Was Jesus Married? Does New Evidence Say “Yes”?

Was Jesus Married? Does New Evidence Say “Yes”? September 18, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife, after all?

Major news outlets, such as the New York Times, are reporting on the discovery of a new document that refers to Jesus’ wife. More precisely, a small fragment from a previously unknown document contains a statement by a character named “Jesus” referring to “my wife.”

Does this give us new historical evidence for the literal marriage of Jesus of Nazareth to some woman, perhaps Mary Magdalene?

Professor Karen King displays the fragment of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Photo from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/090512_AncientPapyrus_1714_605.jpg

No, says Karen L. King, the scholar who recently revealed the existence of the manuscript fragment in which “Jesus” speaks of “my wife.” In an article to be published in the Harvard Theological Review, King writes:

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.

Near the end of her article, King, with contributions by AnneMarie Luijendijk, reiterates:

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.

Of course, King’s measured judgment here will do little to stop the coming tidal wave of claims that we now have definitive evidence if not proof that Jesus was actually married. Dan Brown and his spokesman, Sir Leigh Teabing, appear to have been right all along! At least this is what we’ll hear in the days to come.

In fact, as Karen King rightly observes, the discovery and publication of the fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife in fact tells us nothing about the first-century man we know as Jesus of Nazareth. If it is genuine, the fragment of the otherwise unknown document will tell us something about the beliefs of people who lived a century or two after Jesus, though what exactly we should conclude on the basis of this small piece of an ancient manuscript is yet to be determined.

Several years ago, I wrote an article called Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence. I wrote this in response to the fictional “scholarship” found in Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. In this article, I sifted through the historical evidence for and against the marriage of Jesus, focusing on the New Testament as well as writings from early Christianity. I showed that there was no evidence whatsoever in the ancient texts for the marriage of Jesus. Today, I need to qualify what I wrote in light of the new evidence from the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. I would say something like this:

In light of the recent publication of a fragment from the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, it seems possible that in the fourth century A.D., somebody wrote or copied a document in the Coptic language in which a character named “Jesus” uses the phrase “my wife.” If we understand this language in a literal sense, which may or may not be the right interpretation, then this fragment provides evidence that somebody (or a group of people) in the second or third century believed that Jesus was actually married.

Of course, it could turn out that the fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery (though given what Karen King has described, I am not expecting this outcome). It could also turn out that the use of “wife” in this document is best understood in a non-literal sense. Part of what makes this case so tricky is the fact that we have very little of the original document (if there was an original document). But, even if, in the end, scholarly consensus supports the genuineness of the fragment and the literal interpretation of “wife,” we would do well to remember Karen King’s conclusion that the fragment “does not . . . provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.”

If you’re not familiar with Karen King, let me say that she is a serious and highly-accomplished scholar whose particular expertise includes early Christian history and the Coptic language. In other words, she is someone who deserves to be taken seriously in the matter of this manuscript fragment. (Note: I did not know King when I was at Harvard. She came six years after I finished my Ph.D. there.) King is not some huckster who is seeking to make a name for herself from some academically-suspect charade. Moreover, King has served us well by making available a pre-release of her official article (http://templatelab.com/King-JesusSaidToThem/) that will appear in the Harvard Theological Review (January 2013). Clearly, King is encouraging a serious, responsible debate about the fragment that was made available to her last December (2011). I must give her credit, however, for knowing how to stir up popular interest in this fragment by naming it the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. (It appears that she named the fragment, though I’m not positive about this.)

Tomorrow, I’ll have more to say about the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and its implications for our understanding of Jesus. In the meanwhile, if you are looking for serious discussion of this fragment, let me point you to King’s article and some basic information from the Harvard Divinity School website. Also, you may be interested in my online article, Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence. As I mentioned above, I will need to edit this a bit to reflect the new data from Karen King. But my basic conclusions about the marriage of Jesus (or lack thereof) remain intact.

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  • Derek J

    If that is all that is legible in the fragment, all it proves is that a person named Jesus had a wife and someone talked about him in the fourth century. That evidence is about as slim as it comes. I thought “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, as Bible naysayers throw at us.

  • Good work addressing this quickly, Mark! Very thoughtful. and fair, per usual with you.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, Derek, for your insight.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, Steve.

  • Hmm A coptic script from a place of known erroneous versions of scripture. Now that is news!!

