Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?

Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake? September 21, 2012

Let me start with the news that Mark Goodacre shared a pdf of an article written by Francis Watson, arguing that the recently-found Coptic papyrus that has been dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a fake. He followed that up with a second shorter pdf on the forger’s alleged technique. Some are already pronouncing the issue resolved. I would like to suggest that that judgment is premature.

First, Watson emphasizes that the Gospel may be “fake” in more than one sense, and it may be an ancient “fake” which is simply derivative of other Gospels. That, of course, is what most of our Gospels look like – most of them recycle material found in others, known directly from another written source or indirectly through oral transmission (whether oral recitation of a written source or other forms of storytelling). When that happens early enough, we consider it useful historical confirmation. When it is late, we consider it secondary. But rarely do we simply label a work a “fake.” And even when popular voices or even scholars use such a label, that does not necessarily mean that the matter is settled – take the Gospel of Thomas and the divergent views about it as an example.

Watson also makes what I consider an unfortunate move for his case when he compares the text to the Secret Gospel of Mark on the assumption that the latter is clearly a forgery. That view is indeed popular in certain circles, but handwriting experts and many others consider it extremely unlikely that Morton Smith could have forged the work. And so hitching his argument to a particular view on that other text will seem to many scholars to undermine his case, not support it.

Now let me turn to the heart of Watson’s article, which is a line-by-line analysis of the fragment. Watson’s claim that the first line matches the line division of a specific manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas is interesting, but not conclusive, I am sure most would agree. Watson highlights multiple points of intersection, often verbatim or involving minor modifications and rearrangements of words, that intersect in particular with the Gospel of Thomas. In some instances, Watson seems to be going so far as to suggest direct dependence on a very slim basis – for instance, suggesting that “I will be with her” is a deliberate reworking of “I will be with you” in Matthew 28:20b. It is easy to spot such correspondences and make much of them when dealing with an ancient language, but the truth is that in English we use many phrases repeatedly with no direct borrowing. I rarely say “I will be with you shortly” or “I will be with them at the party,” but if I do, I never have Matthew 28:20b in mind.

And so Watson’s article is to be appreciated for its placement of the text in its literary context. As others had already suggested, the text most likely represents a reworking of earlier texts. That should come as no surprise, since it is true of most early Christian Gospels, beginning with the Synoptics.

And so I would like to suggest that nothing that Watson presents in his article indicates that the work is a modern forgery, or even that calling it an ancient “fake” will usefully contribute to our understanding of the text. Chemical analysis may hopefully settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction, and it may be worth the damage to the fragment that would be involved, in order to achieve that higher degree of certainty. Until then, the discussion should continue, and any pronouncement of the matter as settled is at best premature.


Here’s what others have been saying:

John Byron, Joel Watts, and others have linked to or embedded Jon Stewart’s discussion. I like his suggestions about possible ways the text might have continued after “My wife…” Stephen Colbert also mentions it. And the cartoon at The Sacred Sandwich seems timely.

Dan Wallace offers what he calls a “reality check.” Stephen Prothero doesn’t know and doesn’t care whether Jesus was married. Larry Hurtado thinks that calling the text “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” based on such a small fragment is problematic. Paul Barford has taken to calling it “PDodge” – an abbreviation for the “Dodgy Papyrus” coined by David Gill.

Mark Goodacre, Jim Davila, James Tabor, Steve Caruso, Joel Watts, and Jim West (twice) have all mentioned Simcha Jacobovici’s comments and the plans for a documentary. Inevitably when some are inappropriately sensationalist, others respond by being inappropriately dismissive.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, other contributions to the discussion have been added by Timo Paananen, Stephen Carlson, and Chuck Grantham, Ferrell Jenkins, Dirk Jongkind and Gavin R – plus a sarcastic quip from Bob Cargill.

UPDATE: Since the last update, there have been posts by Ben Witherington (a video), Allan Bevere, Brian LePort, Jeffrey Garcia, James Tabor, and Bart Ehrman.

