Medieval Handwriting: The App

I don’t expect that many of you need to learn to distinguish among and transcribe the many2014-11-06 10.33.17 kinds of medieval hands found in old manuscripts, but Medieval Handwriting is still a must for medieval buffs.

The app, available for Android and iOS, includes 26 religious manuscript pages. Each has an introduction, specimen letter forms, and a full transcription. You can analyse the manuscript, enter your transcription, and then the app automatically determines if that transcription is correct. Any incorrect words are shown in red.

The app was created as an exercise for postgraduate students in the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire.

“Jesus’s Wife” Scholar Admits: Where There Are Flames, There May Be Fire

Partially conceding the bloody obvious, Harvard professor Karen L. King said the following to the New York Times:

This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery. This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal.

The “this” she’s talking about is the fairly clear evidence that the John fragment, which matches the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment, is a fake.

Laurie Goodstein, NY Times religion reporter and PR flak for revisionist Bible scholars everywhere, is still desperately trying to salvage her scoop, even if that means deploying sleazy innuendo. The discoverer of the forgery, Christian Askeland, made the mistake of being Christian and hanging around with the wrong sorts of people.

Let’s play follow the bouncing code words!

Dr. Askeland is an evangelical Christian who is also affiliated with Indiana Wesleyan University, an evangelical college in Marion, Ind., and the Green Scholars Initiative. That organization was founded by the Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores to study a collection of biblical artifacts amassed by the family for display in a Bible museum they plan to build in Washington.

You know, if she keeps blowing that dog whistle, she’s going to lose her hearing. We get it, Laurie: “Ignore this God-bothering twit.”

It’s worth noting at this point that none of Goodstein’s coverage of Pseudo-GJW has ever pointed out King’s own bias as someone deeply invested in revisionist Biblical scholarship.

Goodstein obviously even questioned Askeland about what she assumes is his bias:

However, Dr. Askeland said his doubts about the Jesus’ Wife fragment were not prompted by any concerns about the unorthodox content because “there are many gospels, many texts, that say all kinds of things about Jesus.” Instead, it was the appearance of the fragment — the handwriting, the ink, the letter forms: “Whoever wrote it had different ways of writing the same letter,” he said.

Still spinning, she includes the following section later in the story:

Malcolm Choat, a Coptic expert at Macquarie University in Australia who cautiously contradicted the doubters in his paper last month for the Harvard journal, said in an interview that the new evidence was “persuasive,” but “we’re not completely there yet” — until the John and Jesus wife papyruses can be studied in person or using high-resolution images to understand their relationship.

Larry Hurtado adds this clarification to that section of the story:

Although cited in a recent New York Times article as still entertaining the authenticity of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, Malcolm Choat actually grants the force of the recent analyses that appear conclusively to show that the Coptic Gospel of John fragment is a fake.  And he grants also that this strengthens considerably the likelihood that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment is fake as well. (This based on email exchanges with him as of today, 06 May.)

The spin machine is finally beginning to grind to halt with this one.

Related: This is a good piece on the lessons learned from the whole incident.


“Jesus’s Wife”: Still Fake

More than 18 months after the mainstream media splashed front pages with credulous headlines about a “new” “gospel” “proving” “Jesus” had a “wife” (and I’ve used up my allotment of scare quotes just writing that much), we finally have the results of testing on the age of the papyrus, and the results are … meaningless, just like this entire story.

My very first reaction to this document was that if it was authentic, it was just more from the Gnostic Noise Machine. Some of King’s colleagues are noting that she is taking a “careful line” in her new article, which I have not yet had time to read. If so, that would be a welcome change of pace for her. Let’s recall that at its best the document was a minor 4th century Gnostic text telling us nothing whatsoever about the historical Jesus. She parlayed into a media firestorm until the internet hive responded with convincing evidence of fraud.

