Fraud in the Search for Christian Origins?

Our ability to shed light on the origins of Christianity depends almost entirely on ancient sources. These can be either documents or archaeological artifacts. Each discovery can potentially reveal new information to help us understand a people and a period of time so far removed from our own. But what happens to the public’s confidence in Biblical scholarship and research when new discoveries are publically challenged as to their authenticity or accused of being outright frauds?

Naturally, each new discovery should undergo rigorous vetting by the academy. Nevertheless, when charges of fraud are raised the public must surely wonder what is going on behind the scenes. The press loves sensationalism and gives undue exposure to inter-disciplinary disputes within the field of Biblical studies especially when the discoveries appear controversial. Sometimes these disputes seem more doctrinal than scientific. When supposedly new evidence challenges long-held beliefs by suggesting, for example, that Jesus was married, or that Jesus was gay, or that Jesus could not have been raised from the dead if his bone-box has been discovered, many scholars, including conservatives, react with hostility and the public wonders whether these finds, sometimes proven to be fraudulent, were part of a conscious effort to discredit Christian faith.

This article summarizes three discoveries that could possibly impact our understanding of Christian origins but whose authenticity has been seriously challenged. Two are documentary and one is archaeological in nature. These are the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and the ossuary of James the Brother of Jesus. By reviewing the circumstances of the discovery of these artifacts and the subsequent claims of fraud made against them, we can get a little better view into how such circumstances arise and see that there is no single reason why certain discoveries are challenged and occasionally discredited.

The Secret Gospel of Mark

The Secret Gospel of Mark, or Secret Mark for short, is not an entire gospel but two quotations from a supposedly different version of the Gospel of Mark than that which appears in the New Testament. The quotations occur within the contents of a letter purportedly written by Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Egyptian Christian teacher. The letter was discovered in the back pages of an 18th century copy of a 17th century edition of the missives of Ignatius (second-century bishop of Antioch). The volume was in found in 1958 in the library of the Mar Saba monastery 20 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem by Dr. Morton Smith. Smith was inventorying the library’s contents when he found the letter. He photographed the pages and returned to America where he worked on the translation and interpretation of the letter. His findings were first published in 1973 in The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, then later in a more scholarly edition.

The contents of the letter indicate that it was written by Clement to someone named Theodore in answer to Theodore’s questions about a sect of Christianity known as the Carpocratians. The Carpocratians had been advocating a style of religious practice that was sexually quite liberal. They defended their lifestyle by referring to passages in a Gospel of Mark that Theodore was unaware of. He wrote to Clement to ask if there was any way that the Carpocratians could be right in their insistence on the existence of another version of Mark’s gospel especially one with verses referring to “naked man with naked man” and so forth. Clement’s letter is a response confirming the existence of multiple versions of Mark’s gospel but denying the presence of such verses as the Carpocratians were citing.

According to Clement, Mark wrote his first gospel in Rome based on Peter’s teachings. After Peter had died, Mark brought his and Peter’s notes to Alexandria where he added material to his earlier gospel, fashioning what Clement calls “a more spiritual gospel.” Two examples of these additions are cited by Clement. The most important has to do with the resurrection of a young disciple by Jesus, a story very similar to that of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. As Clement indicates, this passage would follow what is in our modern Bibles Mark 10:34.

“And they come to Bethany. And there was there a certain woman whose brother of hers had died. And coming, she prostrated before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And having become angry Jesus went away with her into the garden where the tomb was. And immediately was heard from the tomb a great cry. And approaching, Jesus rolled the stone from the door of the tomb, and going in immediately where the young man was, he stretched out his hand and raised him, having grasped the hand. But the young man, having looked upon him, loved him and began to beg him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they went into the house of the young man; for he was rich.”

“And after six days Jesus gave charge to him; and when it was evening the young man comes to him donning a linen sheet upon his naked body, and he remained with him that night; for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the kingdom of God. Now rising, he returned from there to the other side of the Jordan.”

