A Question of Content: How I Saw the
Internet Furor Over the Jesus' Wife Fragment

Introduction: In an article published Sept 18th, but based on earlier interviews, the
Boston Globe quoted respected papyrologist Roger Bagnall of NYU, as follows:

All in all, Bagnall said, “The preponderance of evidence is clearly in favor of
authenticity, both because it is so hard to imagine who could have faked it and how,
but also because there is nothing inherently suspect about it,” Bagnall said. “You’ve
got the physical object, the handwriting, the language, and the content. There’s not
a single one of those that seems to me suspect.”

Although he has not to date issued any further statements, Bagnall has surely had
occasion since to consider his views in light of what followed. After a three-day
period (Sept 18-20) in which the news was dominated by the announcement of the
fragment, quickly followed by a storm of useless opinionating about whether Jesus was
or wasn't married, and what that might mean for religious belief (nothing), scholars
online began to seriously question the authenticity of the fragment itself, no more
so than with respect to its content.

It had been noticed by the King team from the beginning that the fragment contained
certain parallels to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (CGT), but they had not suspected
the extent of it. In an unparalleled seven-day period (Sept 21-27) a case for complete
dependency on CGT started with an online paper by Francis Watson (on Mark Goodacre's
NT Blog), and was amended and built up by a number of other scholars working
independently, but in concert with each other. By Thursday of the second week - 10 days
after King had made the fragment public - internet scholars had basically completed the
Watson case for "patchwork" composition of GJW, by dealing with line 6, which was at
first thought to contain an unusual Coptic word for 'swell up' - not found in CGT or
almost anywhere else. The Watson team succeeded in showing that this was probably
a misspelling of a word that does occur in CGT, and that the King team had
consequently misinterpreted line 6. This was the biggest challenge to the Watson theory,
and for awhile the matter rested there. But there was another crucial detail to be worked
out: if the fragment was copied from CGT (except for 'wife', of course), why was it missing
two letters (one in line 1, the other in line 3) that were in the CGT at the places supposedly
copied from? It was those missing letters (together with the supposed unusual word on
line 6) that had persuaded the King team that the scribe was a skilled Coptic writer. The
Watson team, who took the scribe to be relatively unskilled in Coptic, had to account for
the two missing letters.

Two weeks later, the question was answered. In another remarkable 3-day period
(Oct 9-11), it was discovered that the two missing letters could be accounted for
on the supposition that the forger had used the pdf version of Grondin's interlinear.
Andrew Bernhard had harbored this supposition for some time, but the evidence
was relatively long in coming, due to a series of miscues. Be that as it may, the
result was that it was Bernhard's writings that represented the culmination of
the unparalleled co-operative, online building of a case against authenticity.

It should be noted that the strength of the plagiarized-content case lies not in the
finding of GJW wording scattered randomly throughout CGT, but rather that the
entirety of GJW wording (aside from 'my wife') is to be found in a small number of
CGT sayings, and a few closely-contiguous lines. By means of timeline, commentary,
and links to the most important internet sources, this is a story of how the Watson
hypothesis was rapidly evaluated, developed, and completed through the fast-paced
but careful interaction of internet scholars. But while a story, this account does not
pretend to be the story. The full story can be told only by someone having access
to the private communications which occurred during this period. The story told here,
then, is simply as it appeared to this outside observer and sometimes participant. - MWG

This page first made publicly available 10 Oct 2012. Rev 13 Nov 2012.