So, is it ancient or not? We’d have to define what we mean by “it.” Most people arguing that the document is a modern forgery have no problem with the papyrus being ancient. Forgers use ancient papyrus. They even scrape ink or lampblack from surfaces or inkwells to get ancient ink. The question is: was the text put on that paper in ancient times or modern.

I tend to believe, along with many others, that the evidence of modern forgery is pretty strong, but if it makes the other side happy, I’ll concede that it was written in the 8th or 9th century, in which case, we have a giant nothingburger with a heaping side order of hype and some extra anti-Christian dipping sauce.

However, Harvard’s “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Fragment to be Ancient” headline is almost willfully misleading, since it doesn’t take into account the actual composition of the text or the inconclusive results of the dating itself.

Carbon-14 dating from different tests and labs produced the following results: 405-350 BC, 307-209 BC, and 659-969 AD.

That’s not actually worthy of a “testing indicates” headline . That’s a “testing inconclusive”  headline. I’d readily admit to the ancient nature of the papyrus because I’d expect a forger to use ancient papyrus, but I fail to see how a potential 1,400 year spread in results is useful at all. I guess when two results are clearly impossible (the two  from hundreds of years before the birth of the Jesus you’re attempting to debunk) and one is face-saving (several hundred years after your original dating), then you just pick the date you like and run with it.

King has revised her theory from it being very early Gnostic text, to it coming from some time in the 8th century. If indeed it was written in the 8th or 9th century in Egypt, then it came from an Islamic culture which would have expected Jesus to have a wife. That makes it a nothing more than a curious scrap of non-Biblical literature.

This was never a particularly interesting text, even if it was authentic. If authentically old, it may have shown us a slightly different attitude in certain Gnostic sects toward women and marriage, but given the diversity of Gnostic texts and beliefs, it would, at best, have been merely a footnote. Now, even by King’s standards, it’s an irrelevant text likely reflecting Islamic views, even if it is genuine.

My problem all along has been with how the material was handled. Consider:

*The material was presented to the public as ancient without proper tests being run.

*The textual concerns that were expressed almost immediately upon release of the document are still a major issue.

*King dubbed this mere fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Why? It was never a gospel by any proper definition of the word. Her decision in this regard was done with an eye toward exploitation.

*Harvard and King worked hand-in-glove with mainstream media to gin up maximum media coverage and outrage in order to stoke the fires of public interest. The story was peddled to mainstream media outlines who were certain to pick up the most exploitative elements of the story and run with them. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times is a reliable voice for inaccurate, biased anti-Christian coverage, and she helped make the initial story the farrago it became. Now Goodstein is back with another slice of sublime BS, telling us that

Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests.

“Inflamed  the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests”? Really? Which churches were these? Because it didn’t “inflame” any debate whatsoever in the one Church that’s your usual target: the Catholic Church. We dismissed it as the meaningless scrap of nothing it is and went on our merry way.

And “skepticism” was “fierce” (can skepticism be fierce?) because the text looked fake. It still looks fake. It might not be, but we can’t wave away the evidence of forgery yet.

*Before she even presented the document, she was working with Smithsonian on a television documentary about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” A book of the same title was sure to follow. It must be hard being a scholar of ancient Christian history and seeing Bart Ehrman rake in all that money from documentaries, lecture fees, and books by selling revisionist history to the credulous masses. No one ever goes broke by kicking Christians in the groin.

*After more than  a year of pressure to say anything about the progress of the testing, the results are released the week before Holy Week, the traditional season for the mainstream media to unfurl their annual anti-Jesus stories. Odd, it’s almost like they planned it that way! April: the month of improving weather, the Boston marathon, tax day, and Debunking Christianity Week (formerly known as Holy Week).

Enough of this nonsense. When I have time, I may go ahead and read King’s article, but I honestly just don’t care, and never really did. It’s just more noise, and stoking these fires again during the holiest time of the year is in no one’s interest.