The last verses seem to allude to an intimate encounter between Jesus and the unnamed young man. Smith himself admitted to the possible homoerotic tendencies in the passage. Other scholars have suggested that an ancient form of nude baptism is being described although nowhere in the story is water, a necessary ingredient of baptism, ever mentioned. Some have claimed that the entire quotation by Clement is nothing more than a collection of disparate verses derived from the canonical gospels and compiled by a forger and does not represent an independent and early form of the Gospel by Mark.

With only Smith’s photographs as evidence, some in the academic community suspected Smith of fraud. However, in 1976 a number of scholars visited Mar Saba and found the document referred to by Smith and prepared better, color photographs as proof of its existence. However, to date no one has yet examined the document itself in order to conduct papyrological or ink analyses which would provide more evidence by which to date it. The document has now become lost.

Some scholars were not shy about suggesting that Smith himself wrote the document, possibly utilizing a 1936 collection of Clement’s works, a multivolume series which even included a concordance of all the words that appear in Clement’s authentic publications, a tool, some suggest, that would make it easy to imitate Clement’s style. Others wonder about the purpose behind committing such a fraud. Was Smith championing a position on a modern social issue (homosexuality) as some have suggested?

If the document is a forgery, could not the deception have been committed prior to Smith? Or does the letter accurately depict the compositional history of the Gospel of Mark? If not, was it Clement who was misled about it?

The academic community remains divided on the authenticity of the letter. And by authenticity we must be careful to distinguish whether we are referring to the correct representation of the compositional history of Mark’s gospel, the authenticity of the letter by Clement (whether or not he correctly understood that history), or the authenticity of the 18th century re-production. Scholars who have supported the validity of Secret Mark include John Dominic Crossan (Four Other Gospels, etc.) and Helmut Koester (Ancient Christian Gospels, etc.) and, currently, Scott Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery. Detractors include S. C. Carslon, Gospel Hoax, The: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, Peter Jeffrey, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, and Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities. My own view is that, if the letter was never authored by Clement and thus does not represent a true history of Mark’s gospel (passages included), it was not a fraud perpetrated by Dr. Smith but by someone else earlier in the chain, to what end I do not know.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife 

The so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is in reality a small piece of papyrus measuring .4 cm by 8 cm. The few incomplete sentences that are written upon it in Coptic seem to imply that Jesus was married.

“not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe…”

The disciples said to Jesus,

“deny, Mary is (not?) worthy of it…”

…Jesus said to them, “My wife…”

“…she is able to be my disciple…”

“…Let wicked people swell up…”

“…As for me, I am with her in order to…”

“…an image…”

The English translation of the text, published by Dr. Karen King in the Harvard Theological Review in April, 2014, gives little additional information about the marital relationship of Jesus other than the key line which features the phrase, “My wife.” The text is called a “gospel” because the dialogue format of the fragment resembles those conversations found in the canonical gospels as well as the extracanonical Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. Is the figure of Mary, named in the text, the mother or the wife of Jesus, or perhaps neither? King opens the possibility that the reference is metaphorical in nature. Obvious parallels to the extracanonical Gospel of Philip were immediately cited in which Mary Magdalene is described as someone Jesus used to kiss frequently “on her mouth.”

The discovery of the papyrus fragment is shrouded in mystery. Its unnamed owner claims to have acquired it in 1999 from one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. It was one of six Coptic papyrus fragments acquired in the transaction. The purchase agreement notes that the scraps were previously obtained by Laukamp in 1963. Questions of forgery were immediately raised. King addressed the issue of fraud head on and after extensive scientific examination reported that “the scientific testing completed thus far consistently provides positive evidence of the antiquity of the papyrus and ink, including radiocarbon, spectroscopic, and oxidation characteristics, with no evidence of modern fabrication.” (King, HTR 107:154). Radiocarbon dating established a mean date for the papyrus of 741 C.E. Not all are satisfied, however, and some believe they can prove the document a modern creation.

