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Did Jesus have a wife?

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Published: 26 September 2012 (GMT+10)

Karen L. King

It seems the only time Christianity makes the news is when there is a discovery which might change the way early Christianity is viewed. A few years ago, the lead codices made headlines, with breathless exclamations that these may be the earliest Christian documents. When a fragment of an alleged fourth-century Coptic text was announced that put the words “My wife … ” in the mouth of Jesus, it took only days for it to be named “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.

In fact, there are convincing reasons for taking this to be a modern forgery. However, in the interest of helping Christians to think through issues like this biblically, we will deal with the fragment in detail, explaining the sort of reasoning people should use when they are confronted with these sorts of finds.

The find

The find consists of a papyrus fragment, smaller than a business card, with writing in Sahidic Coptic (Coptic writing in Greek characters used in Upper (South) Egypt from the 3rd–7th centuries) on both sides. One side has eight lines of text, the other side is too faded to read.

The translated legible text reads:

… “[can]not be my [disciple]. My mother gave me life” …
… “The disciples said to Jesus” …
… “deny. Mary is worthy of it” …
… “Jesus said to them, “My wife” …
… “she can be my disciple” …
… “Let the evil man swell up” …
… “I am with her, so as to” …
… “an image” …

Designation and characteristics of the find

So why is this called a ‘gospel’ in the first place? Michael Kruger remarks, “At first glance, the document appears to be composed of gospel-like text that contained stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus seems to be doing what he often does in other gospel texts: he is having a conversation with his disciples.”1 But Larry Hurtado questions whether such a designation is helpful. “Assuming that the fragment is genuine, and is from a larger text, I reiterate that it is injudicious to refer to that putative text as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Prof. King says in her essay that this is simply for convenience. But it would actually be better simply to refer to what we have, which, for convenience, we could call “The Jesus’ Wife Fragment”. That’s actually all we have.”2

‘If an amateur with a basic knowledge of Coptic were to forge a text, it would look like the text under question.’

There is some debate as to what the fragment might actually be a part of: “Some scholars have suggested this fragment may be a magical text like an amulet, particularly given its small size. However, amulets did not normally have writing on the back of the page (the verso).”3 Karen King, the scholar who announced the find, has released a draft of the paper that will be published in the Harvard Theological Review. She says, “Initially the compact size and regular shape of the fragment led us to consider whether it might have been an amulet, but we excluded this possibility because it shows no folds, and it begins and ends in the middle of sentences that also extend into margins of unknown length on both the right and left.”4

Many noted that even on a casual examination, the document looks sloppily done. The “letter formation is not literary, semi-literary or documentary. I note only the example of Epsilon which is two strokes (not three) and which does not conjoin.” Also, the text does not follow regular lines as a professionally copied text would. Some explain the poor lettering by saying that the copyist had a dull calamus (a writing instrument like a quill), but Christian Askeland counters “I have a hard time explaining the script via a dull calamus. It is not that hard to sharpen a calamus. This text was painted or markered.” He further claims that “if an amateur with a basic knowledge of Coptic were to forge a text, it would look like the text under question. … Two omissions are bizarre and may reflect a weak knowledge of the language.”5

Dating the text

King dates the text to the second half of the fourth century, but claims that it may come from a Greek original from the second century: “A substantial portion of early Coptic literature was translated from Greek, including the closest parallels to GosJesWife, suggesting that it, too, was originally composed in Greek, although it is extant only here in Coptic translation. While plausible, this supposition cannot be definitively established on the basis of this tiny fragment.”6 While this is possible (though completely without evidence), it could simply be a later writing that drew on Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.7

The most important thing to note about the date is this: no one is arguing that this gospel is early enough to give us reliable information about whether or not Jesus was actually married. Even a second-century date would put it far beyond the time of the apostles or any other possible eyewitnesses. But Askeland says that “the 4th century date is speculation. I say this based on my own familiarity with similar datable texts (Nag Hammadi, Kellis, Melitian Archive) and with the wider issues of dating in general. King’s argument’s [sic] in her article are based upon other speculatively dated manuscripts which additionally are not similar in appearance or format.”8 Even King acknowledges: “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.” “Rather, the importance of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife lies in supplying a new voice within the diverse chorus of early Christian traditions about Jesus that documents that some Christians depicted Jesus as married.”9

Is it genuine?

