other manuscripts? Both written in the same "scribal" hand? And the published editions all available online? That cannot be coincidence; it must be deliberate.

ALD: When we discussed this fragment after you returned from Rome in 2012, you guessed that the ink tests would not ultimately tell us much. I think that you have been proven correct on this score. However, several media outlets have recently pointed to the ink tests as evidence of authenticity. What should non-specialists know about these tests that was not conveyed in the Boston Globe or Maclean's articles?

CTS: Yes, like many of my colleagues, I was skeptical that ink tests or papyri tests would be definitive. These tests can only prove if something is definitely a forgery, not that it is not a forgery. A forger can make ink with a similar chemical composition as ancient ink simply by using the right materials. Technology cannot answer all scholarly questions! (I say this as someone deeply embedded in a technological project right now.) In this case, the humanistic methodologies of papyrology and philology provided our answers.

I also would add that in 2012 I like many others immediately noted another problem that could not be answered by technology: questions about the acquisition and provenance of the papyrus. The JWF was published under the condition that the owner's identity remain anonymous and most of the documentation about the history of the manuscript remain secret. Some details about the papyrus's provenance were since released, but not all. And they often raised as many questions as they answered.

In the end, our concerns about provenance and were borne out. Askeland could only make his discovery because the ink test report contained a photograph of another manuscript in the collection. If all of the information about the collection and its provenance had been released originally, I am sure the John forgery and its connection to Jesus's Wife would have been discovered back in 2012.

ALD: Christian Askeland was initially suspicious of the seemingly bizarre grammar of line 6. Supposedly this line is meant to say "Let wicked people swell up." Why is this translation problematic?

CTS: I'm going to send people to this post by Alin Suciu and Hugo Lundhaug. Essentially, the grammatical construction in that line just makes no sense in Coptic. Now, one argument might be that people don't always spell their own language correctly or use the correct grammar and syntax, even if they are native speakers. And there are mistakes in manuscripts, even very well copied manuscripts. This would explain a bizarre grammatical construction.

Back in 2012 I was willing to entertain this possibility but also was curious about whether this kind of grammar mistake happens elsewhere, and I have argued that a good digital corpus of Coptic literature would help us answer these kinds of questions. We could search for and compute the likelihood of various grammatical and syntactical constructions. (And in fact, I am working on such a digital corpus now.)

Suciu and Lundhaug make a pretty persuasive case, though, that part of this "error" is really taken from a dialectical variant that shows up in the Gospel of Thomas. And even so, the line is still ungrammatical. I have always thought that their work was sound, but was willing to say that perhaps this was a grammatical error of an ancient person, not a modern forger. Now the new Gospel of John fragment revelation puts the origin of this mistake in a different light.

ALD: You've mentioned that you believe that a forger has taken advantage of Prof. King. In her shoes, would you have handled this situation any differently?

CTS: I did post on social media Thursday night that I am concerned that this forgery might be a hoax, similar to the Alan Sokal hoax in the 1990s. (At that time, I was a grad student at Duke -- a hotbed of the kind of postmodern theory Sokal was trying to debunk -- so the event was a big moment in my intellectual formation.)

I have tremendous respect for Karen King's scholarship. Also, Coptic Studies and Biblical Studies are very male dominated fields despite major advances over the past few decades. Some of the criticism she has received has been really unfounded. I myself am not interested in picking apart her actions. I am more interested in what lessons this event has for us for the future. I cannot say with certainty that in her shoes, I would have refused to work on this papyrus. All of us want to make major contributions to the field, not necessarily because we have big egos but because we genuinely love our work and our field. What would I have done if a private owner had come to me with a potential bombshell and also demanded anonymity and secrecy? I don't know. I do know that now I would only work under conditions of full transparency. Even if that means that someone else gets the "scoop."

ALD: What is the difference in calling this fragment a possible "hoax" versus simply calling it a "forgery"? Practically, what does the former assessment do for us that the latter does not?

CTS: First of all, I don't want to push the hoax angle too hard. It's possible the current owner did not know it was a forgery. Many things are possible. (This is also why we need transparency about the provenance of ancient artifacts. We wouldn't be speculating if we knew the ownership and acquisition history.)

Roberta Mazza has an excellent blog post about the ethics of scholarship on privately owned artifacts without good provenance. One of the things she asks is, who benefits when scholars publish about artifacts that do not have full, transparent, public documentation about their acquisition an provenance? She writes, " ...although to publish a papyrus or any other ancient artefact legally owned by a private collector is certainly legal, it is not a neutral act: it has consequences on the price of an ancient object in private hands, and involves a number of professional and ethical questions that cannot be ignored, as I tried to show."

