Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife from an old German collection

Harvard Divinity School has provided information about a fragment of papyri in an anonymous private collection ("The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus"). The Harvard website helpfully informs us "Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt".

Readers of LM will not be asking certain questions. Why is nothing known about its discovery? When was the fragment found? Where was the fragment found? What else was found with it? When did it leave Egypt (if Egypt was where it was found)?

What about the collecting history? Again, the Harvard website tells us more:
Nothing is known about the circumstances of its original discovery or early ownership, but there are some clues about its modern history. The earliest documentation about the fragment is a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus. It now belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted Karen L. King at Harvard Divinity School for help in identifying its contents.
Will the Fecht letter be made public? Has the handwritten letter been authenticated? (Fecht died in December 2006.)

Who is the present anonymous collector?

The New York Times (Laurie Goodstein, "A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife", September 18, 2012) has a bit of publicity for the fragment. It tells us
The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment “the sole example” of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.
Who was the previous German owner? Was the person a dealer or collector? What is the documentation for the sale?

Professor Karen L. King has been invited to prepare the fragment for publication in Harvard Theological Review. Some journals would not allow the publication given the fragment's obscure collecting history. The publication will no doubt help to add to the fragment's value prior to its acquisition by a proposed new owner.

Professor Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York, makes an important observation about the fragment:
The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom — most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit, Dr. Bagnall said.
In other words Bagnall thinks that a much larger papyrus fragment was cut up to provide this piece that can be flouted as a great discovery (and no doubt a wonderful acquisition from some undiscerning institution).

There are a number of legitimate academic concerns about this newly surfaced fragment, and it is hoped that King will be addressing these prior to any proposed publication.

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