Interpreting the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”

There have been many news stories (an excellent one can be found at reporting that disinterested scholars have established that the fragment of papyrus which Karen King labeled the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is as old as the other Coptic documents published as the Nag Hammadi Library in English. It now can be taken seriously as an historical document. The only new element in it is the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . ‘” This concept is, of course, shocking to people who have never read anything but the four canonical gospels and who probably subscribe to the ancient heresy that Jesus was sexless. However, it is not much of a surprise to anyone who has been studying the “Gnostics,” the umbrella term for all the early varieties of Christianity left out of what became the orthodox Roman church.

The fragment can be translated as follows:

1.      . . . not to me. My mother gave me life . . .

2.      . . . The students 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 student . . .

6.      . . . Let wicked people swell up . . .

7.      As for me, I am with her in order to . . .

8.      . . . . . . an image . . .

For convenience, I have added the line numbers; I have also corrected the translation. Let’s go over this line by line.

1.  . . . not to me. My mother gave me life . . .

This is a fragment of a known saying:

 My mother bore me, but my true mother, the Holy Spirit, gave me life.

This connects with a saying attributed to Jesus that occurs five times in Hippolytus and Jerome:

 Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, pick me up by one hair of my head and carry me away to the great mountain Tabor.

This apparently refers to the Spirit that drove him out him out into the wilderness after his baptism by John. I think it is the kind of metaphor often used by those who have undergone Awakenings. And why Mount Tabor?  Looking that up, I find that on Tabor was the Cave of Melchizedek (which, being interpreted, means “the King of Righteousness”), the archetypal High Priest.

2.. . . The students said to Jesus . . .

The Greek term “mathetes,” incorporated into the Coptic, in the Harvard article is translated as  “disciple,” which, I strongly suggest, now amounts to a mistranslation. Why? If you look into a dictionary of New Testament Greek, it will give “disciple” as the correct translation. However, the gospels were not written with a special New Testament vocabulary. They were written in the ordinary Greek that was the universal trade language of the Greco-Roman world, and their words had the ordinary meanings that one can find in an unabridged Greek dictionary, such as Liddell, Scott, Jones, and Mackenzie, which has evolved from the one started by the father of the Alice who passed through the looking glass.

Such a dictionary will tell you that “mathetes” (same root as in mathematics) meant simply “student,” including the students of a Rabbi. The problem with “disciple” is that it has become a “churchy” word; it carries along the assumption that the “disciples” had undergone some degree of ordination toward priesthood. No, they were merely students, with no special authority at all. The Coptic documents, as we will see, show that Rabbi Jesus did have women students.

3. . . deny. Mary is not worthy of it . . . “

Peter complains that Mary is not worthy to be a student in the Gospel of Thomas 114, as discussed below about line 7. The Mary here is Mary of Bethany.

4. . . Jesus said to them, “My wife . . .

A word that unambiguously means “wife” had never before turned up in any of the Coptic documents. Some passages relevant here are from the Gospel of Philip:

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

“Magdalene” is a nickname; it cannot mean “from Magdala,” because that town had a different name at that time. It is from the root MGDL, used in a psalm to mean “towering” or magnificent.” By it, Jesus probably meant something like “my tower of strength.”

The Sophia [Wisdom] who is called “childless” is the mother of the angels and the companion of the [Savior] . . .  Mary Magdalene. . . . [Jesus] loved her more than all the [other] students, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the students  . . .  said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered , “Why do I not love you like her?

The term translated as “companion” is koinonos, using the root koine, “common,” and may have implied “common-law wife.” It definitely, according to R. McL. Wilson, implied “a person with whom one was sexually intimate.” Another relevant passage (in “The Interpretation of Knowledge”) is

 They are my brothers and my fellow companions who do the will of the Father.

Here “companions” is the same term as in the Gospel of Philip; like it or not, it may imply that the Gnostics believed that all the women students were also his lovers.

The canonical gospels simply do not say anything about whether Jesus was married or not. Why? In Jewish territory, it probably would have been assumed that, since Jesus was a Rabbi, he must have been married; so that fact would not have needed to be stated. However, Mark was writing to converts who were diaspora Jews, Greeks, or from some other ethnic background. They were obviously not familiar with many Jewish beliefs and customs, which Mark therefore explains (always getting it wrong) at various places in his gospel. Would Mark’s community have believed that all the OT commandments had been abrogated (even though many of Jesus’ sayings state that they were still in force)? Mark’s choice of controversies seems to indicate belief in such abrogation.

I can think of an historical argument about why Jesus may not have wanted to be legally married to Mary—but I will save it for later.

5. . . she is able to be my student . . .

So Jesus is saying that Mary can be his student. We should have known that. I have written in previous blogs about Lk 10:38-42:

 a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

That is, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet along with the men students; that was the normal way for a Rabbi’s students to sit.

 Martha was distracted with much serving. She came up to him, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.” Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better vocation. Do not take it away from her.”

 The words in italics are my correct translation of words that have been historically mistranslated and misinterpreted. The first of these two sentences has been traditionally interpreted as meaning, “Oh, it’s okay for Mary to listen to me tonight instead of doing the dishes.” No, that is flat wrong. Translating it as “Mary has made a better choice” amounts to intellectual dishonesty. Choice of what? The Greek word means “vocation” or “career choice.” The sentence means that Mary had chosen to have the same career as the men students.