But of course, it only ‘supplies a new voice within the diverse chorus of early Christian tradition’ if it is actually a product of early Christianity. But that is precisely what is in question. King argues that the presence of nomina sacra (the abbreviation of certain words referring to deity or other important theological words) and the extreme fading on the verso point to its antiquity. She says additionally: “It would be very difficult to reproduce the kind of damage from insects or moisture that the fragment indicates.” In fact, she says that the damage is consistent with the damage one would find on papyri from a trash heap.10

It is hard to discern the expected damage by viewing even very hi-res photos of the papyrus. In fact, some have commented on how ‘fresh’ the papyrus looks.

But it is hard to discern this damage by viewing even very hi-res photos of the papyrus. In fact, some have commented on how ‘fresh’ the papyrus looks. One blogger noted that the fraying appears ‘fresh’ and “no deterioration is obviously noticeable anywhere around the center portion of the papyrus.”11

Some are arguing, however, that the ‘fresh’ look of the fraying and the ‘regular’ rectangular appearance of the papyrus could be the result of a modern cutting of the papyrus. Roger Bagnall, one of the scholars who authenticated the papyrus, said: “The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top, and bottom—most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit.”12

Practically conclusive evidence of modern forgery

Francis Watson of Durham University released three essays online in the days following the fragment’s announcement arguing that it “is most probably the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic.”13 He argues based on Line 1’s dependence on the one extant manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas, down to the line divisions, that “the author has used a modern printed edition of the Coptic text, where the original line-divisions are preserved”14 He notes: “The author has used a kind of ‘collage’ technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.”15

In an addendum, Watson presents a convincing case that the fragment is actually a modern forgery (post-dating the 1956 publication of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas) which was designed to resemble a damaged fragment, but which lacks the coherence of an actual text. He notes:

Neither these considerations nor the ones identified in my previous essay make it in any way certain that GJW is a modern fake. Rather, they highlight issues that would need to be resolved before the text could be accepted as genuine. … For the present, though, scepticism seems a safer option than credulity.16

Jim Davila at the Paleojudaica blog says that “it looks to me like we have a small fragment that really, really fortunately preserves just the words that say exactly what we really, really would like to have an ancient gospel fragment say about Jesus. Coincidentally, the physical features of the fragment are also highly unusual or even unprecedented. So we’ve won the lottery twice. Either that or it’s a fake.”17

Summary

At this point the best, most charitable thing we can say about the fragment is that it has some very, very unusual characteristics that have never come together in one fragment before as far as some of the leading scholars are aware of. At this point, the virtually certain dependence on the Gospel of Thomas means that whether ancient or modern in origin, this is not an original text and it was written after the Gospel of Thomas, and probably in the last half-century.

Much like the lead codices that were announced around Easter 2011, a fantastical new find was greeted with breathless media reporting, but scholars’ blogs and essays published online mean that these forgeries can be detected much more quickly than before the Internet.

Christians should not worry when a fantastical new document is discovered, and they should almost never take the mainstream reporting about it at face value, but rather follow up with research of their own, which will most likely prove to give a far more mundane story.

Update 26 September 2012

News flash: Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake. Harvard Theological Review has decided not to publish Karen King's paper on the Coptic papyrus fragment on the grounds that the fragment is probably a fake. Posted by Daniel B. Wallace on his blog at danielbwallace.com

Further update: It appears this rumor has been falsified by a statement from Harvard Divinity School spokesman Jonathan Beasley posted by Daniel Burke at the Religion News Service, religionnews.com:

Dr. King’s 'marriage fragment' paper, which Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish in its January, 2013, edition – if testing of the ink and other aspects of the fragment are completed in time – will include her responses to the vigorous and appropriate academic debate engendered by discovery of the fragment, as well as her report on the ink analysis, and further examination of the fragment.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References

  1. Kruger, M. J., The far less sensational truth about Jesus’ ‘wife’, thegospelcoalition.org, 19 September 2012, accessed 22 September 2012. Return to text.
  2. Hurtado, L. “Jesus’ wife” fragment: further thoughts, larryhurtado.wordpress.com, 21 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  3. Ref. 1. Return to text.
  4. King, K.L. with Luijendijk, A. “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’ … ’”: A new Coptic Gospel papyrus, news.hds.harvard.edu, accessed 22 September 2012. Draft of article forthcoming in Harvard Theological Review, 106:1, January 2013. Return to text.
  5. Askeland, C., Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (updated), evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com, 19 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  6. Ref. 4. Return to text.
  7. Ref. 1 . Return to text.
  8. Ref. 5. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 4. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 4. Return to text.
  11. Verenna, T., The ‘Wife of Jesus’ fragment a day later: some concerns about authenticity, tomverenna.wordpress.com, 19 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  12. Goodstein, L. A faded piece of papyrus refers to Jesus’ wife, nytimes.com, 18 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  13. Watson, F. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed, 20 September 2012, p. 1, accessed 24 September 2012. markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf. Return to text.
  14. Ref. 13, p. 2. Return to text.
  15. Watson, F. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed, Introduction and Summary, accessed 24 September 2012, markgoodacre.org/Watson2.pdf. Return to text.
  16. Watson, F. Addendum: The End of the Line? Accessed 24 September 2012, markgoodacre.org/Watson3.pdf. Return to text.
  17. Davila, J. Gospel of Jesus’ Wife update, 20 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012, paleojudaica.blogspot.com. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Colin M., Australia, 26 September 2012

Fancy that, just the right fragment, with just the right words to spread controversy. Maybe it's a precursor to a new Dan Brown novel...

