Jesus H. Christ (Mrs.)

September 27, 2012

Adapted from my segment on Virtual Skeptics. That’s Virtual Skeptics, available now for all your skeptical needs on YouTube or

Last week, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, dropped a bombshell at the tenth annual International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome: she had found Mrs Jesus.

Specifically, she had studied a small, roughly rectangular scrap of papyrus that contains a Sahidic Coptic text. The fragment is torn on the top, bottom, left and right, so it is difficult if not impossible to get a good idea of the entire context of the passage. The one thing that got people’s attention, though, is the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” Jesus also says that a woman, possibly the wife, will be able to be his disciple. He also mentions his mother and a woman named Mary, although it is not entirely clear if “Mary” refers to the wife, his mother or another woman. Although it is common in Christian texts to refer to the Church as Jesus’ wife, the personal context of the passage makes a literal interpretation of “my wife” more likely.  According to King, “The meaning…’my wife’ is unequivocal; the word can only have this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife” (King 18).*

Oh. My. Married. God! The Da Vinci Code was right!

Hang on a sec. First, The Da Vinci Code was not right. Not in any world. Jesus and Mrs. Jesus, YHWH and Asherah, Buddha and Buddhessa, the Vishnus,  Zeus and Hera, Odin and Frigg could all come down from on high and proclaim in a variety of languages that The Da Vinci Code was right, but that still wouldn’t make it right: it would just prove that those gods are fallible and unworthy of worship. Such a declaration would immediately remove a god from the God Stakes.

More importantly, while King, who is not herself a papyrologist or Coptic linguist,** admits that “Coptic paleography is notoriously difficult to date” (8), she places the handwriting of the papyrus in the second half of the fourth century and suggests that the original (in Greek, presumably) was probably written in the second half of the second century (based on similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of the Egyptians. So, assuming the fragment is authentic and assuming these dates are correct, the fragment is relatively late, and there is no particular reason to assume that it represents The Truth.™

King calls the fragment The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, even though she admits that there is no clear evidence that the work is a gospel (not enough text survives to determine genre); there is no indication that Mrs. Jesus is the putative or pseudonymous author; and there is no evidence that she is even the primary subject of the work. King also uses the words “recto” and “verso” in a way that strikes me as nonstandard. Usually those terms  indicate (respecitively) the front and back of a leaf from a codex. Here it is not even clear that the work comes from a codex, and even if it does, the paucity of text and the damage to one side makes it impossible to determine which side comes first. For King, “recto” means “along the fibers” and “verso” means “against the fibers.”

The provenance of the fragment is murky at best. The owner has chosen to remain anonymous, although he or she apparently also owns a 2nd- to 4th-century fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. This fragment came from the same batch of Coptic and Greek papyri as the “Take my wife” fragment (King 2). Where these fragments came from originally, no one knows. The anonymity of the owner and the murkiness of the provenance raise concerns that the fragment could have come from the illicit antiquities trade.

King makes several arguments in favor of the fragment’s authenticity. She notes that the papyrus seems to be genuinely old but admits that it is possible to acquire blank scraps of ancient papyrus. However, she believes that the condition of the ink argues for authenticity: it is badly worn and in some places illegible. The “verso” is particularly badly damaged, with only a few recoverable words. There are also minute traces of ink at the edges of the fragment, suggesting that the text was cut off from a larger original. Where the papyrus is damaged, the ink has faded or disappeared. King argues that if the fragment were a modern forgery on old papyrus, we would expect to see the damaged areas filled with ink.

The ink will be subjected to non-destructive tests. These will not provide a definitive date but should show if the ink is consistent with that of other ancient papyri. A more definitive test, such as Carbon 14, cannot be used because that would destroy too much of the tiny fragment.

On the other hand, the references to “my wife,” “Mary” and a female apostle seem almost too good to be true. It’s not just Da Vinci Code fans who are hungry for this kind of evidence. Perfectly normal, literate people have become interested in the gnostic gospels that suggest the crucial role women played in some sects of the early church. References to an intimate if not necessarily sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary have sparked a great deal of interest among feminist bible scholars and Christian women. And, boy howdy! this tiny, tiny fragment hits all the sweet spots, without containing a single complete sentence.*** Several other religious artifacts that seemed to good to be true, such as the James ossuary and the Jordan lead codices, were rather quickly declared likely forgeries.