  • By the way, Loved and tweeted your “Was Jesus married” article and found it to be insightful and thoughtful. Brought up some new thoughts that I had never encountered. I know in my faith that He was to be totally given to the Call of the Father, but finding what others think and have studied on the matter, is quite interesting. Thank you!

  • Yeshuratnam

    Christianity first appeared in Egypt in 42 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander. Jesus’ disciple Mark preached in Alexandria and many became Christians.. If such a marriage had happened Mark, a contemporary and disciple of Jesus, would have recorded it. Alexandria was a well developed, cultured city with a huge library. Rome was ruled at that time by Claudius, with a strong Christian population in Rome. There was also a theological schhol in Alexandria. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was the oldest catechetical school in the
    world. Founded around 190 AD by the scholar Pantanaus the school of Alexandria
    became an important institution of religious learning, where students were
    taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and Origen, the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. The theological institutions of Egypt and the great Christian scholars who lived in Egypt do not make any reference to the wife of Jesus. So it is quite transparent that the faded papyrus fragment is fabricated, manipulated and concocted. Long before this papyrus fragment produced by
    Karen, there were theological schools and great scholars. Karen
    claims that in a fragment found in Egypt there has a reference to the wife of
    Jesus. Karen says that the fragment was produced 400 years after the
    resurrection of Jesus. So it is quite transparent that it was a fabricated,
    manipulated fragment by an unknown author. Since it is not a contemporary
    account, the authenticity of the fragment itself is to be scanned.

    Dan Brown also scandalized Jesus in his book, The Da vinci Code. Dan Brown told a lie that there was a secret code in da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. But the fact of the matter is da Vinci was an Italian and he lived in the
    15 th century. Jesus was a Palestinian and he lived in the Ist century. Da
    vinci was not a contemporary of Jesus, then how could he know the secret life
    of Jesus? Moreover, da Vinci was a pious Christian and he would not begin his
    painting without praying before the statue of Jesus in the church of Milan.

    These authors who do not hesitate to scandalize immaculate Jesus who said that to look at a woman with sexual motive is sin and the eyes are to be gouged out, are afraid to write a book about the much-married Mohammed or Krishna who had
    thousands of wives.

  • There are plenty of people called Jesus from that time, so w have no idea which Jesus it is referring to. There is no other evidence describing who this Jesus is. Not a good example to get going on by, but far too many people use such evidence

  • Anonymous

    In response to the comments about “just someone named Jesus”, the name Jesus in the coptic text is written in nomen sacrum. (pg 7, http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf)

  • sam

    i saw the vinci code ,if this story is true then is this possible that any there grand grand son present now????????

  • Surely the answer to the question ‘Was Jesus married?’ must be: ‘Possibly’. There is no proof either way. Is anything significant changed if he was? I can’t see it and I can’t understand the importance that seems to be attached to arriving at a definitive answer. There are apparently textual indications that Mary Magdalene enjoyed special status among the disciples. It may be that she was married to Jesus but even if it came to light that there are descendants what would be changed? It’s a nice thought that there may have been a happy ending (of sorts) to the barbarous cruelty that ended Jesus’ life but should we believe that descendants would have special qualities and characteristics by virtue of their distant ancestry?

    Descendants of Muhammed, founder of a great world religion, Hafiz and Rumi, the Sufi mystics to name a few important religious figures, are found throughout the world. Do they, by virtue of their genetic inheritance, exhibit qualities for which their distant ancestors were/are revered by so many?

    Having read Dan Brown’s book some years ago (like so many) I found myself thinking – well even if this was all true what difference would it make? I still can’t think of anything important that would be changed. Brown suggested that this would be a world changing event (but I couldn’t see why), that the foundations of Catholicism would be shaken (but why wouldn’t the Church simply absorb and interpret the new reality and roll on? Scholarly debates, lecture tours, books, chat show interviews – business as usual.

  • The Coptic text here is a forgery though, probably done sometime after 2002 based on having copied an on-line source for the Coptic that only came to exist that year. Personally I have no problem with Jesus have been married, and as a Mormon actually would have less theological problems if it were so (if marriage is the most important ordinance in the gospel, how could Jesus not do it?), but the fragment in question is a forgery.


    I wonder why Professor
    Karen King forgot that! Personally, I believe that the Papyrus
    may be genuine but since there were several other people named Jesus,
    the information does not confirm that Jesus Christ was married! King
    should know that all these other people who were named Jesus were