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  • Of course it isn’t a fake. What is a fake is the religion that distorted the teaching, which understands nothing of what Gospels really are. The early Christians were divided into two: the outer initiates, who were baptised and learned the stories of Jesus, so that their active lives would be good ones; the inner initiates, who had to study long and hard so that their contemplative lives would enable them to join with the divine. In their study, they wrote the allegorical story of Jesus, in their own words, in order to show that they understood the spiritual teaching. When they had shown that they had achieved knowing, they were anointed and designated ‘Christ’.

    According to an early gnostic sect known as the Alogi, one of their members, Cerinthus wrote the Gospel of John but he called it The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Not a title that was acceptable to Irenæus, when he was collating the Bible. He criticises Cerinthus and his writings in Adversus Haereses.

    That Jesus had a wife should not surprise anyone who read the New Testament. It is plain to those who understand the original religion, and thus what they are reading. In John 12:3, a woman loosens her hair to wash Jesus’ feet and then massages him with an oil used in sexual acts. A married Jewish woman would cover her hair in public, an unmarried woman would keep it braided: conclusion, Mary of Bethany must have been Jesus’ wife. If that isn’t enough, remember the bridegroom is responsible for supplying wine at a Jewish wedding.

    • You seem to be running together Luke’s story with John’s. It is a common thing to do, and it is likely that the stories did in fact influence or “contaminate” one another. And while one can obviously make a case for Jesus having been married based on some evidence in the NT, other evidence points in the other direction, and none of it is clear cut – otherwise at least scholars would have reached a consensus on the topic.

      Whether this text is a fake or not, of course, has no bearing on the question of whether Jesus was married, which is not going to be determined by a fragment of text from several centuries later.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Doc, your point about too early of a dismissal is
    well-taken. And yes, copying, reworking, borrowing, etc. is also evident in the
    canonical gospels; and apparently this is evident in this new discovery. So
    pointing this phenomena out in the later text as a reason to dismiss it borders
    on bias. I see that. But!—as Dunn pointed out in his Jesus Remembered the “the early Christians retold the story of
    Jesus and of [them] taking steps to actively recall what Jesus said and did.”
    The traditions eventually laid down in the canonical library survived an
    intense “witnessing and remembering” process that had to pass muster with “apostolic
    custodians.” The very fact that none off
    the earliest traditons suggest Jesus had a wife is cause to believe that any
    such notion would have been rejected outright by those who give us the only
    Jesus we have: the remembered one. So yes, the mere presence of redaction (or
    any other editing) is not sufficient to reject it, but the fact that the strongest
    evidence (having passed apostolic scrutiny) about Jesus omit any such notion.
    This in combination with the lateness of the text (it would’ve been rejected) is
    sufficient reason to reject the new evidence as data for the historical Jesus.
    But as always I appreciate your perspective.

    • This text, whether authentic or not, certainly does not seem as though it would have been out of place among whatever group produced the Gospel of Philip, which has Mary as Jesus’ “partner” and has him kissing her often. There were streams of Christianity which were indeed excluded from what became the mainstream that flowed into what became orthodoxy, but which existed nonetheless. None of this is to suggest that this text tells us what was the case with respect to the historical Jesus – just that this is not the first Coptic extracanonical text which suggests that “There’s Something About Mary.”

  • Judy Redman


    As I was reading Watson’s paper, I also felt that the strong echoes of Gospel of Thomas and Matthew in it do not prove that it is a fake. Not only do other gospels do this, so do the writings of the early Church Fathers as they quote and paraphrase pieces of Scripture in their sermons *and* pieces of what they consider to be heretical writings as they argue against them.

