UPDATE. On April 10, 2014, scientists announced their finding that this document is not a fake, that is, it’s not a modern forgery. It is a centuries-old copy of an earlier book, but not from as early as the time of Jesus. That doesn’t mean Jesus was married, but as Dr. King originally said, it may attest to the belief of some in the early church that Jesus was married, to Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, marriage is probably a metaphor for spiritual union rather than literal marriage.
FURTHER UPDATE, May 3, 2014. Although the ink is ancient, it now appears that the text itself is not – that is, the best guess is that someone in the last couple of years forged the text, by moistening ancient ink and using it to write a new text. As usual, the guys from Tyndale Fellowship are on top it this! http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-latest-news.html
In December of 2011, Dr. Karen King of Harvard welcomed an antiquities dealer to her office. He offered for sale the sort of artifact that makes historians’ mouths water: sealed in glass was a piece of papyrus, about the size of a business card. In it there was a cryptic reference to Jesus’ wife; and it was old, perhaps from as early as the 4th century AD.
Dr. King spent some months analyzing the tiny scrap; since she is a Harvard professor of history she lends a certain authority that the document is genuine. She submitted an article to the prestigious journal Harvard Theology Review, which accepted her work for publication. Then she introduced the world to its content in a paper she gave in Rome, last week, on September 18. The next day it hit the press (click HERE). Today, eight days later, the theme has been announced, affirmed, batted back and forth in the media, used by people with pent-up feelings against Christians (along the lines of, “How difficult would it be to be Mrs. Jesus Christ??”) and refuted. Due to the evidence against its authenticity, the Harvard Theological Review apparently has called off or at least suspended the publication of her article.
The Boston Globe broke the story with this dullish but accurate headline: “Harvard Professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married.” King herself, according to the NY Times, believes that the document is ancient, but “repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married.” She asked reporters: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”
Ah, yes, Dan Brown. His The Da Vinci Code took it as certain that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Brown loosely based his thoughts on the Gnostic document Gospel of Philip, but as far as I could tell, he didn’t seem to have actually read the document. From a few shreds of data he built up a massive conspiracy theory, that the Roman church had for 2000 years suppressed the fact of Jesus’ wife.
This new fragment, dubbed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, is a scrap from a larger page and is badly damaged. The fourth line reads “Jesus said to them, My wife…” From this line, and by comparison with other Gnostic gospels of the period, the line might reasonably be taken to refer to Jesus’ wife. Since a “Mary” is also mentioned in the text, it may be that Mary Magdalene is this wife here referred to.
Thus King believes that:
- In the 2nd– 4th century some Gnostic composed this Gospel of Jesus’ Wife in Greek
- In the 4th century it was translated into the Egyptian dialect known as Coptic
- The fragment is a 4th-century copy of that document
- It attests to the belief of some in the early church that Jesus was married, to Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, marriage might be a metaphor for spiritual union rather than literal marriage
- The text proves nothing about whether the historical Jesus was or was not married
The scholars who have jumped on the anti-Gospel of Jesus’ Wife bandwagon are not apparently offended by the idea of Jesus being married, nor would they be particularly bothered if the thing turned out to be genuine. Rather, they offer other evidence, which I here synthesize:
- The fragment is of unknown provenance (a technical term meaning, Where was it discovered? In whose hands has it been ever since?). This is hugely important in antiquities, since people try to produce and sell fakes at high prices, and you want to make sure they aren’t producing them in their basement. “Provenance” is something Indiana Jones never worried about, but it’s an important point: If you discover a major archaeological find buried in the dirt, don’t move it until the experts arrive!
