Sunday, April 27, 2014

The forgery of the Lycopolitan gospel of John


A second fragment containing the gospel of John traveled with the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment (GJW), and this Gospel of John fragment (GJohn) is clearly a forgery.  Because both fragments share the same writing, the GJW must also be a forgery.  I am grateful for the input that Alin Suciu, Mark Goodacre and many others have offered concerning the newly available Gospel of John fragment.  I will use the present page to post photographs, a comparative transcription and relevant links. Please note, this will be a dynamic page, and I will no doubt update the transcriptions and main points.  Over the course of the next week, I will write an article for the June 2014 Tyndale Bulletin discussing the paleography and text of this fragment.


Mark Goodacre has identified clearer photographs which I share, here (Jn 5:26-30 and 6:11-14, respectively).  The dimensions are ca. 11 × 8 cm (versus ca. 7.5 × 4 cm for GJW.)

Qau compared

The following transcription represents in green the extant text of the forgery.  Mark Goodacre offers an eloquent discussion of how this inauthenticates both this fragment and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment which were created through the same scribal event (font).
  1. Notably, seventeen of seventeen line breaks are the same.  This defies coincidence.  
  2. Alin Suciu first announced the relevance of Sahidic ⲉⲃⲟⲗ for Lycopolitan ⲁⲃⲁⲗ.  The Sahidic spelling is not possible given the extant dialectal orthography which, for example, otherwise consistently has the Lycopolitan Alpha in lieu of the distinctly Sahidic Omicron.
  3. I note here that the omitted ⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ results in total nonsense. 
  4. Likewise, the one instance where the forger has not copied every second line (verso, ll. 7–8), is an instance in which the intermediary text is a secure stock phrase “they were saying that”.  The presence of additional text here is impossible.  The forger erred when he turned from page eight of Thompson’s PDF to page nine, having also passed plate 25/26.
  5. Naturally, the fact that we are seeing Lycopolitan in a fragment radiometrically dated to the seventh to ninth centuries is a huge problem.  The minor dialects (Achmimic, Lycopolitan and Middle Egyptian) are not present in the extensive documentary tradition from the sixth to eighth centuries.

Radiometric dating

The fragment under discussion was carbon-dated twice by labs in Arizona and Massachusetts.  The resultant rounded, callibrated two sigma dates are, respectively, 680880 and 640800 CE (fract.mod. results: 0.85680±0.0033 and 0.85030±0.00410).  Along with the results for the GJW wife fragment, I have graphed the results using OxCal, here:

Codex Qau

Codex Qau, Jn 16:3317:19
The most recent discussion of codex Qau may be found in a recent award-winning contribution to the subject of the Coptic versions of John’s gospel (esp. pp. 141143, also 94105, 195208).  Therein, one learns that the jar and linen cloth which protected this manuscript of John’s gospel have recently been rediscovered in Cambridge.  The manuscript was apparently buried in a cemetery used “in Predynastic, early Dynastic and Roman times”  (Thompson, 1924, ix).
Brunton, Qau, vol.3, xlii
According to the archeological publication, a group of coins was also found buried in a pot nearby, “No. 33 contained the papyrus of St. John’s gospel (late fourth century), and 28, 29, contained the hoard of gold coins” (Brunton, Qau and Badari III, 26; cf. also 31).  The coin hoard contains mint condition dated coins up to the year 361 CE (ibid., 2930).  The idea that an ancient scribe copied our current fragment from Qau is problematic, given the provenance.  Whereas Qau had 33–37 lines per page, GJW-GJohn apparently would have had about 60 lines per page.  Stephen Emmel has demonstrated the absurdity of the forgery by reconstructing it hypothetical original and by comparing the reconstruction to known codices, here.

Peter Munro’s typed note

In her primary GJW article (p. 154, fn. 107), Karen King has provided the following information:
The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing, measuring approximately 110 by 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John. Fecht is said to have suggested a probable date from the 2nd to 5th cents. c.e. Munro declines to give Laukamp an appraisal of its value but advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. The letter makes no mention of the GJW fragment. The collection of the GJW’s owner does contain a fragment of the Gospel of John fitting this description, which was subsequently received on loan by Harvard University for examination and publication (November 13, 2012).


Unless compelling counter-arguments arise, both this fragment and the Gospel of Jesus Wife fragment should now be considered forgeries beyond any doubt.  Furthermore, the inauthenticity of the present fragment draws into question the broader group of documentation surrounding the Gospel of Jesus Wife which the owner provided to Karen King (contract of sale, typed note from Munro, handwritten note).  This was already problematic, as the bill of sale is dated to 1999, three years before Grondin’s GThomas PDF was available online.


