Home > Carbon 14 Dating, Other Blogs > Carbon Dating Problems with the “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment

Carbon Dating Problems with the “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment

April 10, 2014

imageSTART HERE with a Boston Globe article,  No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’s wife’  along with a video to get up to speed (if you’re not).

A reader writes:

Note that there is a new "Jesus’ Wife" publication. [See “Jesus’ Wife” Articles in HTR: Initial Thoughts in Larry Hurtado’s Blog.]  The observation which may interest you is the huge discrepancy in C14 dating by experts with the possibility of contamination effects.

These cannot be statistically consistent. (And recent statistical analysis of the SOT results indicate that they also were inconsistent among samples.)

(I believe there was also a problem with a control sample.)

People make a big deal of C14 testing, when it probably is not very reliable for certain materials. It might be noted that just because someone is a specialist in some field of science does _not_ at all mean they are statistical or even methodological experts. 95% aren’t.

The carbon dating discussion in Larry’s blog runs less than a paragraph and reads:

. . . The two radio-carbon tests, however, are both a bit puzzling and interesting.  The proposed dates of the two tests are out from each other by several hundred years.  The one report (by Hodgins) notes the curious date-result (405-350 BCE and/or 307-209 BCE), about a thousand years earlier than the date from the other carbon-dating test (659-969 CE), and Hodgins suggests some kind of contamination of the sample.  But I’d assume that a contamination would come from something later than the ancient setting, and so skew the date later, not earlier.  I’ll need some help with this!

  1. Joe Veneroso
    April 10, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    As I posted on other sites about this fragment, ancient does not equal orthodox. The Gospel of Thomas (and Peter and Mary Magdelene, et al.) are all very ancient indeed and not forgeries. I suspect this is more “clickbait” in preparation for Holy Week. Brace yourselves. The Shroud is a popular target.

    • clublu22014
      April 11, 2014 at 8:16 am

      Good deduction, Joe. It leaves me frustrated how those in academia can collaborate and get a C14 date just the way they want it out to the public and close the door to further questioning of a non sequitur (400 years anon) reference to the Jesus of the Gospels while those in a conspiratorial circle can confound the real reference to Jesus (the 1st century Shroud) and keep the door open to controversy.

  2. Louis
    April 10, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    It is not just carbon dating, there are other problems too, starting with provenance. Since it was brought to the limelight by Karen King, who has an axe to grind, the matter becomes even more suspicious. Harvard is very liberal and will publish almost everything under the sun that is liberal and this is not the end of the story.

  3. Kelly Kearse
    April 10, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    I went to the website http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=HTR, but was unable to access anything-what sort of mechanism(s) is being proposed for the contamination?

  4. Kelly Kearse
  5. Louis
    April 10, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    More is to come, it is not the end of the story, but we must remember that Professor François Bovon told Jacobovici that his Jesus-Mary Magdalene connection in the “Jesus family tomb” story was science fiction.
    Bovon was actually referring to literary devices in antiquity, his interest was in the literary, not historical, Magdalene but some gnostic groups had ritual orgies,they simply could not accept a celibate Jesus. In our own days we have had the ex-nun Jane Schaberg wishing that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a good time in bed! It is the plain truth.

  6. Hugh Farey
    April 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Fascinating. The papyrus fragment measures 8cm x 4cm, from which enough material for two separate radiocarbon measurements have been taken. In 1988 it would have required about 10% of the entire artifact. It appears that the shred given to the AMS lab in Arizona was actually too small, and, because it was in danger of being reduced to almost nothing, the cleaning procedure wasn’t completed. Presumably the second attempt at Woods Hole used a bigger sample.

    Without knowing the provenance of the papyrus, the amount tested, or the procedure carried out by Gregory Hodgins, I wouldn’t place a probability on any particular reason for the anomalous dates, but reasonable scenarios can be suggested. One that comes to mind is the possibility of dissolved limestone in the water in which the papyrus grew, or was manufactured. The carbon atoms in limestone can be millions of years old, and contain no C14 at all. Unless they are carefully removed, the papyrus dates much older than it actually is, and if the acid washing required was curtailed or reduced, that may account for the first, anomalous, date.

    • Mike M
      April 10, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      “the cleaning procedure wasn’t completed”, do you have a reference?

      • Hugh Farey
        April 11, 2014 at 3:38 am

        Karen King’s own article in the same edition of the Harvard Theological Revue.

  7. Mike M
    April 10, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I assume the sample cleaning methods are even much updated and improved than what the shroud went through. It’s funny how “it must be contamination” is declared without any evidence of sample heterogeneity. While, in the shroud case, “it must be contamination” is looked down upon as coming from the “lunatic fringe” and is not considered a viable option even with peer reviewd science pointing to a heterogenous sample. Is this double standard? Why is Hugh silent?

    • Mike M
      April 10, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      Hugh wasn’t silent… We were typing at the same time..LOL

  8. Louis
    April 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    The owner of the papyrus prefers to remain anonymous.