The Gosple of Jesus’s Old Lady appears to be headed in the same direction. In the peer review of King’s article, two of the three readers questioned the fragment’s authenticity, and King’s article shows that there are anomalies, such as non-standard grammatical forms. King defends these by reference to the Gospel of Thomas, but its similarity to that text may be problematic. Within days of the momentous announcement, New Testament scholar Francis B. Watson of Durham University argued that the Gospel of Jesus’s Main Squeeze was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. While he makes a compelling case, it is difficult to judge, without knowing Coptic, whether the similarities result from a modern forger lifting scraps from Thomas, or whether, perhaps, the two works merely share verbal parallels.

Many of the scholars at the Coptic conference where King revealed the fragment have also questioned its authenticity, suggesting that neither the handwriting nor the grammar looks right. Indeed, the backlash has been so immediate and so widespread that the Harvard Theological Review has walked back its commitment to publish the article in the January edition.  On Friday, one of the co-editors said that they had only “provisionally” accepted the article for publication, pending the results of scientific tests and “further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

So, it seems King’s announcement may have been premature, but she notes that she was looking for comment and criticism. In the draft of her article, she freely mentions the reservations of her readers. The media reaction to her announcement, however, has been predictable. Headlines scream that there is new evidence that Jesus had a wife or that King claims Jesus was married. Neither of these statements is true. It is well-known that early Christians held widely diverse views, even about Jesus’s nature (was he fully divine, fully human, or both?). The fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus had a wife; if it is authentic, it merely provides evidence that some early Christians thought he had a wife, a view that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to scholars who study the early church.

A minority of Christians has reacted predictably as well, declaring the fragment inauthentic simply because they don’t like what it says. A commenter on a post called “Christian Scholars Not Fazed by ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ‘” somewhat ironically declares:

This fragment is little more than another attempt to discredit Jesus and hence Christianity. Any impeachment upon Jesus’ character would be fuel to the devil which if this parchment were true would have been evident by now the devil would not have let an opportunity like that go begging. You [another commenter] blaspheme when you say that He was “kissing on Mary all the time” not  only is that not scriptural but it defames His character. For Jesus to have a  wife is to suggest that there was a passion within His nature which His Deity  could not overcome thus diminishing His ability to overcome for the world. He  would not have had the desires of a human in this regard because He came to do  the will of the Father which was to live a pure and sinless life and die as  God’s sacrifice for sin to atone for the sins of the world.

This is for you, “An Evangelist”:


King, Karen L., with AnneMarie Luijendiik. “‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”‘: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Draft.

Watson, Francis. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake gospel fragment was composed.” Revised.

*The Coptic word can mean either “woman” or “wife;” the use of the possessive suggests that “wife” is the more appropriate reading.

**Stop laughing, Brian and Bob. You’re adult men with beards–it’s not that funny.

***This isn’t entirely fair. There are a couple of complete independent clauses (e.g., “Mary is [or is not] worthy of it”). They may or may not be complete sentences, but they aren’t complete thoughts.


This Week in 19th-Century Conspiracy

October 9, 2011

Right now I’m writing my presentation for CSICon, and if you follow my twitter feed, you are well aware of this. CSICon has taken precedent over most other things at this point, and I’m gunning to have the entire presentation done well before I go to New Orleans, so I can just plug and play. Well, play mostly.

The program says I’m writing about religious conspiracy theories, which is mostly true. It’s actually going to be about a lot more than just straight religion. As I was writing, I realized that there was a good chance my audience would start thinking, “So the hell what?” as I was writing about a number of anti-Jesuit and anti-Catholic movements in 19th-century. This audience is on the cutting edge of bullshit–they are up on their game and mostly committed to fighting woo, bunk, nonsense and enfeebling thoughts in the here and now. So, I have reengineered my presentation to bring make clear that there is a close continuity between the conspiracy theories of yesteryear and the conspiracy theories of todayyear. In particular, I am going to be looking at the features of these old stories and the features of the more recent stories. And instruct my audience to embrace the FEMA death camps and obey the New World Order. (I know that some of you Truthers are reading this! w00t!)

