In the fall of 2012, Karen L. King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment written in Coptic, which she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Since then, debate has circulated about the authenticity and verisimilitude of the document. The topic has recently resurfaced with some vigor from scholarly and news sources. Below is the transcription provided by Harvard. Full scientific reports on dating, ink, and more are also available from Harvard.
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it [
4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] . Let wicked people swell up … [
7] . As for me, I am with her in order to . [
8 ] . an image … [
. . .
This fragment’s mention of “my wife” on line four and the reference to Mary on line three bring all sorts of old questions back to the surface, ripe for the media to hone in on. But they also rejuvenate helpful academic study of our ancient sources. The question is asked once again, “Was Jesus married?”
Is this a new question?
No. Not only do Mormons believe that Jesus was married (to multiple women), but Mary Magdelene is represented as Jesus’ wife in some ancient texts, including The Gospel of Mary (read about this in The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene), which many suppose to be written in the second century, though Karen King suggests it may have been written during Jesus’ lifetime. Perhaps more compelling than The Gospel of Mary is the gnostic Gospel of Philip, which is generally dated around the third century. In this apocryphal text, a section reads as follows:
Wisdom (Sophia), whom they call barren, is the mother of the angels, and the consort of Christ is Mary Magdalene. The [Lord loved Mary] more than all the disciples, and he kissed her on the [mouth many times]
It is only natural that speculation would arise about whether Jesus was married or not, and it seems that Christians (and certainly gnostics) have been asking these questions for many centuries.
Could it be a forgery?
Francis Watson, professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, says “Yes.” He cites Egyptologist Leo Depuydt, who notes three observations about the fragment: 1) the use of “lamp black” ink, 2) the age of the papyrus as a method that forgers are known to utilize, and 3) a letter from Professor Greg Hodgins in which the radiocarbon date is questioned based on “certain stable isotope measurements.” Looking at these three points, Watson remarks, “These analyses do not demonstrate that the text is a fake, but nor do they ‘indicate’ it ‘to be ancient’ as the Divinity School’s press release claims.” Read the rest of Watson’s article.
The press release referenced above is available from Harvard Divinity School. In the release, Jonathan Beasley cites radiocarbon tests and much rigorous scientific examination of the papyrus and the ink over the past two years, and he states that the fragment is an authentic ancient document.
The similarities between this fragment and the Gospel of Thomas also cause many scholars to take pause. Pieces are missing from certain parts of the Gospel of Thomas, and incidentally, where the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment follows the Gospel of Thomas, those same sections are missing. This has led some scholars to question whether the late discovery of the Gospel of Thomas was a source for a forgery on old papyrus.
What do we mean by “authentic” and “ancient”?
It’s easy to think Harvard’s claims of authenticity and antiquity mean that it’s true. However, that’s not the case. When Beasley writes of the fragment as authentic and ancient, he means that it is, quite simply, old. It’s helpful to keep in mind when we examine the fragment that the primary question at this point is not, “Could this be true?” but rather, “How old is this, and is it an authentic ancient document or a forgery written to look like one?”
Does this mean Jesus was married?
By no means. It is hard to ignore the deafening silence of the Bible on any relations of Jesus beyond mother, brothers, sisters, etc. Furthermore, any “evidence” of Jesus being married comes much later than the generally accepted dates of the canonical Gospels, and is often gnostic in origin. As a recent Tyndale blog post notes, not even Karen King claims that this means Jesus was definitively married. Simon Gathercole notes the following:
Jesus has female disciples in the canonical gospels, who support his ministry (Luke 8), and who are part of his entourage generally. There is no reference to marriage of any kind, which is striking in a biography. (Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, for example, mentions wives and fiancées of all 12 of his subjects.) Other apocryphal gospels develop some of these relationships. . . .
Harvard Professor Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus. She is correct that “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus”. But she is also right that this is a fascinating discovery which offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate, but only if it is genuine. (Read the rest.)
Update: Charlotte Allen has published an illuminating article which strongly suggests forgery, relating it to the Gospel of John fragment as well. Read more at “The Deepening Mystery of the ‘Jesus’ Wife’ Fragment.”
Many credible scholars have commented on the fragment. Here are some of the helpful articles we’ve found. Leave a comment with links to any other articles on the topic that you have found helpful.
- Harvard Divinity School
- Larry Hurtado
- Tyndale & Simon Gathercole
- Anthony Le Donne
- Candida Moss
- Francis Watson
Study further in Logos
Many Logos resources can be used within the software to further study the ancient claims that Jesus was married. Chief among these resources is Rick Brannan’s Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha.
Published by Lexham Press, this volume includes the Greek text with automated morphology of several apocryphal gospels in Greek (Infancy, Passion, and Post-Resurrection), as well as papyrus fragments, and some agrapha. English translations are provided, along with bibliographies and introductions. This book is a wonderful compliment to M.R. James’ The Apocryphal New Testament.
Get both volumes in Logos for only $73.90, and begin studying these texts on Logos’ powerful research platform.