“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” Really?

Greg Strand – September 20, 2012 4 Comments

You have maybe heard the news that a new manuscript has disclosed the possibility that Jesus was married! Well, at least that is how it is being reported. I am including excerpts from a number of papers: The New York Times, USA Today, and Daily Mail. I am only including some of the more pertinent “facts” and some “interpretation” of those facts. I am also including reports from Christianity Today, in which Darrell Bock is briefly interviewed, and one done by Peter Williams, Tyndale House, and Simon Gathercole, Cambridge. These last reports are evangelical responses to this most recent manuscript disclosure.

Laurie Goodstein, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife,” The New York Times (September 18, 2012)

The introduction:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School [Karen King] has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

King’s caution to this fragment she refers to as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”:

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

Michael Winter, “Ancient papyrus fragment refers to Jesus’ ‘wife’,” USA Today (September 18, 2012)

A papyrus fragment from the fourth century contains a phrase in which Jesus refers to “My wife,” which a U.S. scholar says is the first evidence supporting the belief among early Christians that he was married, The New York Times reports.

The fragment consists of eight lines of black ink, written in Coptic, which include the phrase. “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” Below it is what the Times calls “a second provocative clause” that reportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

Damien Gayle, “‘Proof’ Jesus was married found on ancient papyrus that mentions how son of God spoke of his wife and Mary Magdalene,” Daily Mail (September 18, 2012)

A recently uncovered fragment of ancient papyrus makes the explosive suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were man and wife, researchers say.

The 8cm by 4cm fragment supports an undercurrent in Christian thought that undermines centuries of Church dogma by suggesting the Christian Messiah was not celibate.

The centre of the fragment contains the bombshell phrase where Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says ‘my wife’, which researchers believe refers to Magdalene.

Karen King, Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard University was asked about this.

She told Smithsonian Magazine that the fragment casts doubt ‘on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy.’

She added: ‘What this shows is that there were early Christians for whom … sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God’s creativity and generativity and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate.’

King added later in the article,

Professor King downplays the fragment’s validity as a biographical document, saying that it was probably composed in Greek a century or so after the Crucifixion, then subsequently transcribed into Coptic.

Its significance instead lies in the possibility that an early Christian sect drew spiritual succour from portraying their prophet as having a wife.

This representation of Jesus as a man with earthly passions and needs has not survived in the doctrines of the established churches, which emphasise celibacy and asceticism as a spiritual ideal.

Professor King’s interpretation of the text are based on the assumption that the fragment is genuine, a question that is by no means definitively settled.

Daniel Burke, “‘Jesus Said to Them, “My Wife…,”’ Christianity Today (September 19, 2012)

A newly revealed piece of papyrus offers evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married, according to a Harvard Divinity School professor.

A fourth-century codex in Coptic quotes Jesus referring to “my wife,” Karen King, a scholar of early Christianity, said on Tuesday. It is the only extant text in which Jesus is explicitly portrayed as betrothed, according to King.

King is calling the receipt-sized slip of papyrus “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” She believes it was originally written in Greek, and later translated into Coptic, an Egyptian language.

The fragment says, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…,'” according to King. The rest of the sentence is cut off. Another segment says, “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…” The speaker is not named.

The fragment contains just 33 words spread across 14 incomplete lines—less a full-fledged gospel than an ancient crossword puzzle.

Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, noted that the reference to the church being the bride of Christ was quite common, and held by orthodox believers and Gnostic groups.

“In Gnostic Christianity, there was a rite called the bridal chamber in which the church was seen as the bride of Christ,” he said. “The whole thing could well be metaphorical with a disciple representing the place of the church. If that is the case, then it is not even a claim that Jesus was married in real life to a single person.”

If the reference is less metaphorical, Bock said, “It is one speck of a fringe text in a sea of texts that say Jesus was single. It, if authentic, is the exception, to the rule of texts we have on Jesus. Thus, in the end, even if it says what people are suggesting, it tells us only about a fourth century group’s views, not anything about Jesus.”

Peter Williams, “Did Jesus Have a Wife?

Williams, who serves as the Warden at Tyndale House, Cambridge, helpfully asks and answers the following questions: What’s in a name? Genuine or Forgery? What about date? What does it say?

Williams also asked Simon Gathercole, “an expert on apocryphal gospels and Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the University of Cambridge, for his comments.” His conclusion:

Harvard Professor Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus. She is correct that “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus”. But she is also right that this is a fascinating discovery which offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate. If it is genuine.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

4 responses to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” Really?

  1. Thanks Greg for this report. It helps to round out my understanding of what was discovered, and to speak intelligently with those who have questions.

  2. Is this an attack on the integrity of our scriptures? Or merely an attack on one point of what the reformation movement was claiming to be the superfluous “teachings of the Roman church?” How, if at all, does the proof of a wife compromise the word or the Word?

    • Thank you (and the others) for the comments.

      Regarding the question of what this does to the Bible, on the one hand, not much. But, on the other hand, and importantly, it does affect the Bible in these five ways, which are interrelated:

      1. Christological. It does strike at the heart of what we know about Jesus, the God-man, how we discern/discover that information/knowledge, and how that relates to determining who He is and what He did.

      2. Historical. Since the Bible is inerrant in matters of faith and practice, and also history and science, this is a historical claim about the person of Jesus. In that respect it does raise questions about the inerrancy of the Bible.

      3. Gospel. More specifically, it raises the questions about what a gospel is and what is considered historical. This claim is similar to what has been made about other recent gospel discoveries, e.g. The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas. Thus it does raise questions about the Scriptures.

      4. Canonical. That leads to the question of what is canonical, i.e. what is part of the biblical canon, and why certain books are included and others excluded.

      5. Presuppositional. The final point is that all approach this with certain premises and presuppositions about Jesus, the Bible, the Christian faith, etc. In that respect, this also affects how one approaches these discoveries and the Bible.

      You might want to check the posts of September 21 and 30 for additional material on this topic.

  3. Just because it uses the name “Jesus” doesn’t mean the scrap was talking about Jesus of Nazareth. I’m sure many men named Jesus had wives…..right?

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