Harvard Rejecting “Jesus’ Wife” but Truthiness is Served – UPDATES


(Photograph by Karen L. King)

When the New York Times published this piece and kicked off the whole breathless week of speculation that “Jesus had a wife!” I was surprised.

I thought it odd that the Times would report on a story as potentially huge as this, without first making sure that a credible academic imprimatur accompanied it.

Now, it seems such an imprimatur is being denied; it is being reliably “rumored” that Harvard’s Theological Review has rejected the conjectures of Professor Karen L. King:

The rumor is that Harvard Theological Review is now declining to publish Karen King’s paper (available here as a draft pdf) on the Coptic fragment she calls the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” It’s a rumor that appears to be true, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans writes:

Is the Coptic papyrus, in which Jesus speaks of his “wife,” a fake? Probably. We are far from a “consensus,” but one scholar after another and one Coptologist after another has weighed in pointing out serious problems with the paleography, the syntax, and the very troubling fact that almost all of the text has been extracted from the Gospel of Thomas (principally from logia 30, 101, and 114). I suspect the papyrus itself is probably quite old, perhaps fourth or fifth century, but the oddly written (or painted) letters on the recto side are probably modern and probably reflect recent interest in Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The decision of the editors of Harvard Theological Review not to publish Karen King’s paper is very wise. Perhaps we will eventually learn more about who actually produced this text.

The ultimate source is apparently the great Harvard scholar Helmut Koester.

Read it all. Leroy Huizenga asks serious questions about the impact the internet is having on the careful examination of new material — and whether it imperils genuine knowledge with a too-ready acceptance or rejection of matters that require further study.

If the Theological review has, in fact, rejected the paper, it’s not exactly a surprise. As Thomas McDonald has been pointing out, the thing was never so cut-and-dried and experts have been suggesting a modern forgery and expressing doubt since the story went public.

But there is another side to the story that is interesting to me. When the fancifully nicknamed “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” first hit the headlines, Mollie Z. Hemingway and I were thinking along similar lines: we “questioned the timing.”

These meant-to-be-earthshattering “deconstruct and revise Christianity” announcements are the staples of Lent and Christmas. Why was this thing floating in September, and not December, when believers could really get a kick in the pants?

I have an idea why the story came to us in September, and why it was given unusually early coverage by the New York Times. The papyrus and its supposed revelation was a hand-to-glove fit for the era, and for the feminist narratives currently in-play: the “war on women” narrative; the “church hates women” trope. As Mollie wrote:

The discovery of this lost fragment, if interpreted in just the right way, matches the views of the New York Times editorial page! It’s another early Christmas miracle!

Pure speculation on my part, perhaps there was a hedging of bets: suppose those supporting King’s theories suspected that her case was weak, and realized that if the Theological review rejected her paper, there was simply no discussion to be had on the papyrus, and no opportunity to insert a tantalizing corkscrew into church-bashing feminist rhetoric that has begun to grow stale. So, to the press it went.

The news that NatGeo has already filmed, edited and scheduled a documentary on the fragment — how quick was that? — only solidifies my suspicion that academic validation was less important to this story than getting the idea of “Jesus’ wife” out into the public, whether it is true or not.

Because, as Stephen Colbert has told us (and and cognitive researchers have confirmed) the “truthiness” of a thing is what matters. Put the message out there, and it doesn’t have to be factual; it just has to seem true enough for some — hey, it was in the New York Times! Hey! It was on NatGeo, so it must be true!! — and you’ve done your job.

This is why the press routinely prints the headline they want us to absorb when it comes to certain persons or institutions, and then discretely clarify things a few days later.

Thus, the truthiness is served. We seem to have an increasing appetite for it.

Of course, it could be the story came to us in September because it was meant to lay groundwork for a really big revisionist headline, come December, but let’s not entertain commonplace conspiracy theories. Yet.

UPDATE: In a semi-private chat, Tom McDonald addressed my thoughts on the timing:

I think the timing was probably determined by the Coptic Conference in Rome, so she could present it academically, which is the preferred way of revealing things like this. The NY Times report and the Smithsonian deal, however, were quite obviously made prior to the presentation of the report [emphasis mine - ed], which makes it clear that this was a more organized media campaign. It’s not necessarily wrong, but certainly raises some eyebrows, particularly with an unprovenanced piece.