  1. Thanks Christian,

    A couple of thoughts:

    a) re #3 the omission of ⲕⲣⲓⲛⲉ - it is not only that it results in a nonsense reading, which do occur occasionally in normal scribal (mis)behaviour, but also that the omission did not disrupt the line length and text layout - if a scribe omitted a word the next line would start differently.
    b) re #4 this could be a bit clearer. The Qau codex has single columns. It may be worth trying to reconstruct the page (as a reductio ad absurdum).
    c) A better photo of the Qau codex would be from p. 21 or p. 24
    d) re provenance it would be helpful to spell out the problem more explicitly - the only way this could survive is to envisage a direct copying of the Qau codex, but it had been dead and buried for centuries before this papyrus was cut and made into a page.
    e) re Conclusion. This also raises the question as to who saw this fragment. Everyone acknowledged that GWF had very weird writing, but no one noticed that the same collection, which was also tested, had a very similar and strange writing, and no one thought to tell Malcolm Choat about it! Did Professor King never think they could be related?

  2. Thanks. We have in effect been invited to suppose that Gerhard Fecht and Peter Monro did not see such problems. Well, it may be that they did not see such problems because they never really saw these manuscripts.

  3. Many thanks, Christian, for developing the case with such expertise. One enjoyable sideline here is that I am getting educated!

    On the EBOL / ABAL business, I wonder if the forger was influenced by having seen EBOL in the Gospel of Thomas (76), which we know he scoured carefully? If he was unsure about substituting EBOL, he could have checked Sahidic John online here: . That has been online since at least 2007, so like the Thompson edition & Grondin, the forger could have done all his work simply by sketchily checking online sources.

    Your (a) is a great point, Peter! I agree about (d) -- and people generally struggle to get this kind of point e.g. people kept saying in response to Watson & Bernhard that the author of the Jesus' Wife Fragment could have taken this from knowledge of the Gospel of Thomas, so confusing a literary work and one of its textual witnesses. I am tempted to write up this point in a bit more detail now in the light of the carbon dating of the Jesus' Wife Fragment, which appears to copy Coptic Thomas 400 years after it went into a pot in the ground!

  4. Until I read your piece, Christian, I was unaware that the fragment failed to follow its pattern on the last line of the verso - even when I made a chart matching the fragment to Qau! That does it for me. Excuse me while I go wipe this egg off my face.

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  6. Thanks, everyone. I will look at incorporating Pete's comments, tomorrow.

    I think that the forgery wrote something like:
    He realized his mistake and partially erased the letters here marked in bold so that his mistake was illegible, leaving nonsense. At any rate, I don't think one can read KRINE here.

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  8. Peter,
    I'm not sure if this is what you had in mind by "trying to reconstruct the page", but see As Christian said, it indicates a page-size of 60+ lines. That may not be a reductio ad absurdum, but it's pretty close.

  9. Dear Richard,
    Please reread my post. I only posted my own opinion, and did not suggest anything about yours. Although you and your thoughtful contributions are welcome in my posts, your caustic attitude is not. I will systematically delete future posts which offer the same vitriol as I have seen here and at the blogs of Suciu and Goodacre. You would be free to repost in a non-hostile and constructive tone.

    I have tweaked a few things. My current post focuses on the big items, so I leave your salient point on the omission of KRINE and line breaks here. Your calls for clarification on B & D have been answered. I have added a further link to Thompson's Qau for C, and have left the selected page because it is probably the best preserved. With respect to the forgery, it is the printed transcription and not the printed images which were used. This is clear from the superlinear strokes, which while often missing, sometimes oddly follow Thompson.

    On EBOL, I have a few guesses. I refrain from answering now, as it involves my hypotheses on identifying the forger. Having said that, your solution seems reasonable to me.

  10. Mike,
    I have linked to your informative reconstruction PDF in relation to Pete's suggestion for a reductio ad absurdum. If someone produces something absurdius and shinier, then I might change the link. ☺

  11. Thanks for providing in one place all of the reputable posts on this subject. I know April DeConick was somewhat critical of postings appearing too quickly. Please be aware that those of us out in the trenches of skepticism appreciate the scholarly responses that are posted. I know April is writing as a scholar to scholars, but it is helpful to get this info out quickly so we can have an answer for those who are prompt with their attacks on Christianity (1 Peter 3:15).

  12. DeConick couldn't keep up with the arguments!

  13. *If* these two mss were created recently for the purpose of leading a preselected scholar to err based on confirmation bias, then it could be that the manufacturer knew that the papyrus pieces came from late use (e.g., perhaps cut from papyrus with Arabic text) in order to provide (yet another?) clue for eventual discovery of a (hypothesized) hoax. Or not. In any case, I join with others in requesting release of further information that could help clarify the provenance.


    Good job Christian...made the wall street journal.

  15. Why are the two determinations of the GJW age so ridiculously different?

  16. Jens,
    We can not be sure. Perhaps, the best guess is that the sample was contaminated with "radioactive dead" material.

  17. Rod MjullenMay 06, 2014

    Not only did Christian Askeland's refutation make the Wall Street Journal, I also heard mention of them on National Public Radio here in the USA. Great job.

  18. Rod MullenMay 06, 2014

    Christian's refutation was also mentioned on National Public Radio here in the USA. Great job

  19. Thanks, Christian.

    Strange that it hasn't been redone. There's a huge margin without text, and the sample is not considered important in the first place if it's authentic.

  20. Jens,
    Just as you suggest, it was redone. Both papyri were successfully re-tested. You can reference the results in the chart in my main post. My apologies if I am misunderstanding you.