Critics, for their part, claim that even if testing proves that the papyrus is ancient it is possible that a forger could have purchased blank pieces of ancient papyrus on the antiquities market. Moreover, they argue that even if the ink is proved to be ancient, it is possible that a forger took a less interesting (but authentic) ancient text, scraped the ink off, mixed it with water, and created the GJW. Though conceivable, no one has ever actually shown that this has ever been done. As Roger Bagnall, the director of the Institute for the study of the Ancient World at New York University, one of the world’s leading papyrologists, and an early supporter of the GJW, put it to us: “It would be so unethical to try it on any genuine piece that I don’t know how to test that claim, and to try it on a fake wouldn’t yield what one would want to know!”
And for many critics, there is no response that can overcome King’s continuing refusal to provide the name of the anonymous owner of the papyrus, which would give scholars some answers to the all-important question of provenance. Until that issue is settled, the papyrus will always be a matter of dispute.
The debate persists, too, because both sides are winning on their own turf—the lab tests continue to support authenticity, the textual analysis continues to suggest fraud. What is really at stake here is not the status of this one small fragment. It is, rather, what kind of information, and what kind of conclusions, are privileged: those from the data-driven world of the sciences, or those generated by the collective expertise of the humanities?
To the interested layperson, this can look like a futile and irreconcilable issue. Those invested in the textual arguments continue to chip away at the credibility of the papyrus and to posit ways, however inventive, in which the papyrus could have been forged and still pass rigorous scientific muster. King and her supporters respond by issuing the occasional rebuttal, keeping their focus on what the lab results can tell them. The Columbia research team, for its part, concentrates—per its mission—on establishing data about the ink, regardless of what was actually written with that ink. The groups appear hermetically sealed from one another.
And perhaps for good reason. When those trained in analyzing the content and form of ancient papyri comment on their scientific properties, they risk running into difficulties. The papyrologist Christian Askeland argued in 2012 that the GJW and another papyrus from the same collection, one that he deemed even more obviously fraudulent than the GJW itself, “clearly shared the same ink, writing implement, and scribal hand. The same artisan had created both essentially at the same time.” His claims were based solely on visual inspection of images of the fragments, and were quickly dismissed in the lab, where it was conclusively demonstrated that the ink on the two papyri is compositionally different, leaving the GJW untarnished by association. (The ink on the second fragment, it should be noted, also tested as ancient.) King, it should be said, deserves credit for keeping an open mind, at least publicly. She has repeatedly allowed for the possibility that the papyrus is a forgery, though it is obviously not her default position.