See, Jesus lived, died, and rose again. His eleven surviving disciples carried on his mission, with their authority passing to other men in a line down to our current bishops, chief among them the heir to the seat of St. Peter: Pope Francis. This Church has carried the Truth of Christ through the centuries and, along with sacred Scripture, provides that Truth to us today. It’s very simple: God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not die but shall have eternal life.

That is what we’re remembering this week, and shame on anyone who would dare attempt to distract people from the saving truth during this week of all weeks.

For more information:

Here is the new, heavily revised article by King, the rebuttal by Depuydt , and King’s reply to Depuydt. James Watson debunks here.

Harvard has thoroughly updated their website.

I’ve written more on the hoax here.

Christian Askeland does a potent takedown.

Short version: This is potentially an 8th or 9th century text that tells us nothing about early Christian history. The probability of modern forgery has not been conclusively eliminated by testing, and textual issues that suggest forgery have not been convincingly rebutted. 

Is The Fate of Ark of the Covenant Revealed in Hebrew Text?

Unless “somewhere in the middle east” or “in the hands of angels” is your idea of a location, then … no, but that didn’t stop LiveScience from attaching a click-bait headline to their story on the new translation of the pseudepigraphal “Treatise of the Vessels.”

The translation is important, however, since it marks the first English appearance of the “Treatise,” and brings this curious work to a wider audience for the first time.

The text does not mention the location of the Ark, but remarks that it and other treasures “shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David …”

The translation is found in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, co-edited by James Davila, who writes at PaleoJudaica and teaches at the University of St. Andrews. As Davila says in his introduction, “Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel …”

The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic “Copper Scroll,” one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon’s Temple.

The Treatise of the Vessels (Massekhet Kelim) is recorded in the 1648 Hebrew book Emek Halachah, published in Amsterdam. In the book the Treatise is published as Chapter 11 (one of its two pages shown here). The two pages also contain material from other book chapters.

The treatise describes the treasures in an imaginative way. One part refers to “seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world.”

The “Treatise” is valuable and its translation welcome, but it tells us nothing about the location of the ark. Nevertheless, the article has some interesting details on the scroll that contained the original text, and is worth a read in full.

Sirach: An Online Manuscript Collection

The Book of Sirach (Latin: Ecclesiasticus) is a beautiful wisdom work that blends Greek and Hebrew thought. It’s the last of the Old Testament books composed, and was probably written only two centuries before the first of the New Testament texts, providing an important glimpse into the development of faith and philosophy between the OT world and the NT world.

The last century has seen the recovery of various important manuscripts of Sirach, first from them middle ages, and then later, fragments from Qumran. These manuscripts are scattered in collections in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, making close examination and comparison of text a difficult thing. A new project called The Book of Ben Sirah is making that job much easier by attempting to unite all extant manuscripts into a single site. (Only the pages at the Bodleian Library are not included for rights reasons, but the site includes links to them.)

Right now, there are just hi-res scans up, but transcriptions, translations, and resources will be added now that the project is live. Check out the link to get a glimpse of these important manuscripts.

Ancient Fragment of Work By Justin Martyr is 1,000 Years Older Than Any Other Version

I’ve written about the Oxyrhynchus dump before, and this cache of ancient manuscripts and fragments just keeps giving up the goods.

The latest treasure to be identified is a manuscript of a work by Justin Martyr:

 In the latest issue of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series (LXXVIII, Egyptian Exploration Society, 2012), W. B. Henry offers an edition of P.Oxy. 5129 (Justin Martyr’s First Apology), which is the earliest Greek manuscript of any text of Justin Martyr. According to Henry, “[t]his is the first published ancient copy of a work of Justin Martyr. The text is otherwise known only from the unreliable manuscript A (Parisinus graecus 450, of 1364).” Henry dates the hand to the 4th century CE, citing P.Oxy. 2699 and P.Herm. 5 as comparanda. This is, therefore, an incredible discovery, since P.Oxy. 5129 predates the earliest manuscript of Justin by a millennium! There are a few variants in the fragment (e.g., omission of εντυχειν in 50.12, υμων instead of ημων in 51.4) that make the text important for text-critical study of Justin’s First Apology.