UPDATE II:
Okay, is it rejected? Is it not rejected?. Everyone is having their say, expressing their opinions. I knew the fragment hadn’t been carbon tested (it’s too small) but the suggestion that publication now depends on date-testing of the ink makes me wonder why those i’s and t’s hadn’t been crossed from the start?
And certainly before media headlines and documentaries were initiated?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.leroyhuizenga.com Leroy Huizenga (@LHuizenga)

    Hi Elizabeth — thanks for the linkage. Just to clarify: The stated reason in the original NYT piece that carbon dating hasn’t been done concerns damage to the small amount of *ink* that’s there. My understanding is that there’s actually enough ink to do proper carbon dating, but that you’d have to scrape quite a bit of what’s there to do so and thus do significant damage. The papyrus itself is in all likelihood ancient; the question concerns the age of the ink.

    [Thanks, Leroy! -admin]

  • Ted Seeber

    I’m not at all sure what an age of the ink test would prove. It seems to me that any competent archaeologist who could get their hands on a scrap of blank papyrus from the 4th century, could easily get their hands on 4th century cooking fire ashes (which would be far more common in such a dig), thus enabling them to create an ink that would carbon date properly.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    Most recent update:

    Craig A. Evans responded via email. He says that he has been in conversation with Huffington Post journalist Jaweed Kaleem who he says he advised to contact “Helmut Koester, Karen King, and others at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Theological Review.” Evans writes, “His column has just appeared in the Huffington Post and represents a very fair and accurate assessment of where things now stand.”

    Jaweed Kaleem’s column is “‘Jesus Wife’ Research Leads to Suspicion that Artifact is Fake” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/jesus-wife-suspicions-fake-artifact_n_1916932.html?utm_hp_ref=religion) wherein he reports:

    - Karen King confirms that the fragment has been sent for testing. Kaleem summarizes that, “…the tests should determine if it is from the fourth century as originally proposed, or if parts of it are a modern forgery, as an increasing number of scholars of Coptology and papyrology have suggested.”

    - About the owner of the fragment: “King said the owner acquired the piece in 1997 from a German owner and wants to remain anonymous.”

    - As we reported here through Craig A. Evans’ post Helmut Koester has expressed doubt regarding whether the article will be published and he maintains that it is a forgery:

    “Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School and a former 25-year editor of the journal, said in an interview that he heard ‘they did not want to publish because of doubts from two respected scholars.’ Koester, who specializes in early Christianity and early Christian archaeology, added that after seeing an evaluation of King’s work from a colleague in the field, he was ‘absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.’”

    - King’s paper has been accepted “provisionally,” which confirms aforementioned statements on my blog by Jonathan Beasley, HDS’s spokesman.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    It might have been intended as a distraction from what’s going on the Middle-East at the moment.

  • FW Ken

    The authenticity off the fragment is ultimately irrelevant, since the content is being used to make a claim that’s been made before. Its a claim that a tradition existed outside of mainstream Christianity that Jesus was married and somehow this changes everything. Nothing in my Catholic Faith depends upon the Lord’s marital status, so perhaps I’m not the best person to comment, but I don’t see the excitement about this bit of parchment, since, as noted above, its nothing different than the gnostic texts found and published 60+ years ago.

  • Matt

    A lot in our Catholic faith does depend on the Lord’s marital status. It bears on the issue of married priests, for example. More importantly, one could argue that it is incompatible with the nature of God to be married to a human being (Jesus is human but is also God), since that would be sort of a form of inter-species union. Therefore if Jesus was married it probably means he was not God.

    However, this text doesn’t prove a darn thing. It certainly doesn’t outweigh the four Gospels, the apostolic letters, the two-thousand year tradition of the Church, and the Holy Spirit. Those who believe all this can be upended by a papyrus fragment are deluding themselves.

  • Adam

    I’m not sure that the “inter-species union” thing is a concern–after all, Mary did “conceive by the Holy Spirit,” and I’m pretty sure one of Mary’s titles is “spouse of the Holy Spirit.” Of course, I’m not at all implying that Mary and the Holy Spirit had intercourse in any conventional sense, or even a spiritual one–but we *do* doctrinally believe that there’s a special relationship between Mary and all aspects of the trinity (she’s a daughter, mother, and spouse of the same triune God).

