Friday, April 11, 2014

"Authentic" Ancient Paper Fragment Containing Bad Joke Regarding Jesus's "Wife" (1)

In all of the hubbub regarding the status of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife fragment in the Fall of 2012, and the renewed interest with the results of the testing on the document being published on April 10, 2014, I wanted to let everyone know that I too stumbled across a remarkable document in October 2012. Fall 2012 was quite the time for ancient fragments, as over at Commonweal, Michael Peppard found a(n) (purported) ancient document written in English regarding Jesus on marriage. These things come in bunches.

I did not publish my findings immediately in October 2012, as I wanted to study my document most carefully. I was especially intrigued recently while looking at the photos which I took of the fragment in 2012 that it has written in the top left corner "Ancient Paper Fragment." This puzzled me for a time until I remembered that I had, in fact, written this along the top of the paper. It is true that the paper itself looks like a coffee stained piece of paper from a legal pad, with red vertical lines running down the left hand side and the paper lined horizontally with blue ink at regular intervals, creating what I like to call "lines." I would love to examine the paper more carefully, or have experts in the field examine the paper under scientific conditions, but, unfortunately, I have lost the manuscript fragment. This is frustrating for a number of reasons, including prominently that scientific testing will not be able to be carried out on the fragment and, even more significantly, that my dreams of retirement will now have to rest on increasing my contributions to my 401k plan.

Nevertheless, the good news is that I can read the entire text, which is written in excellent Greek; the hand of the scribe suggests a well-educated scribe, probably handsome, funny and terrific at parties,  but that might be going beyond what the manuscript can tell us. These are my "hunches" or "working hypotheses." Even more the Greek seems to offer a variant of a passage from the Gospel of John 4:27-30. I offer the Greek from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition first for comparison:

Καὶ ἐπὶ τούτῳ ἦλθαν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐθαύμαζον ὅτι μετὰ γυναικὸς ἐλάλει: οὐδεὶς μέντοι εἶπεν, Τί ζητεῖς Τί λαλεῖς μετ' αὐτῆς; (27)

ἀφῆκεν οὖν τὴν ὑδρίαν αὐτῆς γυνὴ καὶ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πόλιν καὶ λέγει τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (28)

Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέν μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα: μήτι οὗτός ἐστιν Χριστός; (29)

 ἐξῆλθον ἐκ τῆς πόλεως καὶ ἤρχοντο πρὸς αὐτόν. (30)

Here is the English translation from the NRSV:

 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

"Authentic" Ancient Paper Fragment Containing Bad Joke Regarding Jesus' "Wife" prior to coffee being spilled on it (2)

With this data at hand, we can now make some comments on the ancient fragment. The first three lines of the fragment contain the identical Greek to John 4:27 ( "Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, 'What do you want?' or, 'Why are you speaking with her?'"). 

The end of line 3 of the fragment begins John 4:28 and is identical to the Nestle-Aland critical edition until the end of the fifth line. At that point, the N-A reads καὶ λέγει τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, in which the woman at the well is the subject, translated as "She said to the people." But the fragment has a change in subject, with the addition of the name of Jesus, and the object shifting from people (anthropois) to disciples (mathetais). As a result, the fragment reads, "Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city and Jesus said to the disciples."

The end of line 5 and the beginning of  line 6 are not found in N-A, or in any other manuscript that I know, repeating a portion of John 4:28, but in the mouth of Jesus: γυνὴ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, or "the woman went into the city." As a result, the whole sentence would read, "Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city and Jesus said to the disciples, 'the woman went into the city' ."

The end of line 6 also has no equivalent in any manuscript tradition or variant of which I know. In it the disciples are described as speaking to Jesus:  οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγον τῳ Ἰησοῦ, Τίς γυνὴ;  or "The disciples said to Jesus, 'who is that woman?'"

 Line 7 and the beginning of line 8 have Jesus' reply:   Καὶ Ἰησοῦς λέγει τοῖς μαθητοις, ἐκείνη οὐκ γυνὴ, ἐκείνη γυνὴ μου.  The first part of the sentence is simple: "And Jesus said to the disciples." The next two clauses would literally be translated in this manner: "that (is) not (a) woman, that (is) my woman." This is the most fascinating part of the fragment, for in it, Jesus plays on the double meaning of gyne, which could either mean "woman" or "wife." It seems obvious to me, and it will be obvious by the disciples' reply, that Jesus intends "wife" by the second use of gyne, which is marked off by the possessive pronoun. In my translation, "And Jesus said to the disciples, 'that's not (a) woman, that's my wife!"