Peter S., Australia, 26 September 2012

It's worth pointing out that Jesus, and other NT writers, often refer to the church as His "bride", or use the language of bride and bridegroom. So even if this fragment was found to be genuine, it could have been a simple reference to the church.

Jack C., Australia, 26 September 2012

Much of the Bible is backed up by thousands of manuscripts, all corroborating each other. Here we have one scrap of a document not even befitting to be called a fragment, with not a single other to back it up. Those who really think we should now throw out the story of Jesus are recorded in so many manuscripts must surely be kidding. Would they do the same thing about any well known and well documented story of some great leader just because someone found a single scrap of dubious writing saying something totally different?

John B., United Kingdom, 26 September 2012

Not having any idea about ancient texts and the like, IF the fragment of papyrus was genuine, is there not a possibility that Jesus was, in fact, referring to His Church....as His wife. After all, The Marriage feast of the Lamb as depicted in Revelation, surely indicates Jesus (The Lamb) to have His Church as His "wife". Thanks for excellent coverage as usual.

Lita Cosner responds

As shown by Watson's analysis, the text is almost certainly a modern forgery. The other (though remote) possibility is that it was written in the 3rd-4th century using a manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas that had exactly the same line breaks at the relevant points. That doesn't seem very likely, does it?

The point is, I believe Watson has conclusively demonstrated that this fragment is dependent on the Gospel of Thomas—this being the case, even if it were shown that this is a genuine ancient document, literal physical marriage is not the most likely explanation, but some spiritual symbolism is much more likely because of the Gnostic leanings of the text.

michael S., United Kingdom, 26 September 2012

One of the news headlines said, "professor says Jesus was married".

The appaulingly bad logic grieved me when I read that because the term "professor" is an epithet that will immediately make people think that the "professor" must be right because they are a professor.

I knew straight away, that to jump to such an extraordinary conclusion based on an induction of evidence of ONE sample, was a ridiculous non sequitur. Any professor that jumps to such a conclusion, based on such weak evidence, should not be a "professor" in my opinion. If they had a base understanding of logic, this error wouldn't have happened.

But it's too late, even my mother seemed to be happy by this headline, it confirmed her belief, that "Jesus was married". Now people like me have to spend many months convincing her it was a false headline because I don't have the ability to tickle the ears.

The truth just does not excite people. So things like this makes me very angry, because when they find the fragment is faked, the damage will already be done.

Lita Cosner responds

To King's credit, she never actually said that Jesus was married, and she even said that this doesn't actually tell us anything about the historical Jesus. If anything, it would tell us about the Christian community at the time the document was composed.

But news headlines are not known for being cautious or responsible in their claims.

John T., Canada, 26 September 2012

An excellent job of responding quickly to an apologetic matter and especially of staying on top of breaking developments. Well done.

Alan B., United Kingdom, 26 September 2012

It is clear from scripture that Jesis did not HAVE a wife, but WILL HAVE a wife - namely the Church of all true believers.

Isn't that the consummation of all things, and therefore the very purpose of creation?

Maurice F., Canada, 26 September 2012

Trying to prove that this fragment is a forgery misses the point. It may be but even if it is not, it merely attests to the fact that heretical writings existed. This appears to be part of The Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic work. The Gnostics were rejected as outside of the pale even by the canonical scriptures.

Lita Cosner responds

Even though no one is claiming that this tells us anything about Jesus or first-century Christianity, that doesn't mean that it is worthless to try to see whether or not it is a genuinely ancient text. There are several reasons why Christian scholars would be interested to find out more about heterodox or heretical Christian groups, not least because the heterodoxies and heresies of the first few centuries are what forced early Christians to formulate the early creeds and apologetic texts.

So even though I think at this point the text wouldn't tell us that much we didn't already know if it's genuine, it certainly is worthwhile to do the work to prove it one way or the other.

