Francis Watson, a well-respected professor of the New Testament at Durham University, in the United Kingdom, posted cautious but serious doubts online just two days after King’s talk. The fragment, he wrote, could be “more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one.” A week later, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (admittedly not an impartial source) declared the papyrus “an inept forgery.” Leo Depuydt, of Brown University, one of the scholars invited by the Harvard Theological Review to respond to King’s article on the fragment in advance of its publication, summed up the prevailing view. “It is out of the question,” he wrote, “that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source. The author of this analysis has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”
Every ancient manuscript comprises an accumulation of features, each of which—the writing implement, the style of the script, the handwriting, the grammar, the syntax, the content—is subject to analysis. If something is off about any of these features, the entire manuscript can be deemed a fake. The judgment required to assess these aspects of a manuscript derives only from years of scholarship and expertise.
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife exhibited a variety of problematic features. Virtually all ancient papyrus texts were written with a reed pen, but the letters on this fragment, blunt and thick, appeared to have been made by a brush. Not only that, they were ill-formed (equivalent, perhaps, to the letter forms produced by clenching a marker vertically in your fist), which suggested the work of a nonnative writer. So did a handful of apparent grammatical errors, one of which can be reasonably likened to writing “he threw the ball me” in English—the kind of mistake that a nonnative speaker or a child might make but that would be difficult to imagine coming from an adult native speaker.
In further comments written a few days after King’s talk in Rome, Watson pointed out the most-damning evidence of forgery: virtually every word and phrase in the fragment—with one important exception—could also be found in a Coptic text known as the Gospel of Thomas, a nearly complete manuscript from the fourth century A.D. that was discovered in 1945, published in 1956, and put online, along with a translation, in 1997. Watson surmised that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife consisted of little more than stitched-together bits and pieces of this publicly available Coptic text.
Watson presented additional evidence to support his claim. For instance, the first line of the fragment begins with the broken phrase not [to] me, in which the beginning of the prepositional phrase to me is missing, followed by the words My mother, and then gave me li[fe]. Precisely the same broken phrase, not [to] me, begins one of the lines in the Gospel of Thomas—and it is followed by a sentence beginning, as in the fragment, with My mother. The next line of the Gospel of Thomas begins with a phrase not found in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (but my true [mother]), but it ends with the same words that end the first line of the fragment: gave me life. Here’s how they compare:
Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]
Gospel of Thomas: not [to] me. My mother … but my true [mother] gave me life
Finding similar phrases in two different works is not necessarily probative. (In fact, King herself had noted some of the parallels.) But finding similar words placed identically along a line of text is almost unbelievable. For Watson and many others, it was certainly highly suggestive of forgery.