The wife of Jesus: New discovery challenges fundamental Christian belief

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?

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7 thoughts on “The wife of Jesus: New discovery challenges fundamental Christian belief

  1. Robert Consoli

    Hello all,
    Now I personally don’t care whether Jesus had a wife or not. That said it’s important to realize that this fragment of writing written about 150 years after Jesus’ death has no relevance whatsoever to his biography. The stories of Jesus’ wife were not subtracted from the gospels; they were ADDED to this particular narrative environment in Egypt. This has no more relationship to actual history than did The Gospel of Judas which was hyped by Elaine Page a few years ago. The story of Jesus (and remember all this church writing IS really just a story narrative) was probably added to this environment in order to deal with some local issue concerning marriage, wives, or women in the local church. That’s how it works. The whole area of exegesis is almost impossibly complex and highly technical; it’s not subject to facile interpretations by the press.

    Bob Consoli

  2. rackstraw

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see the NY Times run a headline like “Historian says piece of papyrus refers to Jesus’ wife” because it is so National Inquirer, so Matt Drudge.

    There is nothing in the NY Times article that connects the historical Jesus with the “Jesus” of the fragment. The article admits that “When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown. The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri.” There is nothing in the article that connects this particular fragment of papyrus with any philosophical or religious writings whatever. There is nothing given in the article to show that the “fourth century” estimate of the fragment’s age is anything but somebody’s guess.

    Next time around, they can find some scraps of parchment that speak of someone named “Mohammed”, and then run the headline “Historians say palimpsest proves Mohammed pinched in the Astor Bar”.

  3. Paul Woodward

    For readers who are willing to apply the effort involved in clicking on a link, the NYT article links to the report which will appear in the forthcoming Harvard Theological Review. The report says:

    Coptic palaeography is notoriously difficult to date. Within the limits of the current state of the field, the handwriting of our papyrus seems to belong in the second half of the 4th century. It is comparable to the hand of Codex Schøyen (a copy of the Gospel of Matthew) dated to the first half of the 4th century, and to the hand of the Coptic Genesis in the cartonnage of Nag Hammadi Codex VII (C2), dated to the end of the 3rd or early 4th century.

    The idea that the content of a piece of text such as this can be dismissed because it cannot be tied definitively to “the historical Jesus” is somewhat amusing. Who is this figure other than someone posited to exist on the basis of the contents of fragments of papyrus such as this?

    The exploration of historical evidence about people and events 2,000 years rarely reaches incontestable conclusions. That doesn’t make the study of minute fragments of evidence such as this worthless. It just means that at best they can only add one more piece toward the solution of a vastly complex puzzle.

  4. Robert Consoli

    I appreciate your publishing my previous e-mail and I’m going to double down on this. This document has NO significance whatsoever for our understanding of Jesus either historically or theologically and it has no relevance to our modern concerns. It’s simply a local (southern Egyptian) story about the life of Christ which was primarily influenced by events local to the writer and, in the opinion of Dr. King its origin is 2C: “She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second-century Greek text.”
    The fragment that she actually has is a 4C (perhaps) copy. So, about a century and a half after Jesus’ death someone in southern Egypt retold the gospel story, in terms of local concerns (a process already underway before the year 100 and which is clearly illustrated in our canonical gospels) in which Jesus was a character and (perhaps) had a wife. Then two centuries LATER it was copied into a coptic language version(!) This is no more relevant for the historical Jesus than a novelization of the life of Napoleon which substitutes one of the Kardashians for Josephine.
    It’s possible that Paul Woodward believes that the Roman Catholic Church should make a more prominent place for women in ecclesiastical life. (I don’t know, his writings seem to hint at this.) If he does then I am ready to say ‘amen’. In fact, as I see it, this is the only possible way forward for the RCC. But this won’t happen because of ill-informed historical speculation sourced only to God knows what. Mr. Woodward asks ‘Who is this figure (Jesus) other than someone posited to exist on the basis of the contents of fragments of papyrus such as this?’ The historical existence of Jesus is based on complete and entire, well authenticated manuscripts, not just of our canonical bible, but on the writings of persons contemporary or near-contemporary, namely Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus. I recommend as an introduction to this labyrinthine field: A history of the Jewish people in the time of Jesus Christ by E. Schurer particularly the edition edited by Geza Vermes. We cannot equate the textual evidence for the existence of Jesus with this flimsy and uncertain fragment that purports to give him a ‘wife’. Could Dr. King be gaming the system for personal advancement at the Tenth World Coptic Studies Conference in Rome? Nooooooo. Never happen!

  5. delia ruhe

    Christianity has been sexphobic from its beginnings. It was part of the argument for differentiating Judaism, “Israel of the flesh [and circumcision]” from Christianity, “Israel of the spirit [and celibacy].” It’s why the word for unmarried woman had to be translated literally as “virgin” when describing the mother of Jesus.

    It would be nice to have all the archival materials necessary to trace all the steps required to purge Christianity of the body and all its pleasure. But the writings of the Church Dads are nevertheless eyepopping in this regard.

  6. Paul Woodward

    Anyone who can claim to have discerned my views about the Catholic church based on anything I’ve written here is either clairvoyant or delusional. As an atheist, the reform of the church is not something that concerns me much. What interests me much more – and this is why I posted this item – is a sociological question: how adaptable is Christian belief?

    The Dalai Lama has said that if science contradicts Buddhist teachings then Buddhism needs to change. This willingness to modify doctrine in the light of new evidence is perhaps not that difficult in a religion that rests primarily on philosophical principles rather than historical narratives. I know that individually, Christians are capable of modifying theology even to a point where some Christians also call themselves atheists. Still, it interests me (even as a somewhat disinterested observer) whether some new discovery could be made that would cause the theological house of cards to collapse, or, for Christians to collectively mythologize their faith and conclude that history no longer matters. Using this news item as a springboard, I merely speculate that the idea that Jesus had a wife (were that to become accepted widely – and no doubt that would not come about simply because of what was written on a scrap of papyrus) might in turn lead to the acceptance of him as a non-divine human being and that in turn might be a positive adaptation for Christianity.

    And returning to King’s claims, they are themselves much more modest than Robert Consoli’s interpretation. She says that what she has found “does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married” — it merely indicates that over a century after Jesus’s death there were among the early Christians differences of opinion about whether he had been married. Perhaps those early believers had yet to acquire the burden that afflicted so many of their later successors: unshakable convictions.

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