Neil W., Australia, 27 September 2012

Looks to me like someone trying to do a theoretical item. make a bunch of fictional "what if's" then try to figure out how Christ might answer them. eg: Lets presume Christ had a wife, how would that work for a female becoming a disiple of Christ, well this is how the conversation might go if that was the case.

True document or forgery, it no way makes any case that Christ had a wife contry to the Gospels. Just proves that the Gospels have always and will always be debated, at least until Christ himself comes to correct bad interpretations.

Neil Waldron.

Lois M., United States, 27 September 2012

If it is genuine it depicts 3rd century heresy. If a fake then it was very poorly done. After reading that Jesus had a wife in Newsweek this week, seeing your prompt and objective treatment of this "discovery" was most refreshing. Please it submit to Newsweek.

Rev Dennis H., United States, 27 September 2012

“...term ‘professor’ is an epithet that will immediately make people think that the ‘professor’ must be right because they are a professor.” This is so true. After completing many years of University study, I totally agree. It grieved my soul to hear what the “professors” where telling the students during their lectures. Though I feared for those young people, many students did not care because they wanted the class to fulfill their degree requirement. I have had the honor for Christ sake to take some of those professors on. But, PTL, only one professor tried to destroy my grade point average. My real problem is that I don’t have the time to keep any eye on this after they flash the news on the headlines. Like all the “missing links” seemingly five years down the road science quietly rejects it as a link. Sadly, the media never carries such rejections in their headlines. I have faith that this will be the same. I will pass this worthy article out to the members of our Methodist Sunday School class. Thanks. Lita, please keep us informed.

peter F., United States, 27 September 2012

So? Even if, for the sake of arument, this is a valid find reflecting the actual situation, and Jesus was married, so what? Nowhere that I can find in the NT does it say that he wasn't. (Of course, it doesn't say he was, either.) And if he was, would that mean that the Cross has no meaning? I don't think so. So, some perspective here, people, it's not like this fragment is questioning the divinity of Christ or that Mary was a virgin at the time of the Conseption....

Lita Cosner responds

The fact that Church history has always unanimously referred to Jesus as unmarried during His life and ministry on earth, and that whenever His bride is spoken of the Church is in view, both mean that there would be significant repercussions theologically if there were any credible conflicting evidence that arose. It would even raise some Christological issues. But that's beside the point, because it's being viewed with universal skepticism.

Sonica L., United Kingdom, 28 September 2012

Well done CMI for replying to this discovery so efficiently and objectivity. If this was used as evidence in a trial no jury would count it as valid. This is because our brains automatically seem to 'fill in the gaps' according to what we expect. Non-Christians and Dan Brown followers will very well believe that it refers to a wife. Where those who live by faith might think it refers to the church. I choose to believe that if it is realy then it refers to the church but if not then it is fake because it goes against my faith.

Cecily M., Australia, 1 October 2012

The part of the text that says "My mother gave me life... " gives a hint as to the 'Mary' the text is referring to. The text that follows "My wife ..." could be "is the church. Mary is part of that church so 'she can be my disciple....' "

It is important to put the 'dots' within the quotation marks. Three dots mean the words left out belong in the same sentence as the quoted text. If the words left out end one sentence and more unknown words begin the next sentence then four dots are appropriate followed by a space, then three dots before the next part of the text. In this text we do not know where each sentence ends and the next one begins. Where the full 'stop comes' could make all the difference to the meaning.

Victor M., New Zealand, 1 October 2012

If Jesus had a wife, He would’ve entrusted her into the care of a disciple or brother, as He did with His mother (John 19:26-27). Given His foreknowledge of an early death on the cross (Matt. 20:18-19, 26:2; Luke 9:21-22), He would not have married a woman just to leave her widowed. Even though Jesus was tempted in every way (Heb. 4:15) doesn’t mean He engaged in every appetite of men and women.

Jerry W., United States, 2 October 2012

It is so pitiful what the skeptics and scoffers come up with to try to prove their unbelief. This one is so weak and shallow I am surprised they were not ashamed to bring it out, on the other hand non believers seem to have no shame.

Victor B., Australia, 2 October 2012

Considering the revelation in the Bible (the closed canon) we do have, I would consider the probability of 1) the fragment being a genuine ancient text and also 2) posing a real problem - ie Jesus being married to a real physical wife as a far far far less probability (impossible really) than that of discovering another "living fossil" that is another real problem for "Evolution". Another Dan Brown?, another Barbara Theiring? musing.

Miki T., Tanzania, United Republic of, 2 October 2012

Jesus said to his disciples, 'John the Baptist came, neither eating nor drinking, and they said, he is possessed. Now the son of man came, eating and drinking, and they say, he eats with sinners.' Does that modify some of the classical image in relation to company with 'sinners'?

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