  9. daveb of wellington nz
    April 10, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Suspicion concerning Karen King’s agenda is no proof of forgery, nor is lack of provenance. Part of the difficulty with C14 dating of the fragment is that the fragment is so small, that the sample taken was likely inadequate for any kind of valid test. A forger can easily obtain ancient papyrus on the black market, so although dating of the papyrus is a necessary indicator it is not a sufficient test. It is however apparently more difficult to forge the ink, and it seems that the ink has passed the necessary tests which were a critical aspect of proof. It has been asserted that parts of the text are a direct uplift from the Gospel of Thomas, and if true then this would be a valid cause for suspicion.

    If ever proven to be truly authentic, I see no problems with the content of the text. A variety of interpretations are possible. Vatican experts have made the point that it may be merely an allusion to the Church as the Bride of Christ. I would suspect however that all it means was that some Gnostic group were likely debating whether marriage in general was an acceptable state for their followers, where celibacy had previously been a strict rule. The debate is also indicated in Paul’s epistles, which merely show his preference for celibacy. One way the group might have sought to resolve the issue might have been to assert that Christ himself was married. The absence of any kind of tradition or canonical scripture concerning a wife, persuades most exegegtes that he was not. However debate within a gnostic group might have been sufficiently robust, for the advocates of a married life-style to dream up a text that he was, regardless.

  10. Louis
    April 10, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    See #6 above

  11. Hugh Farey
    April 11, 2014 at 5:04 am

    Sorry, all, it’s been night-time here in the UK! Mike is perfectly correct that airily dismissing a dodgy date as “contamination” is not helpful, and I would like to know how the pre-treatment of Hodgins’ sample went awry. However, by dating the papyrus twice, and comparing it to a known sample, the outlying date was rapidly identified. In the case of the Shroud the sample was dated three times, and compared to three known samples, and no outlier was identified. Furthermore, various different pretreatments were given the Shroud samples, to dispel a suggestion that if they were all treated exactly the same, then they were all equally likely to miss a contaminent.

    Nevertheless, a misdating of an 8th century papyrus to the 4th century BC requires a substantial dilution of its C14 content, and if the pretreatment was known to be that inefficient, it is surprising that the AMS procedure was continued. I will inquire further.

    • April 11, 2014 at 7:28 am

      Hugh:

      I wouldn’t place a probability on any particular reason for the anomalous dates, but reasonable scenarios can be suggested. One that comes to mind is the possibility of dissolved limestone in the water in which the papyrus grew, or was manufactured. The carbon atoms in limestone can be millions of years old, and contain no C14 at all.

      As far as I read, water dissolved CaCO3 exchanges its carbon atoms with atmospheric CO2.

      King writes (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=9226239&jid=HTR&volumeId=107&issueId=02&aid=9226237&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyETOCSession= page 135):

      Initially it was speculated that this oddity might indicate the presence of an unknown contaminant that would result in an older-than-expected dating. Subsequent FT-IR microspectroscopic analysis by the Swager team at MIT did not, however, identify a specific contaminant (beyond the “orange” spots)

      Nevertheless, a misdating of an 8th century papyrus to the 4th century BC requires a substantial dilution of its C14 content, and if the pretreatment was known to be that inefficient, it is surprising that the AMS procedure was continued. I will inquire further.

      According tomy calculation about 11 % of the whole carbon should have been contamination, to switch a 1300 BP date (around 700 AD) to 2283 BP (405-209 BCE, like in the Arizona dating), assuming date of contamination to be 100 000 BP.

      • April 11, 2014 at 7:50 am

        And in the opposite way, assuming the real date to be 2283 BP, and contamination to be 300 BP, around 46 % of the whole carbon must come from the contamination to switch to the 1300 BP, that is circa 700 AD.

      • Hugh Farey
        April 11, 2014 at 8:35 am

        Yes, I agree. And what’s more, since cellulose (papyrus) has more than three times as much carbon in it as calcium carbonate (limestone), I think over 30% of the material would have to be limestone to achieve a ‘contamination’ to make an 8th century papyrus appear 3rd century BC. There is something that needs expaining here.

  12. Hugh Farey
    April 12, 2014 at 5:34 am

    How quickly the sands of time bury the past….

    For anyone still interested, a detailed account of Dr Hodgins’ radiocarbon dating can be found at https://s3.amazonaws.com/hds-high-traffic-assets/HodginsSupplementalReport2013v4.pdf. From a personal email, Dr Hodgins tells me that he was not too impressed by getting only a 2mg fragment from the start, but agreed to do his best with it. After only part of the pre-treatment (including, significantly, only 30 minutes of the normal 17 hours of washing in acid) there was only 1mg left, which is on the very fringe of possibly accurate dating. The dating was continued with on the off-chance that in fact there was little contamination, but it was immediately obvious that this was not the case. All this was frankly and fully communicated.

    I wonder if a similar report was produced back in 1988…
    Inquiries continue…

    • April 12, 2014 at 5:49 am

      Hugh, link doesn’t work.

      • Hugh Farey
        April 12, 2014 at 6:04 am

        Strange; it works for me. Still try Karen King’s own site at http://gospelofjesusswife.hds.harvard.edu and click on the “Scientific Reports” section in the top banner.

      • April 12, 2014 at 6:22 am

        Thanks Hugh.

  13. Louis
    April 12, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Forget Karen King. Has no one noticed that she keeps changing her statements, is now sitting over the wall as it is convenient to her because she does not know what more is to come, and does not reveal the provenance because the owner of the fragment prefers to remain anonymous?

  1. February 22, 2015 at 6:11 am
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