    The concern with Jesus *specifically* is twofold. One, if he were married, it would cast doubt on much of the Gospels, since the absence of a spouse would seem like a very, very glaring omission on the part of the Gospel authors. Two, it would create a very weird upset in Jesus’ relationship with the rest of humanity–he died for all, but married one? We understand Christ as having an egalitarian relationship with humanity (again, his mother notwithstanding). Having a wife and maybe even kids would make him, well, pretty normal.

  • FW Ken

    Matt -

    Clerical celibacy is disciplinary, not theological. Its not a matter of faith. For the rest, its speculative theology which was not my main point.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is no credible evidence that Jesus was married and plenty of evidence that he wasn’t. My point was that this scrap of parchment doesn’t add anything to that topic irrespective of its authenticity.

  • Dixibehr

    //A lot in our Catholic faith does depend on the Lord’s marital status. It bears on the issue of married priests, for example.//

    Our Lord’s marital status (and I believe He was single in His human nature) has nothing to do with the celibacy of clergy, Matthew. There are married Catholic priests in the Eastern Churches as well as the Latin. And yes, in the United States.

    My own pastor is one.

  • tom in Ohio

    “since the content is being used to make a claim that’s been made before. Its a claim that a tradition existed outside of mainstream Christianity that Jesus was married ”

    An aspect being missed. There were all sorts of people saying all sorts of things about Jesus, just like there is today. Finding someone on the 4th or 5th century who thinks XYZ or even ABC, it proves nothing. It should produce yawns not “breathless’ excitement. Except in one regard: All of this proves that God’s provision of an authoritative Church to keep the apostolic Tradition intact, not just a book, is both necessary and glorious. That is something to get excited about.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Even if the carbon dating turns out to be third or fourth century, the fragment is insignificant. Unless it is first century it really is just part of another apocryphal gospel. Do people realize just how many of these apocryphal post first century gospels exist? Lots and none of them reflect truth. This is a tempest in a teapot. That said, it feels like a fake to me.

  • Mr. Patton

    I find it strange that anyone that has read scripture, would find that Jesus the rabbi being married as out of the ordinary. In fact, that was the norm during this period of time.

  • http://hillbillygeek.net HillbillyGeek

    To me, the mention of Michelle Ob– in the fragment’s second sentence was the real red flag. ;-)

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    @Mr. Patton

    The issue is not whether it was normal or not. The issue is that there is no basis for Jesus being married in documents that are near to His life time.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Actually, Adam, the interspecies thing is a concern. Christians believe Jesus was both man and God, not just a mortal Jewish rabbi. Making him married either denies His divinity (which, I think, is the point here), or it puts Him on the level of, say, the Olympian gods of Greece and Rome at that time, with the Holy Spirit playing the role of Zeus, or some other deity, and fathering some half-mortal, half-devine creature, rather like the begetting of Hercules (which reduces Jesus to the role of some mythical character, like Perseus, or Bellerephron; related to the gods, got some cool powers, but not the maker of Heaven and Earth, or any kind of savior—and, again, I think that’s the point; if they can’t get Him one way, they’ll try another.)

    It also raises some tricky questions about, say, anyone claiming to be descended from Christ (and, trust me, with this story, they’ll be popping out of the woodwork, claiming divine descent!)

    And I’ve never heard Mary referred to as the “Bride of the Holy Spirit”, nor would Christ’s conception have been some sort of ritual marriage, or some deity forcibly abducting a human bride, like Zeus running off with Europa.

  • JB

    >And I’ve never heard Mary referred to as the “Bride of the Holy Spirit”

    Well, some people still pray “Ave Maria, sponsa fidelissima Dei Spiritus Sancti…”

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Heh! That’s true, JB–if you can find a Catholic parish that still uses Latin, and if the parishoners can figure out what said Latin actually means. (Being Orthodox, I probably missed that!)

    But, most Catholics, when talking about religion, don’t refer to Mary as the Holy Spirit’s bride, in plain English, or believe she was actually the spouse—in an earthly, physical sense—of God.

    As both Adam, and Matt, point out, postulating a “Mrs. Jesus” really does open a can of worms for believers, if it were true (which I don’t think it is.) Doubtless, this is the reason the media jumped on the bandwagon, here. As the Anchoress herself pointed out, usually they wait until around Christmas, or Easter, to come up with these articles. However, they might have been hoping it would distract everybody from the Libyan mess. . .

    (And dear Lord help us, it makes you wonder what they do have up their sleeve for the coming Christmas season!)