Ariel Sabar interviews Harvard researcher Karen King who talks about the discovery of an ancient papyrus fragment with the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’”
The fragment was a shade smaller than an ATM card, honey-hued and densely inked on both sides with faded black script. The writing, King told me, was in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic, into which many early Christian texts were translated in the third and fourth centuries, when Alexandria vied with Rome as an incubator of Christian thought.
When she lifted the papyrus to her office’s arched window, sunlight seeped through in places where the reeds had worn thin. “It’s in pretty good shape,” she said. “I’m not going to look this good after 1,600 years.”
But neither the language nor the papyrus’ apparent age was particularly remarkable. What had captivated King when a private collector first e-mailed her images of the papyrus was a phrase at its center in which Jesus says “my wife.”
The fragment’s 33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines, leave a good deal to interpretation. But in King’s analysis, and as she argues in a forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review, the “wife” Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples.
“She will be able to be my disciple,” Jesus replies. Then, two lines later, he says: “I dwell with her.”
The papyrus was a stunner: the first and only known text from antiquity to depict a married Jesus.
But Dan Brown fans, be warned: King makes no claim for its usefulness as biography. The text was probably composed in Greek a century or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, then copied into Coptic some two centuries later. As evidence that the real-life Jesus was married, the fragment is scarcely more dispositive than Brown’s controversial 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code.
What it does seem to reveal is more subtle and complex: that some group of early Christians drew spiritual strength from portraying the man whose teachings they followed as having a wife. And not just any wife, but possibly Mary Magdalene, the most-mentioned woman in the New Testament besides Jesus’ mother.
The question the discovery raises, King told me, is, “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?”
How this small fragment figures into longstanding Christian debates about marriage and sexuality is likely to be a subject of intense debate. Because chemical tests of its ink have not yet been run, the papyrus is also apt to be challenged on the basis of authenticity; King herself emphasizes that her theories about the text’s significance are based on the assumption that the fragment is genuine, a question that has by no means been definitively settled. That her article’s publication will be seen at least in part as a provocation is clear from the title King has given the text: “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” [Continue reading…]
If references to Jesus’s marriage were removed from the gospels, this may have less to do with the promotion of celibacy as a Christian ideal than with the need to buttress claims about Jesus’s divinity. After all, if he had a wife then he almost certainly had children and not just a mother but also a father — a human father.
And with that blasphemous thought perhaps it’s worth remembering that those who feel their faith is being challenged can have extreme reactions — whatever their faith. Remember The Last Temptation of Christ?