I discovered that fact, by looking in my unabridged Greek dictionary, while I was teaching young Roman Catholic sisters at Holy Family College in Fremont, CA, in the early 1980s. Some of them, especially Sister Anna Furtado, wanted desperately to someday be ordained as priests. When I explained that correct translation to them, they burst into tears, tears of outrage over the misogyny of that mistranslation, and tears of hope that their dream might be fulfilled. I still hope that for them as well.

But there is yet more to this story: that second sentence. The traditional translation is, “It shall not be taken away from her.” The traditional interpretation has been, “Let her listen to me and not do the dishes.” Again, that is flat wrong. Once I had discovered what the first sentence meant, I thought for years that the second sentence was another embarrassing case where one of Jesus’s predictions had failed: obviously the right to be a student equally with the men had been taken away from her. But finally I realized that here “shall” did not mean “will” or “in the future.” It meant “must.” The sentence is an ordinary Greek imperative construction. The sentence is not a prediction. It is a commandment.  It is Scriptural authorization, and more. It does not say merely that it is okay to ordain women. It says they must be ordained.

Well, that’s not the only one of Jesus’s clear commandments in the gospels that has been covered up and ignored. As far as I know, almost all Protestant denominations have gotten that message and have been ordaining women as minister, priests, and even bishops for a while now, just as Reform Judaism now has women Rabbis. It’s time for the Catholics, the Mormons, and a few others to get with the program. No more excuses.

6. . . . Let wicked people swell up . . .

In context, the “wicked people” are probably those who want to deny Mary the right to be his student and to therefore have just as much authority as the men students.

7. As for me, I am with her in order to . . .

In order to do what? The Gospel of Thomas 114 says,

 Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her masculine, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself masculine will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Consider here also the key (or at least understandable) parts in Thomas 22:

 Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, . . .  and when you make male and female equal, so that the male will not be dominant nor the female be submissive, . . .  then you will enter [the kingdom].”

There has been puzzlement and argument since the Gospel of Thomas was discovered over whether or why Jesus would have taught that biological females had to physically become biological males. However, my friend Richard Arthur, in his doctoral dissertation at the GTU, pointed out that “a female who makes herself male” was a Coptic idiom for “a female who makes herself a warrior.” That is, the transmogrification here has to do not with biological sexuality, but with gender roles and expectations. Liberals have argued from the canonicals for quite a while that Jesus considered men and women to be equals in every way. The Coptic documents provide much data to support such an argument. (It would be relevant to discuss the Gospel of Mary here, but I will save that for next time.)

8. . . . . . an image . . .

This term “image” (the Greek word is “icon”) turns up many times in both the Gospel of Thomas (83-84) and that of Philip. Its meaning is not clear, but it does seem to be related to Plato’s concept of the archetypal “Ideas” that exist in the “heavens” and are the originals whose bad copies make up the physical world.

Jesus said, “Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image of the Father’s light. He will be disclosed, but his image is hidden by his light . . .When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you and that neither die nor become visible [that does sound like Plato], how much you will have to bear!”

The term also shows up in some intriguing passages in the Gospel of Philip that seem to reveal profound insights into how our minds actually work:

Truth came into the world, not naked, but in types and images. The world cannot comprehend truth in any other way. . . . The mysteries of truth are revealed, though, in type and image. . . . Truth brought names into existence in the world for our sakes, because we cannot learn it (truth) without these names. Truth is one single thing, yet also many things for our sakes, in order to teach about this one thing in love through many things.

And that is as much as will fit in this blog. The next will discuss the issue of Jesus’s women students in more detail.

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  • Corbin Lambeth

    I am trying to appreciate your defense of your imposition on the Gospel of Thomas, but you are perpetuating a mistake. You use *at the end of his rope* as an example for translation, but a good translator will leave the idiom intact for readers to interpret for themselves rather than trying to assert what he or she wants readers to perceive it as meaning, especially when there is some equivocation about a passage (and there are certainly some questionable moves in the passage you tinkered with). Making matters worse, you’ve gotten this particular passage’s meaning wrong and thus twisted it into “saying” something it does not say, all while claiming that you are just quoting the text.

    Your interpretive overreach also neglects widely known facts about Gnosticism, namely, that it was heavily biased against women, who were assumed to be too emotional, irrational, and generally weak-minded to grasp the secret wisdom that a gnostic Jesus offered. Hence, we have a Gospel of Thomas saying 114 that urges women to be like men when it comes to rationality, but requires no questionable postulating about *warriors.* Likewise, it is inappropriate to re-write saying 22 to push an equality agenda that did not exist. This is also why many scholars see a fundamental difference between the man we find in the New Testament and the “Jesus” we see in the gnostic’s Gospel of Thomas. The former certainly valued equality among the sexes, whereas the latter did not. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas passage in question (saying 22) features the core gnostic theme that physicality was unspiritual and thus evil. Hence, to attain enlightenment or the secret knowledge of the gnostic Jesus acolytes had to transcend physicality (distinctions of maleness and femaleness in this case). As we both know, this Jesus is not talking about a sex change. But neither is he talking about dominance or submission or even equality among the physical sexes as you try to assert. He is talking about transcending physicality altogether, literally leaving gender and sex behind. Gospel of Thomas saying 22 doesn’t need your “help.” Folks familiar with Gnosticism can get what is going on in the passage according to its own terms:

    “Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.’”