I think the accusation of forgery tends to raise questions about money, about selling something on the market for more than it is worth. Forgery is about the authenticity of the object. A hoax is about the authenticity of academic scholarship.

To my mind, the academic community as a whole has certainly risen to the challenge (whether it be a forgery a hoax or both). Both in the fall of 2012 and then again now, within weeks of the release information about the JWF, scholars have made new discoveries that have addressed the questions about this papyrus.

ALD: What (if anything) do you think that this situation has taught us?

CTS: Social media and blogging really transformed scholarship in this case. Scholars from a variety of fields, including independent scholars who are not professors in colleges and universities, published their research online in a very rapid cycle. (A timeline of the 2012 online scholarship is here.)

It's tempting to say that bloggers and the internet have upended or undermined traditional scholarship, but I would not go that far. We see this situation in scholarship often: a manuscript or historical theory is published, other scholars poke at it, and the translation, interpretation, or theory gets completely changed over the course of a series of conferences, articles, or books on the topic. What's different is that the internet has completely accelerated this cycle. A conversation that would have taken years in print and at conferences has played out much more rapidly online.

We need to develop better mechanisms for integrating our online scholarship and traditional scholarship. I wish there had been even more documentation of the relevant online scholarship in the recent HTR issue, and I would love to see HTR or JBL or another traditional academic publishing outlet dedicate space to the role of the internet and social media in this event. One additional danger is that a lot of this scholarly conversation will be lost if the blogs or Facebook accounts disappear.

We also need to be more open about our ongoing work. Especially those of us with the luxury of tenure. The field--the world--benefits when we are willing to take the risk and open ourselves up to collaboration and even critique along the way. Likewise, the scholarly community in turn needs to respond to scholars who take an open approach in a constructive, collaborative manner, not with personal attacks or dismissive criticism. Working on new areas of research or unpublished manuscripts is very hard; the people who publish first almost inevitably make mistakes or come to conclusions that will change in the future. This kind of open, collaborative work is hard. But this event shows us it is necessary.

Thanks for the conversation, Anthony.


Thank you, Carrie!


  1. It's ironic to me that some folks are now taking the JW fragment to be a forgery because they think that the Jn fragment is more certainly a forgery. To my mind, it's the other way round. The JWF has far more visible signs of forgery than the JnF. The evidence of line-breaks in JnF is less persuasive than first appears, for if it is a forgery, the forger went to extraordinary lengths to select exactly the right stuff to put on the back side of the fragment. What I mean by that is that the number of lines between the front and back of the JnF fragment is about 61 - which is a tall page, but proportional to the hypothetical line size, which is also larger than, say, NHCII. This would have had to have been done by a skilled person, unlike the JWF. So I have doubts that JnF is a forgery, but if believing so makes folks realize that JWF is, I suppose that's a net good.

    1. Thanks Mike. I suppose that it is the mounting oddity of this story that has convinced most folks that JWF is a fake. Perhaps rather than using the language of a "smoking gun," we should say that this new data has "tipped the scales" toward the strong probability of forgery.


    2. That certainly seems to be the case. Am I mistaken or do the fb comments of Malcolm Choate indicate that he's tilting toward forgery for JWF as well?

  2. Thank you for your dedication to this project. God bless you abundantly.

  3. Apologies, Anthony. I have to retract my previous comment. I've just learned from Christian Askeland's latest blog entry that the John fragment failed to follow its pattern of every-other line on the last line of the verso. I hadn't seen this noted earlier, but it makes all the difference. I'm now persuaded that the John fragment is a fake.

    1. Mike, how kind of you to check back in on this point. Such thoroughgoing integrity is rare among blog commenters!


  4. She makes the astute comment that "We need to develop better mechanisms for integrating our online scholarship and traditional scholarship."

    My suggestion, is that journals should post, on their blogs, draft versions of the articles that they intend to publish. This would allow everyone to post comments, making suggestions, pointing out mistakes, counter-arguments, ambiguities etc.. The authors and reviewers could then benefit from such comments and the final products would be stronger. This could accelerate the 'conversation' that is scholarship.

  5. Too often scholars have jumped to sensational conclusions only to sell books and teevee time. Why are the same faces always appearing on these shows? Did King deceive herself? Yes, but she wanted to be deceived. Ideological conviction can only work provided they are accompanied by betrayal of fact.