Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Provenance of the Jesus' Wife Papyrus Doesn't Pass the Smell Test

File this in under "antiquities: fishy provenance": The NY Times explains how it is that the fragment of papyrus containing the tantalizing references to Jesus' wife came to Harvard:

Dr. King first learned about what she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” when she received an e-mail in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Dr. King, 58, specializes in Coptic literature, and has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Gnosticism and women in antiquity. 
The owner, who has a collection of Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri, is not willing to be identified by name, nationality or location, because, Dr. King said, “He doesn’t want to be hounded by people who want to buy this.” 
When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown. The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment “the sole example” of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.

So a professor of Egyptology, now conveniently dead, told the previous owner, also now conveniently dead, this bombshell information, and the previous owner then did not announce the astounding fact to the world or try to donate the fragment to a museum or put it up on the market for millions, but instead sold the papyri privately to another owner who kept it for 13 years before asking the Harvard prof to translate it. As they say on Saturday Night Live, oh realllly?!

It would be interesting to know whether Dr. King raised any questions or an eyebrow when told this tale, but it would appear not, since she seems to be passing it on as if it were simply to be taken at face value. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The owner could certainly answer some questions by authorities that might make it possible to retrace the trail the owner describes, and perhaps eventually lead to the discovery of other pieces of the fragment. On the other hand, we might well learn that the provenance provided is a cover story. But of course, none of these questions can be posed, since the owner is remaining anonymous becausehe doesn't want to be hounded, Dr King tells us, by buyers.

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