The final portion of the manuscript, the remainder of line 8 and line 9, have the response of the disciples: Καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ κατεγλων αὐτοῦ ὅτι Ἰησοῦς πάντοτε ἔλεγεν ἐκείνην. This is the most difficult part of the translation. I would translate it in this manner: "And the disciples were laughing (at) him because Jesus was always saying that." Whether they were laughing "at" him or "with" him is hard to determine, but since Jesus "was always saying that" we might surmise that they were pretending to laugh or even having a little fun at his expense. 

My translation of the manuscript as a whole is as follows:

Line 1 Just then his disciples came. They were
Line 2 astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one
Line 3 said, 'What do you want?' or, 'Why are you speaking with her?' Then the woman left her
Line 4 water jar and went back to the city
Line 5 and Jesus said to the disciples, 'the woman went into
Line 6 the city.’  "The disciples said to Jesus, 'who is that woman?'
Line 7 And Jesus said to the disciples, 'that's not (a) woman,
Line 8 that's my wife!’ And the disciples were laughing (at) him
Line 9 because Jesus was always saying that.

Herein lies the conundrum: is he actually speaking about his wife or is this just what is known as a "bad joke"? In favor of the "bad joke" reading is, how does one put this delicately, it is a "bad joke." Also, why would the disciples inquire as to who this woman is unless they do not know who she is? It seems unlikely that this is actually referring to the wife of Jesus and is more likely a joke created by the scribe, unless it refers to an event which emerged either from the Jewish or later Christian oral tradition. In this case, it could have been attributed to Jesus prior to the writing of the Gospel or following the writing of the canonical John. 

It does not seem to have Gnostic tendencies, unless it reveals a disdain of marriage, but such tendencies might be attributable to the Johannine tradition. Since celibacy emerged in the earliest Christian tradition itself with the writings of the Apostle Paul and traditions attributed to Jesus, one would not have to attribute this to later Gnostic developments.

The verb katagalao, which appears in line 8 in the participle form, has the meaning of "to laugh at, or ridicule," so it is possible that the disciples are laughing here in order to be kind, to hide their true feelings, or even in the sense of "groaning," as people are wont to do with bad jokes, especially those they have heard before.

Against this, however, is how the disciples "set Jesus up" in line 6 when they ask, "who is that woman?" If they have truly heard this "joke" before, are they not giving him the perfect entry to hear the joke again? If that is the case, perhaps they enjoyed the odd pun or "groaner." Although, if the disciples are "setting him up," does that mean that they truly do not know the woman or that they are pretending not to know her in order to give Jesus the opportunity to tell the joke? This might, then, argue for authenticity in terms of Jesus' wife. Still, it seems most likely that this is not Jesus' wife, just a joke, as it would not make sense of the "astonishment" the disciples felt when they first saw the woman with him, as reported in line 2.

Since I cannot perform any sort of carbon 14 dating on the text and paleography seems out of the question with the missing manuscript, we have to rely on the content of the text itself to date it and place it historically. The manuscript text seems to be dependent upon the Gospel of John, but could John have relied upon a lost manuscript which I am calling the "Gospel of the Jesus's Wife Joke"?  The joke itself reveals itself as ancient in character, already old at the time of Jesus. The origin of the "joke" itself is lost in the mists of time. This gives us a sense of the "oral tradition" in action. It is hard not to think we have a text of some antiquity here, though, old enough to classify the text as "vaudevillian" in tone. I suggest we name the text  The Vaudeville Papyrus ,or P. Vaude.

Naturally, it is important to receive input from other scholars before coming to any definitive claims about the origin, provenance and antiquity of this text, which is why I am placing this before the public, but I think we can all agree, if this text is authentic it is later than the canonical Gospel John, unless it reveals itself to be an earlier substratum of the Johannine community or a part of an earlier Jewish or early Christian "vaudevillian" oral tradition and so is earlier even than the canonical Gospel.  Still, the likelihood is that we are dealing with a text which is much later than John, putting us in the 2nd, 3rd, or even the 20th or 21st centuries. These things are so hard to detect with precision. As things stand, we might say that we have gained insight not into the person of  Jesus, or his disciples, but into the scribe (or group) which produced this text. And from my point of view this scribe (or group) has a got a lot of 'splainin' to do, which sounds remarkably like another stream of the oral tradition of which I am aware.

John W. Martens
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  1. Jim, Thank you for your support of this sort of scholarship! It warms my heart.