In 2012, Harvard professor Karen L. King announced the existence of a Coptic papyrus in which Jesus mentions his wife. She described the text as a fragment from a lost Christian gospel dating to the second century. A media frenzy ensued, and photographs of the fragment were made available for study. Although the actual papyrus on which the text is written has been shown to be ancient, the text itself is believed to be a modern forgery.
13. What In Me Is Dark, Illumine
Jennet wondered what would happen when she visited Sebelius this time. She was dressed demurely, she thought, in a Black Watch plaid skirt that fell to just above the knee, flats, a white blouse with green piping, and a matching cardigan. Kyle said it looked too much like a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, but she’d always liked it. Would there be another kiss? I want him to touch me again. Or would he, as she expected, pretend it had never happened? She hadn’t caught even a glimpse of him at the Wellness Center since Monday; he must have been avoiding her. But even her feelings about the kiss couldn’t eclipse her excitement about the news she had to tell.
When he opened the door, the first thing she noticed was that he was wearing the same shirt as last week, a flowing linen one with long cuffs. Her eyes were level with his chest, and she saw the open collar of his shirt with its V-slit, and the ring-shaped gold pendant he always wore. Then she looked up at him and her eager smile faded at the rather grim look on his face.
“Jonathan, I have so much to tell you about the papyrus.”
He stared at her. She couldn’t read the expression in his blue eyes, which were pale in the sunlight. “Jonathan? Can I come in?”
He seemed to remember himself and stood back, beckoning her to the cool, dark interior of the house with its heavy furniture and rich, patterned rugs. They sat at the dining room table, and she began to explain about the text in the papyrus. It was the last several lines of a lost Pauline letter, she was certain of it.
“At the end of the New Testament letter to the Colossians, Paul instructs the Colossians to make sure his letter to them is also read in the church of the Laodiceans, and likewise that they read the letter he sent to the church in Laodice. But that letter has never been found. Jonathan, I think this might be a piece from it. At the end, he greets the saints in Laodice!”
He listened carefully, looking into her eyes. “If that’s true, what does it mean?”
She had to catch her breath for a moment as he spoke. “It means this is a very big deal. But that’s not all. The end of a Pauline letter usually contains his messages to specific members of the congregation. He greets the apostle Didyme, his co-worker in Christ!”
He looked blank, so she added, “Don’t you see? Didyme is a woman! Paul clearly refers to her as an apostle and his equal. There’s only one other mention of a female apostle in the New Testament, and it is highly disputed. This is huge! That is, if it’s genuine.”
“What do you mean, if it’s genuine? Do you think there’s a chance it’s a forgery?”
She shook her head. “I don’t. It’s my gut feeling after handling a lot of papyri that this one is perfectly genuine, and that the writing is late second-century. But other people will go out of their way to question it. First, they’ll say it’s a modern forgery, and if that’s ruled out, they’ll say it’s an ancient forgery, produced to fill the gap left when the original letter to Laodice was lost.”
He shook his head. “But why would an ancient forgery include a mention of a woman apostle?”
“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Jonathan, would you prefer to take this to one of the big guns at the Harvard Divinity School, or maybe a top papyrologist? I won’t grudge it if you do.”
“Why?” he asked. “Don’t you feel qualified to publish it?”
“Oh yes, I can prepare a perfectly sound edition of it, from a linguistic standpoint. That’s not a concern. But even if the journal I pick is under the radar, it’s still going to hit the news sooner or later. There will be international headlines. People camping on your doorstep trying to get interviews. And people with a vested interest in proving this is a forgery will accuse you of chicanery. If you hand this over to the big guns, at least they’ll take most of the flak instead of you.” She paused, remembering the media frenzy over the Coptic “Jesus’ wife” papyrus that had surfaced recently to much fanfare, only to be attacked as a fake by numerous scholars.
Jonathan laughed. “This is rich. I’m famous on this campus as a misogynist. Why would I fake a document like that?” He gave her a searching look. “But what about you? You’re active in feminist causes. Won’t they say you cooked it up?”
“Probably,” she nodded. He must have seen my door. Did he come to my office? “What kind of documentation of its provenance do you have? Is there anything to prove that your great-grandfather owned it, or your grandfather?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “There are some old church bulletins that describe his collection, since he put it on display more than once for the edification of the diocese. I’d have to check on whether this document was included. Of course, it’s specified in both wills.”
“Did the wills include photographs?”
“The second one, perhaps,” he said, frowning in concentration. “But this explains why my great-grandfather the Bishop wanted the thing burned. He couldn’t bear to do it himself. He must have thought that if his son burned the words of Paul without knowing what they were, the sin would be less.”
“I’m sure he was shocked when he saw what it said about Didyme. It must have rocked his world!” she laughed.
He chuckled too, and then his face grew serious. “I don’t want some bigshot from Harvard to take this over. I want you.” Suddenly, he looked confused, as though he’d meant to say “I want it to be you,” but the words hadn’t come out right.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The ancient church at Laodicea (in modern-day Turkey) was one of the Seven Churches of Asia mentioned in the book of Revelation. The Christians at Laodicea may have been the recipients of a letter from Paul (or at any rate, the author of Colossians) which is now lost. Like so much else about the New Testament, the nature and even the existence of this letter is much debated. Over the centuries, quite a few fake “Letters to the Laodiceans” have surfaced, so any new claimant would be scrutinized very minutely.