Basically, I’m going to answer the question, “What does a pillow fight having gone horribly wrong have to do with UFOs?” I’ve taken an especially strange statement given to me by a modern conspiracist and am looking at all the history that led up to someone making such an extreme claim. In doing so, I hope to show that, as much as it appears and no matter how truly gobsmacking this comment was, it was not pulled right out of his probed orifice, but is the end product of immense conspiracist energies spanning decades. I hope that it will fit in nicely with the meme-based explanations that I anticipate from the other panelists, since I will be looking at some of the longest-lived (most enduringly reproductively successful) memes.

I don’t want to spoil it all here right now–not that the people who I will be presenting to are currently readers. (I do hope, though, that some of them will become readers by the end of the conference.)


…And on the fifth and sixth days, God created dragons

October 3, 2011

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then we’ll begin.

In today’s lesson we’ll be discussing a wondrous book from the fine folks at Answers in Genesis. It’s Dragons: Legends & Lore of Dinosaurs, by Bodie Hodge, son-in-law of Ken Ham, and Laura Welch, with illustrations by Bill Looney, published by Master Books in the year of our Lord, 2011. Actually, now that I look more closely, I see that it wasn’t written by Hodge and Welch. Indeed, it wasn’t written at all. Rather, it was “compiled and edited” by Hodge and Welch. Was it divinely inspired? Divinely regurgitated? Just plain regurgitated from Answers in Genesis? It certainly wasn’t intelligently designed.

Actually, that’s a bit unfair: the illustrations are impressive, and there are many foldouts, little booklets and envelopes and Advent calendar-like windows to open. It looks like a fun kids’ book, like Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons or The Dinosaur Museum: An Unforgettable, Interactive Virtual Tour through Dinosaur History. The only minor problem with Dragons: Legends and Lore of Dinosaurs is its content.

Here is the basic argument, as I understand it: many cultures have dragon stories; therefore, there must be some truth in these stories. Many depictions and descriptions of dragons more or less resemble various dinosaurs. Sort of. Except for the bits that don’t really fit, but those can be dismissed. Thus, evolution is wrong.

It’s outrageous that impressionable children should be exposed to such drivel. The appalling grammar could have a devastating effect on them.

Oh, the science is kind of weak, too. And the history. And the authors’ grasp on mythology, folklore, theology, logic and literature is pretty shaky. But, my God, the grammar! I mean, how hard is it to write coherent, grammatically correct sentences in a 24-page picture book (and page 1 is the publication/copyright page)? If I were to share every inelegant sentence, I’d have to re-type the whole book, and that would be a violation of copyright. Also, I suspect my brain would try to escape. So, I’ll only be able to give you a brief sampling.

The authors preface their work by advising readers to

Begin at the place where truth has been shrouded by blind science and fact has been silenced for foolish mysticism and magic. Equip yourself with faith as your shield and logic as your sword. (p. 2)

Damn you, truth-shrouding blind science! Fortunately, the authors’ shield is strong. Their sword, however, is a limp clump of rusted metal. They note that there are many variations in the stories of dragons:

The challenges in deciphering these encounters is [sic] to separate possible fact from obvious fiction, taking into account clues found in the original translations of these events. (p. 2)

Another challenge are to make your subject and verb agree. But, as they say, it is always very important to go back to “original translations.” And what will you find in these works?