- The papyrus itself is of unknown date
- The ink may not be ancient: that is, it’s possible that someone took a piece of ancient papyrus and wrote on it just recently. Fortunately, there are tests for both papyrus and ink that can give a good indication of the age of each
- The text (that is, the words themselves) seems to be a clever fake. This gets a bit technical. Francis Watson, of Durham University in England, pointed out that all of the text of GosJesWife seems to have been “borrowed” from another Gnostic document, the Gospel of Thomas. In other words, he thinks that someone in the last few years wrote out some letters that he had found in a certain ancient manuscript of Thomas. This would be a remarkable coincidence and mathematically highly unlikely to have happened by accident. Oddly enough, King in her paper said “there is no directly literary relationship” between GosJesWife and the Gospel of Thomas. Much will hinge on this point over the next few months. Watson also shows that whoever copied the text did not known the Coptic language. [This is similar to the plot of the archaeological thriller, A Skeleton in God’s Closet, by Paul Maier]
- Also, in agreement with Dr. King – marriage might be a metaphor for a spiritual state, not a literal marriage
UPDATE: as of April 2014 it is known that both the papyrus and the ink are ancient, that is, they are probably from the 4th century AD. In that case, the text is ancient, not a new fake.
But my goodness, what a zippy debate has been raging within just eight days! If this had taken place a few decades ago, Dr. King would have heard by mail of a certain document, perhaps with a photocopy or picture of it. She would have then traveled to the site, examined it herself, brought in other experts and then published a scholarly paper. Other scholars would have responded – in print! – in other journals. A topic such as “Was Jesus Married?” would probably have resulted in books for and against the idea. The debate would have ground on.
Not today. Not with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and, gasp, that dinosaur, email. Scholarly debates that used to take years to create now run rings around the globe in a matter of hours. Cambridge University scholar Simon Gathercole literally must have stayed up all night – his response came out shortly after the initial announcement and published a careful and balanced response; I saw his response before I’d read about Dr. King in the paper. Then Francis Watson jumped in with new information, then Craig Evans and many others (see their articles below).
In my opinion as of, let’s see, Thursday, Dr. King jumped the gun, publishing the text of a papyrus document when there existed substantial doubts concerning its age and its provenance. Although her co-author stated emphatically that it could not possibly be a forgery, there are other experts who claim strong evidence of that very thing. Scholars who have examined her work speak positively about her research; nevertheless, behind their politeness is the hint that she may have been bamboozled by a dealer, or the dealer deceived by someone further back in the chain.
On the other hand, we’re only into Day 8 of the controversy, and maybe Dr. King will be proven correct! And what then? As she herself says, the text says nothing about the real Jesus, only about how some perceived him in the early church.
Theological comment: The idea that Jesus had to have been unmarried and celibate is of central importance to the Roman Catholic ideal of the priest: he must be a man, as Jesus was, and celibate, again, as Jesus was. Protestants typically are not as bothered by the idea of a married Jesus, but would claim that it is unlikely that the gospels didn’t mention a wife if there was one – after all, we know the apostles and the brothers of Jesus were married but that Paul was not (1 Cor 9:5).
Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
Dr. King’s article may be read in full here, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” If anyone wants to offer criticism of her work, please go through her article first! http://www.hds.harvard.edu/sites/hds.harvard.edu/files/attachments/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife/29865/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0920.pdf)
Here are some excellent essays with much more data than I could spell out. These are “name” scholars and write for an international audience; they could hardly be accused of promoting fundamentalist or ultracatholic agendas:
Dr. Francis Watson, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed” (http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf). Watson’s viewpoint, that this was produced as a modern forgery, is now discredited.
Dr. Mark Roberts, “Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/was-jesus-married-a-careful-look-at-the-real-evidence/) examines the fact that in Jesus’ day, most Jewish men were married. Nevertheless, this was a custom, not a rule, and there is plenty of evidence of Jewish men who chose not to marry, for one spiritual reason or another.
Dr. Mark Goodacre of Duke University, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Latest News” (http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-latest-news.html)
Dr. Craig Evans, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Latest News” is keeping up with the day-to-day developments (http://nearemmaus.com/2012/09/25/update-on-the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-from-craig-a-evans/)