Why Scientists and Scholars Can't Get Their Facts Straight

The ongoing dispute over the authenticity of a scrap of papyrus from the ancient world highlights a larger question of how history is established.

Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

In 2012, the world was introduced to the wife of Jesus—or, more accurately, to an ancient papyrus containing a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus appears to have used the phrase, “my wife.” Dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” or “GJW” for short, this scrap of text quickly became a media sensation, with a front-page story in The New York Times and a Smithsonian special featuring Harvard’s Karen King, the scholar who discovered it. Almost as quickly, however, a significant number of scholars, especially those trained as experts in the study of ancient papyri and languages, deemed the piece to be a modern forgery. By early 2014, the two sides had dug in deeper: Those in favor of authenticity produced lab tests on the papyrus and ink that supported their position, while those opposed produced more detailed analysis of the handwriting and the phrasing of the text, which pointed in the direction of fraud.

When we wrote about the debate for The Atlantic last December, it seemed that the story had run its course, with the overwhelming majority opinion strongly on the “fake” side. Mark Goodacre, a professor of New Testament at Duke University and a leading voice in the conversation, said it was, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a forgery. Indeed, a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal New Testament Studies was dedicated to dismantling the credibility of the GJW—thereby doubling down on the sense in the scholarly community that continuing to talk about the GJW is, paradoxically, both a waste of intellectual energy and still worthy of discussion.

And yet here we are, less than a year later, and the GJW is back. According to reports published in LiveScience and elsewhere, a high-tech lab at Columbia University has undertaken new testing on the ink of the papyrus, using the very latest methods—methods so new that the researchers are hoping to publish them on their own in a scientific journal. What is being hinted at in the latest news items is that the results of these ground-breaking tests may well suggest that the GJW ink is consistent with what we would expect from the ancient world. (The newest media coverage, to the despair of scholars, persists in the implication that if the papyrus is authentic then it might prove that Jesus was actually married. For the record—again—no. All it would prove is that in the ancient world, like the modern one, the relationship status of Israel’s most famously single rabbi was a matter of some speculation.)

Remarkably, on the very same day that LiveScience announced the new round of lab tests, Andrew Bernhard, a scholar of ancient Christian texts, posted an essay in which he brought new evidence to suggest that the GJW was a forgery. The most important argument in favor of forgery had always been that the text of the GJW seemed to have been stitched together out of words and phrases taken from the Gospel of Thomas—a different, quite famous, and publicly available ancient document—including, it seemed, a grammatical mistake that had been thoughtlessly copied from one text to the other. What Bernhard demonstrated was that the English translation of the GJW that had been provided by the anonymous owner of the papyrus (and that King had not made available for scholarly inspection until now) also seemed to have been cobbled together, from an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas published on the Internet only in 2002—again, including some idiosyncrasies that could be explained only as the result of copying. The academic blogosphere erupted with almost gleeful admiration for this new research.

Which brings us to how strange this debate is. Both sides are looking at the same credit-card-sized scrap of papyrus, with the same words in the same hand in the same ink. Both sides are represented by members of the same academic community—those who continue to push for the authenticity of the GJW are highly respected scholars, as are those who are calling it a forgery. Yet the two sides are approaching the papyrus from completely distinct angles, and getting completely different results. Those in favor of authenticity have, since the beginning, looked to scientific testing—carbon dating, ink analysis—to justify their claims. Those who believe it is forgery have leaned on the analysis of letter forms, of grammar, of syntax.

Each side acknowledges and addresses the arguments of the other. King has published formal responses in two different venues to the various textual problems that critics have observed. For those critics, even if King has an answer for every concern, the very fact that there are so many objections to refute is itself a point against authenticity.

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.

Certainly it is tempting to think—or, at this point, to hope—that a particularly winning academic argument or sophisticated scientific test will settle the issue. This seems to be the impetus behind some of the media coverage, which—as it was when the story first broke in 2012—seems, from a scholarly perspective, somewhat premature. The final results of the Columbia ink study have yet to be published. There’s not even a sound bite to be had: The scholars and researchers involved in the study have declined to comment publicly about it. The news being broken is not that decisive lab results have been achieved: It is that there may, some day in the future, be decisive lab results. Until the official announcement, however, all of these hints and suggestions about “further evidence of authenticity” are undeserving of either criticism or of citation.

From the perspective of textual scholars, the situation is frustrating. As Goodacre told us,

One of the things that has disappointed me about a lot of the media coverage, though, is the idolizing of “science” alongside a denigration of the work of experts in the field of early Christian texts. So in July, there was a superb issue of New Testament Studies, one of the premier journals in the field, featuring high-quality work by experts showing conclusively that the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a modern forgery, and it barely gets a mention in the media. Then there is sentence or two of hearsay about ink in a LiveScience article, and the media is buzzing with fresh declarations about authenticity.

In the two-step of discovery and media coverage, scientific results take the lead, while humanities research finds itself on the back foot.

Given the stakes that have been claimed for this papyrus—whether they are justified or not—the public has the right to expect some sort of closure. Media reports consistently attempt to provide this, or at least some hope for it. But it may well be that the media coverage is actually working against any possibility of a decisive end to the discussion. The more attention the GJW gets, the more fuel is added to the fire—and the more each side feels the need to have the final word.

It may seem as if the cottage industry of debate surrounding this papyrus—which has now produced multiple funded lab reports, a slew of scholarly articles, and innumerable blog posts—is self-sufficient to the point that each side would continue to work irrespective of whether anyone continued to argue back. But perhaps debating against an opponent isn’t really anyone’s goal here. It is the nature of scientific inquiry to find the next frontier: These latest lab reports were generated not by interest in the GJW in particular, but by the development of new technology in ink analysis more generally. And scholarship in the humanities is virtually defined by the belief that every question can be reopened for discussion, even to reinforce a preexisting consensus.

Integrating physical material evidence and intangible literary evidence is difficult: The two sides are looking at the same object, but are focusing on different issues, and answering different questions. The methods they employ address particular concerns, but not necessarily those raised by the opposition. No data point—either from a lab or from a linguist, be it an ink test or a grammatical error—will decide the issue on its own; it must be considered in light of the entire body of evidence. If the arguments brought to bear on the issue so far do not produce consensus among scientists and scholars, then there will probably be no final word.