The Weigh-In: The Good Wife?

By now, many of you may have heard the rumors about Jesus’ wife. On Sept. 18, Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard University, announced at a conference in Rome that a fragment from an ancient papyrus had been found.

Dr. John Martens

News of the fragment was all rather subdued compared to the fanfare, sensationalism and television specials that often greet “new evidence” for early Christianity, usually released to the public around Easter or Christmas holidays for maximum impact. An example of such sensationalism emerged last Easter when there were reports of a discovery of an early Christian tomb in Jerusalem. (You can read my response to that announcement on my blog, Bible Junkies.)

Dr. King’s announcement (also released online – PDF), though, is quite measured in what this fragment can and cannot say about early Christianity.

Published here for the first time is a fragment of a fourth-century CE codex in Coptic containing a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus speaks of “my wife.” 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.

King made one mistake, however, in her release of this fragment and that was in calling it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Why is this a mistake? It is not a Gospel, it is a fragment (of something) and we do not know where it comes from or to what larger text it belongs. Perhaps, it is a gnostic Gospel and perhaps it is not.

Here is Dr. King’s English translation from Coptic (an ancient Egyptian Christian language) of the whole text:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it35
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 [

1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)
6 ] (illegible ink traces)

Finding fragments of ancient texts is not strange – think, for instance, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which were in hundreds of pieces – but a fragment does not give one the whole story either. There is only a little bit of text from which to construct the whole of the argument. Is Jesus really speaking of a wife (physically) or is he speaking of a wife (spiritually), such as the Church? Only a more complete context can certify this for us.

Where was it found?
Certifying this fragment in general, however, is a big issue, and there is an even more profound issue: Many scholars now argue that this text is actually a modern forgery, taking Coptic words from the ancient Gospel of Thomas (from logia 29, 30, 101 and 114) and rearranging them on this fragment.

The scholars Francis Watson (Durham University) and Mark Goodacre (Duke University) both argue that this text borrows every word from the Gospel of Thomas. According to another New Testament scholar, Craig A. Evans, Harvard University will no longer publish King’s paper.

Dr. King knew that forgery was a possibility in her own paper, but the testing of the papyrus showed that it was ancient. Unfortunately, modern forgers can buy ancient papyrus and write on it. What makes this situation even more difficult is that King notes that the fragment belongs to a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Does it say something new?
The evidence, therefore, points to a modern forgery, but this is not certain either. Let’s say it was real. Does the text tell us anything new or different from what we know about early Christianity? I suppose that the two words “my wife” from the mouth of Jesus would be new if we were certain that it referred to an actual woman who was his wife, but we are not certain that is the case.

Keep in mind, too, that even if it did say these words, the text is thought to emerge (if genuine) from a second century context. It would not be proof that Jesus was married. It would be proof that some later Christian group – gnostics or others – thought he was or wished he was married for theological reasons which are not clear to us.

Does the fragment challenge our understanding of Jesus?
If this fragment represented the belief that Jesus was married it would not truly challenge our understanding of Jesus for a simple reason: None of the earliest and best historical documents of Christianity portray Jesus as married. These documents are all in the New Testament, with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which also contains some early traditions of Jesus. But none of the canonical Gospels, or the Gospel of Thomas, present Jesus as married.

This fragment, even if authentic, does not provide such an early tradition. Some people say that all men in ancient Judaism had to be married, but this is not true. Apart from early Christians, we know of Jews, such as Essenes, Therapeutae and even rabbis, who remained celibate to devote themselves to God and study.

The textual experts seem to be suggesting – quite strongly – that this fragment of a (possible) Gospel is not genuine, but a modern forgery. Yet, even if it was genuine it does not give us early enough data to challenge the traditions concerning Jesus in the canonical Gospels and maintained by the Church.

The most it would tell us is that some unknown Christian group thought or wished that Jesus was married, but the best evidence is evidence we have known for centuries: According to the New Testament, no wife of Jesus is mentioned; however, he did have a lot of female disciples and was pretty close to his mother, too.

John Martens is an associate professor in the Theology Department, and is director of Master of Arts in Theology program at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.