On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.Whether it's a con or just a conspiracy theory, if you dig into accounts of smart people falling for the implausible, you will usually find a point where the subject found a way of not just explaining away conflicting evidence, but of actually turning it around so that it supports the contention. Things never go well after that point.
On a more practical level, [King] couldn’t see how a con artist cunning enough to produce a scientifically undetectable forgery could at the same time be so clumsy with Coptic handwriting and grammar. “In my judgment,” she wrote, “such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely.” The crude writing, she argued, could simply indicate that the ancient scribe was a novice.
Yet “a combination of bumbling and sophistication” could well be the epitaph of many of history’s most infamous forgers, their painstaking precision undone by a few careless oversights.
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