In recent days you may have heard about a discovery of a small fragment written in the Coptic language in which Jesus appears to be making a comment about his wife (Jesus said to them, “My wife and . . .”). What do we make of findings such as this?
1) It typically takes palaeographers and religious scholars some time to sift through the reports and evidence once something like this is brought to light. Judgments about the origins and meaning of ancient written documents can often remain somewhat tentative for years after the discovery.
2) One of the first questions experts will ask is, “Is this a genuine ancient work, or a modern forgery?”
In just a few days after the announcement about the fragment about Jesus’ wife, Francis Watson, a respected biblical studies scholar in England, has already identified compelling reasons to believe that the fragment is a modern forgery that patches together language from two verses in the Coptic version of the so-called Gospel of Thomas. The forger was not confident in the Coptic language and so just made minor alterations to wording he or she found in the Gospel of Thomas. This theory is further supported by the relatively straight and parallel edges of the fragment (it doesn’t appear to have naturally broken off from a larger work) and the fact that the snippets of wording are difficult to fit together into a coherent discourse (suggesting that there is no broader discourse, and that there is no larger work that the forged fragment was once contained within).
3) If the manuscript or manuscript fragment is suspected to be genuine, scholars will attempt to determine the date of the manuscript using various means.
4) Students of ancient religious writings will try to discern the meaning of the text and relate it doctrines or philosophies that are already known from that era.
Even though this fragment may very well turn out to be a forgery, there are a number of other documents from the second and third centuries that do speak about Jesus. These often promote gnostic philosophies. The authors recognized the power of the “idea” of Jesus and wanted to link Jesus to their own teachings. The “Jesus” that emerges from these texts bears little resemblance to the Jesus the apostles testified about in the New Testament books, which were written generations before these gnostic writings. The apostles of Jesus taught and preached publicly about Jesus at a time when there were many eyewitnesses (some believers in Jesus, and others opposed to Jesus) who could confirm (or challenge) what the apostles were saying. The gnostic texts were written generations after by people who had no historical connection to Jesus. In other words, the gnostic teachings about Jesus add nothing historically to the testimony the apostles give us about Jesus.
The Jesus that is portrayed in the New Testament is consistently shown to be the promised Messiah/Christ, who taught about and demonstrated the kingdom of God in his ministry, who died for the sins of the world, who was raised from the dead, and who will come again one day to bring salvation and implement God’s kingdom in its fullness. Genuine and forged gnostic texts about Jesus receive a lot of attention from the media, but they are hardly worth the time, as they present a Jesus with no connection to history and no power to save.