Click here to see the text and a translation.

It’s not just nice to have a manuscript 1000 years older than the next available version, but it’s important in what it tells us about textual transmission across centuries and millennia.

Mysterious Medieval Manuscript is Probably Not a Hoax

The Voynich Manuscript has baffled everyone since it was first acquired (or, some say, forged) by collector Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.

Probably dating to the 15th century and originating in Northern Italy, the manuscript consists of 240 pages of vellum covered in a mysterious, indecipherable script and illustrations of non-existent plants, astronomical diagrams, tiny naked pregnant women, and other oddities.

The script has defied any attempt to crack it by either philologists or cryptographers, and the entire thing is usually written off as a hoax. I’ve never agreed with that, and assume the text has some meaning, even if it is the ravings of a lunatic Italian monk.

Now, computer analysis suggests that the writing is, in fact, an actual text with meaning ,and not mere gibberish.

The new study in Plos One by theoretical physicist Marcelo Montemurro and Argentina’s Damian Zanette brings more computerized statistical analysis techniques to bear on the text.

In looking at the frequency and patterns of various words and their distribution over the entire book, as well as their relationship to other words, the researchers focused on a “statistical signature” suggesting it’s not just gibberish.

“We show that the Voynich manuscript presents a complex organization in the distribution of words that is compatible with those found in real language sequences,” they write.

“We are also able to extract some of the most significant semantic word-networks in the text. These results together with some previously known statistical features of the Voynich manuscript, give support to the presence of a genuine message inside the book.”

Previous research has also shown that Voynichese is similar to real languages. What the words may mean, however, and whether they represent an encoded known language or a completely made-up one, is still up for debate.

My guess? It’s an esoteric or herbalist text in an encrypted invented language that may have only ever been understood by one man: the author. The lack of correlation between the plants in the manuscript and real plants may just be a novel and extended example of a kind of botanical grotesque.

Claims that it’s either a modern forgery or mere gibberish are unconvincing. Someone filled 240 sheets of valuable vellum with closely-written text and intricate art, indicating a labor that likely took years and showed some level of intelligence and skill. Even if it’s the work of a madman, it at least made sense to him.

Or maybe … you know …


Frank Moore Cross, Requiescat in Pace

It’s impossible to have even a cursory knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls without encountering Frank Moore Cross, who died last Wednesday at age 91 from complications from pneumonia. His work on Semitic languages and Canaanite myth informs a great deal of what we know about the development of Hebrew writing.

Cross retired from a long and distinguished career in 1992, but his influence never faded, and he remained an active figure in the ongoing study of epigraphy and the DSS. He was a young professor in 1953, when he was assigned responsibility for texts from Cave 4. Some of those texts remained unpublished for 40 years, drawing Cross into the controversy about the secretive nature of the original DSS team. That controversy reached a head in the early 1990s, when photographic reproductions of the scrolls were published, breaking the academic monopoly on the remaining texts.

The fruits of his work, however, were crucial to understanding the texts. In 1961, Cross published “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” based on his research, and was able to separate scrolls and fragments into three periods base don their script. This was a key development in the study of the scrolls, and although the details have been finessed over the years, Cross’s work is central to our understanding of Hebrew writing.

From the NY Times obituary:

“When you walked into his classes, you felt you were on the frontier of knowledge in the field,” said Peter Machinist, who studied under Dr. Cross as an undergraduate at Harvard and now holds the endowed professorship there that Dr. Cross had held until his retirement in 1992. “Whatever happened in the field would come to him first, before it got published, because people wanted to know what he thought.”