    I agree with those who have been saying that it is a pity that King chose to call her fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. It’s a fragment so small that we have no idea what kind of writing it comes from so to make that kind of assumption muddies the waters, especially for those who don’t know much about the field of early christian writings. There is no justification within the text itself to give it the title ‘gospel’ and we certainly don’t have its original title. 🙂

  • Dr. David Tee

    it doesn’t matter if the the text is authentic or not. it is not Jesus speaking, the fragment is not inspired, inerrant, or part of any document or person that would be considered as such.

    it is merely a 4th century man (last date I have heard) putting words into a person named Jesus and his mouth. This fragment has nothing to do with Christianity, the truth or Jesus

    • I understand. You accept first century authors putting words in Jesus’ mouth as inspired and inerrant, but not 4th century authors doing the same. If you were to say that authors closer to the time of the historical Jesus are more likely to preserve useful historical information, that would be true. But alas, that isn’t what you are saying.

      • Dr. David Tee

        The biblical writers did not put words into Jesus’ mouth. I wonder which words you accept as originating from Jesus and which ones you do not. If I guessed the lists from the Jesus Seminar people, would I be close?

        I wonder what type of God you believe in? The one who lets you do as you want, still practice sin and allows you to get to heaven anyways? or the real one of the Bible who did as the Bible said and who recorded Jesus’ exact words in the NT?

        No I am saying that anyone, in ancient or modern times, can write the words ‘Jesus said ‘my wife…’ and it is not scripture, not true and has no bearing on the Christian faith or Jesus. Plus they are NOT the words Jesus spoke.

        I often wonder about people when they deal with the ancient world, if they put their brains in a locker while examining an ancient text and then pick it back up when they have finished studying it?

        • KRS

          Since you never heard Jesus speak in person, you have no idea whether the authors of the 1st-Century canonical gospels were putting words in Jesus’s mouth or not. A 1st-Century author was more likely to either have known Jesus (if they were *really* old when they wrote the gospels of the New Testament) or to be working from primary source material that closely reflected Jesus’s words. However, there’s no way to empirically establish their accuracy for certain.

          • Dr. David Tee

            Actually, yes I do. it is called FAITH and Hebrews 11 tells us that without it, you can’t please God. You have doubt and unbelief which are sins but that is the main ingredient of those who follow after alternatives.

            If you read the Bible, you will see that neither God nor Jesus say to use evidence, scholarship, critical thinking BUT they did say to use faith.

            it is better to be obedient than not.

          • the_Siliconopolitan

            Is Hebrews scripture? Who wrote it? Why do you trust its author?

          • Abo

            And yet you doubt the veracity of this papyrus. I guess doubt and unbelief are only sins most of the time.

          • KRS

            As others have pointed out below, if your only criterion for distinguishing “truth” from falsehood is is faith, then there’s no way to rule out any idea. Faith ultimately means the willingness to believe whatever you want to believe (or what your favorite authority figures want you to believe).

            Since even the 1st-Century scriptures were written after Jesus’s death, and there are no primary sources in which Jesus wrote down his own words, any source that attributes words to Jesus may have put words in his mouth, intentionally or not. And your guide to which scriptures are authentic is a committee that met over a millennium ago and couldn’t make up its mind about some of the scriptures submitted for review (apparently, God didn’t instruct them inerrantly enough.

  • Allan R. Bevere

    James, you are da man! Thanks for the links.

  • Just Sayin’

    Since it’s too good to be true, that’s exactly what it is — too good to be true i.e. a fake, just like Morton Smith’s despicable fakery.

    • Sinaiticus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi texts all seemed too good to be true. It is absolutely crucial to be cautious, but I think in fact you are making assumptions about the Secret Gospel of Mark that the evidence cannot be said to unambiguously support, in my opinion.

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        On the other hand the provenience of those three examples are not exactly in question.

  • What is most enlightening about this discussion is that we can present various sides of a decidedly religious and potentially heretical document without threatening to burn down anyone’s embassy.

    • Ian

      Cus, you know, I’ve lost count of the violent riots that have ensued from the deliberation of Quranic scholars and historians of Islam.

  • UnclePickles

    it would be impossible for this person to live 30 years without marriage, the church clouded that aspect for obvious reasons, but it’s a natural thing for jesus (if there lived such a person) to be married

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    Just updating this for future readers: Christian Askeland has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the document which was named the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a fake.