…terrifying creatures [that] were give [sic] names like Abraxas, Fafnir, Grendel, Brinsop, and Manasa. (p. 2)

Yes, they said “Grendel.” Yes, Grendel from Beowulf. Yes, they said that he’s a dragon. Indeed, in an insert dedicated to Beowulf, they say,

An ancient Anglo-Saxon account of the heroic Beowulf has him slaying fierce dragons that are plaguing the King of Dane [sic]. One dragon was named Grendel, and Beowulf kills both Grendel and its mother, another dragon. (p. 19)

Young Earth Creationists have an infuriating interest in Beowulf, but that’s a rant for another time and place. For now, I’ll just offer this:


Lo, we have heard in the days of yore of the folly of the Creationists, of the book-believers, how they made Grendel, man-shaped destroyer of the Danes, into a dragon, a dinosaur of old. That was bad scholarship.–from the Original Translation

Another place where we can find dragons is the flag of Wales. The red dragon (depicted on the flag) fought an invading white dragon:

Fearing destruction would continue, the dragons were tricked and captured while they slept, then imprisoned beneath the earth for centuries. (Insert p. 4)

Dear Mr. Hodge and Ms. Welch: It is not necessary to dangle every participle. Yours very sincerely, The English language.

There are also dragons in Peru:

Whether the ancient Nasca, Moche, or later Incan nation, Peru is known for dragons and many other pieces of art that illuminate dragons. (p. 5)

That sentence is so pain-inducing, I don’t even know what to say about it.  But never mind, to illustrate their point, the authors include pictures from “a couple of authentic Peruvian replicas.” Just in case you thought “original translations” was an anomaly, they offer up “authentic replicas.” In YEC world, up is down, translations are originals, replicas are authentic, and science works to obscure truth.

In a helpful, educational section, the authors provide the names used for dragons in various languages, including…wait for it…

Click to enbiggen

Austrian! AUSTRIAN! And no, in case you’re wondering, German is not mentioned.

I could go on, but I’m getting dizzy and queasy. The most terrifying thing about the book is the overwhelmingly positive customer reviews on Amazon. This one is typical:

This is actually a very interesting and fun to read book. despite the biased opinions of those who cling desperatley to their faith in evolution this book was not written by “nuts” but rather studied professors and scientists who have spent years reaserching the topic. I found the book was interesting however not for my younger son of two years but my older son of 4 found it fasinating. And it will not lead to an incorrect conception of science but a more wide view of human history and maybe even a greater imagination. This is a fantastic book. I highly recomend it. It even surprised me how big it was. I was expecting something a bit smaller but it turned out to be a much bigger book with very big nicely drawn pictures.

I don’t know where the author got the idea that Hodge and Welch are “studied professors and scientists,” but I can understand why he or she was impressed with the quality of the book’s writing.

To end on a more cheerful note, here is an actual genius’s take on the evolution of the dragon:

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci


Interview with American Freethought

September 11, 2011

I caught up with John and David from the American Freethought podcast at Dragon*Con, and they asked me to be on their show for the 9/11 episode. That interview is up right now. Go. Listen. Subscribe.

I am currently working on the 9/11 version of the “week in conspiracy,” but there is a lot. Go figure.


From our foreign correspondent…

August 12, 2011

…the Blessed Professor Acker, who is currently in England. Hopefully he’s looting something nice for us. Oh, also that he remembers to steal an adapter since the plugs are different over there. He apparently picked up an Annunciation for himself:


Skeptics visit the Creation Museum

March 24, 2011

About a year ago, over Christmas break, Eve and I visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It was fun and everything, but not for the reasons the creators (with a lower-case “c”) intended.

This never happened.


Every so often, we may post audio of our public talks. Just be you warned. This is a young website, one sparking with shiny promise.


The Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub podcast, by the way, is produced by Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media. He’s a multimedia whiz-bang and does a great job for the Altanta Skeptics. He’s also on the steering committee of the newly formed IIG-Atlanta. More on that project soon!


Bug Girl reports on a different type of infestation…

January 12, 2011

If you visit Bug Girl’s Blog today, you’ll find a useful discussion about the Christian Identity movement, a peculiar racist subculture that holds the peculiar religious belief that the real Chosen People are America’s white males.

The Real Chosen People

The roots of this delusion can be traced back to beliefs that surfaced in England during the Empire, when believers saw their nation, as the colonial governor of Palestine, playing a special role in the fulfillment of divine revelation. This slightly patronizing view of Jews mutated in this country into the extremely racist theology that it is today. A great source on this uncanny evolution is Michael Barkun’s Religion and the Racist Right. I also recommend Chip Berlet’s extensive work on conspiracy and American politics.