A grammatical mistake in the text is claimed by some to be a reproduction of a typographic error that appeared in an online interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas, also in Coptic, prepared by Michael W. Grondin in 2002. Grondin’s error (an error not in the original Gospel of Thomas) went unnoticed until its comparison with GJW was made. That has led to allegations that the entire fragment was based on text from Thomas. King doubts, however, that a forger relied on the Gospel of Thomas to cobble together words and phrases in order to compose the GJW; that would necessitate that the purchase agreements themselves are forgeries.  Also, King notes, two highly unusual Coptic terms appearing in GJW do not occur in Thomas. Leo Dupuydt, who wrote a refutation of the authenticity of GJW in the same issue of HTR, notes that bold lettering seems to have been used in the fragment for the Coptic word for “my” as in “MY wife” as if to highlight the sensational statement. He claims this has never been found in any Coptic document discovered to date.

Christian Askeland (,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid= 97&cntnt01returnid=15) has pointed out that one of the other six papyrus fragments obtained in the transaction that included GJW is an acknowledged forgery of a passage from the Gospel of John. He was able to show that the same handwriting and writing instrument were used to compose the GJW.

Once again the question arises as to whether a modern forger has tried to project an opinion on a modern social issue (the status of women in the church?) back into ancient times. My own view is that this is, unfortunately, a modern forgery. This is unfortunate because highly-respected scholars may have been misled by unscrupulous antiquities dealers.

The Ossuary of James the Brother of Jesus

In 2002 antiquities collector Oded Golan revealed to Dr. Andre Lemaire, a noted expert on Semitic epigraphy, an ossuary in his collection that bore the inscribed name (in Hebrew) “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” There was a historical person named James who, according to the New Testament and other historical references, was the brother of Jesus and leader of the Christian sect of Jews in Jerusalem until his execution by temple authorities in 62 C.E. The potential discovery of his ossuary was sensationalized in a 2004 Discovery Channel special but even before this, interest in the artifact was intense. Many scholars examined the bone box especially during the Toronto Society of Biblical Literature/American Schools of Oriental Research conference in Toronto in late 2002. Along with serious interest came, unfortunately claims and counterclaims about the authenticity of the relic. Accusations of “hoax” and “fraud” were leveled. The bone box itself was certainly an authentic ossuary from the first or second century C.E. But it was the inscription that drew criticism. Was the engraving applied at the time the box was placed in the tomb or is it rather a modern forgery? And what about that tomb in which it was found? Just where did this ossuary come from?

In 2003 the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced that the ossuary inscription was a forgery and the following year Golan was criminally charged with fraud. Eight years later, however, following the testimony of 52 expert witnesses, Golan was acquitted of the charges of forgery. Although the court did not pronounce the article a genuine ossuary of James, it could not summon sufficient evidence to denounce it as a fraud.

As to where the ossuary came from, Golan acquired it on the “black market” but was told that it was discovered in the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem, an area lying between the temple mount and the Mount of Olives. There is a large tomb there that has been erroneously ascribed to James in ancient tradition though in actuality it belonged to the sons of Hezir, a second-temple-period wealthy Jewish family. A 2007 Discovery Channel special suggested that the ossuary may have gone missing from a tomb discovered in Talpiot, Jerusalem, in 1980, a tomb referred to by some as the “Jesus Family Tomb” because several of the inscribed ossuaries found within it bear names familiar to readers of the gospels. These include “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Maria,” “Miriamne,” and “Joses.”

Regardless of the location where the James ossuary was found, it now seems certain that both the ossuary, along with its inscription, is an authentic first-century artifact. Is this the actual bone box for the brother of Jesus? Statistical analysis has been used to demonstrate that during the first century not more than one or possibly two people could have met the requirements for having the combined name “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It is my belief that it is the genuine article.

Further Reading:

A recent and excellent survey of non-canonical gospels such as Secret Mark is The Non-Canonical Gospels edited by Paul Foster (T&T Clark, 2008). The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is thoroughly discussed in the Harvard Theological Review issue available online as well as on a number of other online resources. More information about the ossuary of James can be found in Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington’s The Brother of Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), Ryan Byrne’s and Bernadette McNary-Zak’s Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus (University of North Carolina, 2009), and in two articles from James Charlesworth’s The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? (Eerdman’s, 2013): “The James Ossuary and Its Implications” by Joseph Fitzmyer and “On the Authenticity of the James Ossuary and Its Possible Link to ‘the Jesus Family Tomb’” by Rosenfeld, Feldman and Krumbein.

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