Has a Harvard professor proved Jesus had a wife?

Amid the flash of cameras and hubbub of the excited news media, Dr. Karen King unveiled a tiny fragment of an ancient scroll, saying she was publicizing her finding so her academic colleagues could weigh in. And in an uproar, they have.

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But the papyrus fragment has no verifiable “provenance” whatever. In

both the archeological and art worlds, provenance is vital in proving whether something is authentic.

The Mona Lisa

Provenance is merely the history of a piece. For example, the provenance of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting “Mona Lisa” is the verifiable record that the artwork in the Louvre Museum is indeed the real thing. In 1550, the painting was described by da Vinci biographer Giorgio Vasari 31 years after his death. Those who had known the master artist were still living – such as Agostino Vespucci and the family of Lisa del Giocondo, who is believed by many to be portrayed in the painting. The painting was inherited by one of da Vinci’s students and sold to King François I of France. It was kept at Fontainebleau Palace until King Louis XIV took it to the Palace of Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre, then to Napoleon’s bedroom, then back to the Louvre and was carefully hidden during such conflicts as the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and World War II. It was stolen on August 21, 1911, but recovered two years later. Thus, experts do not dispute that the painting is the real thing.

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Dr. King’s shred of papyrus is quite another matter.  Jennifer Sheridan Moss, president of the American Society of Papyrologists and an associate professor of classics at Wayne State University in Detroit, said that the society would probably not publish a paper on such a piece of papyrus without knowing its provenance. “But if something this interesting came up, I suspect we would pursue more information on its provenance,” she said.

Dr. King admits that she has no verifiable provenance of any kind for her papyrus fragment. It could have been created yesterday by a clever artifact forger – and there is no shortage of such. They’ve pulled off some dramatic and highly profitable frauds in recent years. In 2002 an ossuary reported to have contained the bones of the Apostle James was revealed amid much press hoopla.

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