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DURHAM, England — A British scholar is claiming to have found evidence that what has been named the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is a forgery.
Francis Watson, a professor at Durham University in northeast England, said in a paper published online that the text on the supposed 4th-century papyrus fragment had been pieced together from parts of the Coptic-language Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic or early Christian text.
The discovery has ignited fierce debate among academics, with some hailing the fragment as having the potential to fundamentally change the modern understanding of early Christianity, and others disputing its merit.
Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled the discovery at a conference in Rome last week, saying the papyrus fragment appeared to be a 4th-century reference quoting Jesus talking about his wife.
King said the fragment was likely a partial Coptic copy of a second-century gospel, probably written in Greek.
A line-by-line analysis by Watson of the eight incomplete lines of text that have threatened to turn the Christian world on its head found similarities to the Gospel of Thomas that Watson said cannot be ignored. He said six of the lines are so closely related to the Gospel of Thomas as to "make dependence virtually certain." One line is derived from Matthew, and one line remains unaccounted for.
Further, Watson said the text appears to be "the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic" — that it is likely a modern-day forgery.
A line break in the middle of one word seems to have been lifted directly from modern editions of the Gospel of Thomas. While line breaks in the middle of words were common in ancient scripts, for the same break to appear in two different copies of the same work was quite uncommon.
"Unless this impression of modernity is countered by further investigations and fresh considerations, it seems unlikely that (the Gospel of Jesus' Wife) will establish itself as a ‘genuine' product of early gospel writing," Watson said.
Watson did not criticize King for her findings, saying the Harvard professor has been open about need for more research before a claim can be made to the fragment's legitimacy.