Yesterday, I began commenting on the new revelation from Karen King: a small fragment that may come from a fourth-century document that includes a character named “Jesus” who says “my wife.” Of course, this revelation has excited the media, which stirs up business with such catchy headlines as “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” The way this reads, you might think the fragment refers to the actual wife of the actual Jesus of Nazareth. Now that will sell some papers, but it won’t help anybody understand what’s really going on here.
Unfortunately, this kind of hype contributes little to our understanding of early Christian history or of the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The fragment revealed by King may, if it is found to be authentic, tell us something about religious life a century or two after Jesus. But it doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus himself. As King writes in her soon-to-be-released article in the Harvard Theological Review:
This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.
But, in spite of King’s caution, I’m sure the media will soon be saturated all sorts of prophets, professors, and pretenders weighing in on the marriage of Jesus. No doubt many will claim to have found the smoking gun, the telltale evidence for the marriage of Jesus. These folks ought to calm down and read King’s article more carefully. They might also be well-served to read an article I wrote called: Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence.
In this blog post, I want to highlight a few salient facts concerning the fragment now known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. In my comments here, I am relying heavily on Karen King’s work and am grateful to her for quickly publishing the evidence so others scholars can weigh in.
What is the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?
It is not a gospel in the sense that most people might imagine. We do not have anything like the longer gospels in the New Testament or the non-canonical gospels that show up in the Nag Hammadi Library, for example. What we have is a very small papyrus fragment (about 1.5 inches by 3 inches) on which there is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language used in the centuries after Christ. According to Karen King’s translation, here’s how the front of the papyrus reads:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it [
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7 ] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8 ] an image [
The fact that some character named “Jesus” says “my wife” is clear. Given the mention of disciples and Mary, it seems likely that this fragment, if it is authentic, comes from a longer document that is connected to early Christianity.
Where Did The Fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Come From?
This mysterious and undocumented origins of this fragment add to its intrigue. According to Karen King, the fragment belongs to a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous. The owner gave the fragment to Karen King in December, 2011 so that she might examine it and, apparently, make its contents known. The fragment appears to have been part of a private collection in the 1980s. Nothing is known of the earlier history of the fragment at this time.
Could the Fragment Be a Forgery?
Given the peculiar history of the fragment and its seemingly incendiary content, it could be a forgery. It seems curious to me that the fragment is so neatly rectangular, unlike many ancient manuscript fragments. But, according to King, who is herself an expert in the field of early Christian history and the Coptic language, she has allowed other experts to examine the document and verify its authenticity. You can find the details in her article. If it’s a forgery, it is very well done. At the moment, I would assume for the sake of discussion that the fragment is authentic. But I could certainly be wrong about this. Several international experts have expressed grave doubts about the authenticity of the fragment.
Of course, if the fragment is a forgery, then this question has an especially juicy answer. But, if it is authentic, then there are actually two questions that need to be answered:
1. When was this particular fragment copied?
2. When was the original “gospel” authored?
Scholars answer the first question by careful study of the details of the fragment: handwriting, ink, papyrus, language, etc. King believes that the fragment itself was penned in the fourth century A.D. (in the 300s).
The second question requires even more guess work, especially given the tiny amount of information contained on the actual fragment. King argues that the original document was written in the second half of the second century A.D. Moreover, she concludes: “There is insufficient evidence to speculate with any confidence about who may have composed, read, or circulated GosJesWife except to conclude they were Christians.” Of course, she is using “Christians” here in a historical sense. She is not claiming that those who wrote or used this document were orthodox believers. In fact, King sees this document as at home among Gnostic writings that were clearly not in the orthodox Christian stream.
Though it’s possible that GosJesWife was written during the latter half of the second century, we should remember that this is speculative, given how little we know about the larger document from which the fragment comes. Some scholars of early Christianity, and especially agenda-driven pseudo-scholars, try to push the dating of the Gnostic gospels earlier and earlier. Watch and you’ll see what I mean. Karen King has a scrap of a fourth-century document. She argues, plausibly, but without making any claim to certainty, that the original document was written over a hundred years earlier, in the late second century. Yet, before long, you’ll find people who will assert that GosJesWife comes from early in the second century. Then, some will claim that the content of GosJesWife represents first-century traditions. This is how the game works. (I’ll have more to say later about why people in today’s world might want to think of Jesus as married.)
What Does the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Tell Us About “Jesus’s” Wife?
Not much, actually. This fragment tells us very, very little even about the character named “Jesus” who appears in the second and fourth lines of the fragment. In the first line, he says “My mother gave to me li[fe. . . .” In the second line, his disciples speak to Jesus. In the third line, it seems that Jesus mentions someone named “Mary” who is “worthy” of something. In the fourth line, Jesus identifies someone (presumably but not necessarily Mary) as “my wife.” In the fifth line, he adds that she “is able to be my disciple.” In the seventh line, he says “I dwell with her.”
Given how little we have here, there is much we do not know. We do not know, for example, whether the name “Mary” (l. 3) refers to the mother of Jesus (l. 4), the wife of Jesus (l. 4), or some other person. It seems to me likely that “Mary” is the name of Jesus’s wife, but this cannot be known for sure.
We also do not know the sense of “wife.” We might be inclined to take “wife” literally, as the person who was married to Jesus and lived with him in consummated intimacy. But, given the Gnostic tendency to denigrate fleshly existence, it’s possible that “wife” was not meant in this literal way, but rather in some figurative sense, perhaps as one with whom Jesus shared his most intimate revelations.
It does seem clear in GosJesWife that the wife of Jesus was his disciple, at least as far as he was concerned. As Karen King argues, the dialogue bears resemblance to what we find in other Gnostic “gospels” from the late second and early third centuries, such as The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Philip. (I have examined these documents in my article, Was Jesus Married?) There does appear to have been a debate among some Gnostic Christians as to the role of Mary in relationship to Jesus. Perhaps certain of these Gnostics believed that Mary’s role as Jesus’s wife somehow underscored her worthiness to be his disciple. (Of course, in the biblical gospels, Mary Magdalene is a close follower of Jesus who does not need to be married in order to be accepted by him. Women and men were free to follow Jesus without being members of his literal family. His acceptance of women followers was part of what made Jesus so scandalous in his own time and culture.)
Does the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Provide Evidence for the Actual Marriage of the Actual Jesus?
No, it doesn’t. If the fragment is authentic, and if the use of “wife” in this fragment was meant to be understood literally, if the original document was penned late in the second century, then, at most, we have evidence that some (Gnostic) Christians who lived a century and a half after Jesus believed that he was married. Such things can fascinate those of us who enjoy studying early Christian history. But they don’t tell us anything about Jesus himself. As Karen King concludes in her article:
Does this fragment constitute evidence that Jesus was married? In our opinion, the late date of the Coptic papyrus (c. fourth century), and even of the 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.
Why Is There So Much Interest in the Marriage of Jesus?
I’ll pick up this question tomorrow.