Baker Academic

Friday, May 2, 2014

Jesus' Wife: Is It a "Hoax" When Money Is Involved? — Le Donne

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published this headline:

How the 'Jesus' Wife' Hoax Fell Apart

First let me point out that the author does not use the word "hoax" in the body of the article. My guess is that he had very little to do with the title of this piece. Judging from a few dictionary definitions, the terms "hoax" and "deception" can be used synonymously. Still, I wonder about the connotative value of the word. Hoax seems to me to have the connotative value of a prank, whereas "forgery" suggests a scam for personal (most often monetary) gain.

So I ask the question: is the term "Hoax" appropriate here? 

The fragment in question—if believed to be authentic—is of great monetary value. Ron Howard’s 2006 film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code grossed over $758 million worldwide. Dan Brown's book is still selling copies in the millions. Within the climate of this media appetite, the Smithsonian had plans to create a documentary on the Jesus' Wife fragment more than two years before the HTR issue was published. Is it unwarranted to guess that the motive behind the authorship of this fragment was monetary? Even if the author of this fragment only made thousands rather than millions, I wouldn't call him/her a "prankster." Aren't we dealing, rather, with a con-artist?



  1. Interesting question, Anthony. I think the signs are that the owner of the fragment was trying to sell it, so the term forgery might be more appropriate. See:

    -- Smithsonian interview (Sept 2012, revised Nov. 2012): “In late June 2011, nearly a year after their first exchange, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail that King shared with me, after stripping out identifying details. (King has granted the man’s request for anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector did not want the fragment to disappear in a private archive. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it” (

    -- Boston Globe, Sept. 2012, “King said the owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous because he does not want to be hounded by people who wish to buy the papyrus, which he has now offered to give to Harvard as part of a purchase of his collection of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic papyri. Harvard has not decided whether to pursue the offer.”

  2. There are a bunch of different terms that could be used and they all fit to vary degrees of goodness. My preference for the most generic term is "fake," but it is not always clear by that term whether it is the artifact or the contents are false.

    "Forgery" is certainly appropriate for almost every fake on the antiquities market. We have a collector who owns it and presumably wants his collection to be a valuable as possible. Of course, the collector is not necessarily the fabricator, but the collector's desire to own a valuable object and pay for it provides a pecuniary motive for the fabricator to forge it.

    There is also another meaning of forgery that does not apply to the GJW, however, and that is the literary concept that Bart Ehrman wrote a book about with scores of examples. This concept involves deliberate misattribution, and the lack of attribution in the tiny fragment makes a purely literary notion of a forgery inappropriate. But forgery in the antiquities market sense, sure, that's a better fit for the term.

    Hoax is probably the least appropriate term for the GJW is appearing to be. It suggests a playing a prank upon a mark. While the GJW fragment does not appear to share the other characteristics of a hoax, it does (assuming it is a fake) have the facet of being deliberately targeted at a particular individual (or kind of individual). So much of the content and the back-story of this item with Prof. Fecht fits the scholarship and personal background of Karen King so closely that I have to wonder whether she was the "mark" intended all along by the forger. To that extend, the term "hoax" has some purchase, it would be that she was hoaxed in order to authenticate the GJW and presumably this would inure to the benefit of the rest of the collection. (As long as the rest of the collection can be sold on the antiquities, the GJW fragment itself can be "donated" as a way of disclaiming a direct pecuniary motive.)

    But a fake on the antiquities market? Yeah, "forgery" is the best term, even if a little long the headline writer.