Sunday, September 30, 2012


Unless you've been living under a rock these past weeks, you know about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife (GJW), so no intro, just the basic overview: this is the draft PDF of the paper by Karen King, Alin Suciu has some great comments, Mark Goodacre links to detailed textual analysis by Francis Watson (but see Timo Paananen for a rebuttal) and a video by Christian Askeland; and Jim Davila is, as always, your go-to guy for the complete picture of the debate. Before I venture any further, let me offer a disclaimer: I have no dog in the fight over the historical Jesus and my faith (such as it is) is not threatened by the very idea of Him being married. To me, this whole debate is first and foremost a wonderful example of how scholarship works and it's a great thing to watch it more or less live. Well, mostly watch, because (disclaimer continues) I am no expert on either Coptic or any aspect early Christianity and thus I cannot and will not offer any opinion as to the authenticity of the GJW fragment. I did, however, leave one comment on Mark Goodacre's blog where I essentially wondered aloud about some usage in GJW I found peculiar. As it so happened, yesterday earlier this week on Charles Halton's blog, Gesine Robinson offered her view of the whole affair and her remark #8 addresses the same point, except of course in a much more detailed and better articulated manner. I'm reproducing it below with one modification - I've changed the transliteration scheme[1] to something that I find a little easier on the eyes:

Therefore, the rather rare phrase PEDžE IS* (though frequently used in the Gospel of Thomas since we have to do there with a collection of Jesus’ sayings) is used even in both instances of speaking, instead of the form PEDžAF (+ pronominal/nominal object) + NQI + subject that is more common in dialogues or other literary texts. Here in the first instance one would expect something like PEDžAU NIS* NQI NMAThÉTÉS, and in the second instance PEDžAF NAU NQI IS*, or since Jesus answers the disciples, even AFOUÓŠB[2] NQI IS* PEDžAF NAU DžE. It seems a cautious and perhaps unsure modern Coptologist was at work here.

To actually understand what's going on, first, PEDžE. Translated as "(pronoun) said", PEDžE belongs to a funny little class of words Layton (2000:297-314) refers to as verboids. Semantically, they are like verbs, and they can even take some of the verbal affixes, but there are a few important aspects in which they differ from actual verbs. In case of PEDžE, they are as follows:

  1. 1. PEDžE cannot be negated or converted, i.e. it cannot take the relative, circumstantial, preterit or focalizing prefix (Layton 2000:321-322).
  2. 2. PEDžE only expresses the past tense.
  3. 3. PEDžE can only be conjugated sufixally.
  4. 4. PEDžE can appear in two forms: 
    • independently (PEDžE), in which case it must be immediately followed by the subject noun or pronoun (Layton's 'prenominal state').
    • suffixed (conventionally written as PEDžA=) where the suffix marks the subject of the action of speaking (Layton's 'prepersonal state'). In this case, if the 3rd person subject is also expressed by a noun, the noun is preceded by the preposition NQI.

In GJW, PEDžE (i.e. the prenominal state) appears twice: first on line 2 (PEDžE MMAThÉTÉS NIS* DžE ... = "The apostles said to Jesus: ...") and then of course on line 4 (PEDžE IS* NAU TAHIME = "Jesus said to them 'My wife...'"). The objection Dr. Robinson raises is that this is unlikely since PEDžE in its prenominal state is rare and seeing it twice in such a short text even more so when there are other (presumably more frequent) constructions that could have been used. We have very little reason to doubt Dr. Robinson's intuition and experience. But what we also have is a way to actually check whether she's right. Distribution and probability, that's all we're dealing with here, and that is a familiar theory NLP territory where a corpus and some math is all you need. The questions to be asked can be reformulated as follows:

1. Is the prenominal state of PEDžE indeed rare?
2. What is the probability of one prenominal PEDžE following another?
3. What about the frequency of other constructions?