“The more light we can shed on crucial moments in the history of our religious community — or on the birth of Western culture, to speak more broadly — the better,” Dr. Cross said of the scrolls in the interview. “The longer and more precise our memory is, the more civilized we are.”

Dr. Cross studied culture, religion and politics of the period in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written and revised, and he traced the ways different nations and cultures had translated its early texts. He also traced the evolution of ancient script and developed expertise in dating documents by the slightest shifts in writing style.

“That we know that a particular scroll comes from 100 B.C. and not 50 A.D. is almost entirely due to the study of the scripts and their development that he worked out,” Mr. Machinist said. “That may seem like a trivial point, but if you don’t have a sense of when these texts are dated, you have no sense of their historical importance.”

Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, remembers his friend here, and the Harvard Crimson provides some additional comments.

I’m working from memory, but unless I’m mistaken, Dr. Cross was a practicing Christian, despite being perceived as a revisionist scholar in some quarters. It’s important to remember that tracing the roots and textual development of the Hebrew scriptures does not strip it of its sacred and inspired character. I disagree with some of his conclusions (such as the idea that we need to study OT texts through the discipline of history rather than theology: I don’t see why it has to be either/or), but there’s no question that his work deepened our knowledge of the intertestamental period, and thus provided a vital window into the soil in which Christianity would take root.

Smithsonian Yanks “Jesus’s Wife”

As I mentioned on Tuesday, Smithsonian had a documentary called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” ready to run at 8pm on Sunday night. In the wake of numerous claims that the fragment is a forgery, they’ve decided to postpone that documentary pending additional testing.

From USA Today:

The Smithsonian Channel has postponed plans to broadcast a documentary on the discovery of a “Jesus wife” papyrus that a Vatican newspaper declares is a probable fake.

A promo for the documentary The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife on the channel’s website refers to the “damaged and fragile” ancient papyrus as “one of the most significant discoveries of all time.”

While the website still carries the description of the program, a small note to the right says it is “not currently airing.”

A spokesman says the broadcast has been postponed “until the text undergoes further tests,” according to The Washington Post.

Good for them. Now they can get back to some real history, like Ancient Aliens Week.

Thanks to Martin in the comboxes.


Rumor: Harvard Theological Review Divorces “Jesus’s Wife” UPDATE: Or do they?

I was waiting for something more official, but the word is that the Harvard Theological Review has decided against publishing Karen King’s paper on the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment. It’s still just rumors, but the source of the story appears to be the NT Scholar Helmut Koester, and it’s percolated through enough sites without outright denials to suggest that it’s true. On Brian LePort’s page, Craig A. Evans says this:

After the analyses of Francis Watson, Mark Goodacre, Gesine Robinson, and others, I think forgery is virtually a certainty.

Is the Coptic papyrus, in which Jesus speaks of his “wife,” a fake? Probably. We are far from a “consensus,” but one scholar after another and one Coptologist after another has weighed in pointing out serious problems with the paleography, the syntax, and the very troubling fact that almost all of the text has been extracted from the Gospel of Thomas (principally from logia 30, 101, and 114). I suspect the papyrus itself is probably quite old, perhaps fourth or fifth century, but the oddly written (or painted) letters on the recto side are probably modern and probably reflect recent interest in Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The decision of the editors of Harvard Theological Review not to publish Karen King’s paper is very wise. Perhaps we will eventually learn more about who actually produced this text.

More from Brian LaPort:

 Daniel Burke of Religion News Service says that Harvard Divinity School spokesperson Jonathan Beasley is more hesitant regarding the report that the Harvard Theological Journal will not publish Karen L. King’s paper on the subject, writing:

“Dr. King’s ‘marriage fragment’ paper, which Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish in its January, 2013, edition – if testing of the ink and other aspects of the fragment are completed in time – will include her responses to the vigorous and appropriate academic debate engendered by discovery of the fragment, as well as her report on the ink analysis, and further examination of the fragment.”

There’s wiggle room in there to go either way.