Did Jesus have a wife?


First published: 26 September 2012 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 7 July 2016 (GMT+10)

Update, 5 July 2016: The official page for the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife on the Harvard Divinity School website now contains a statement by the Dean David Hempton. An investigation by The Atlantic Monthly (15 June 2016) had “called into question the provenance and authenticity of a papyrus fragment” allegedly about Jesus’ Wife. Dean Hempton cites an Atlantic interview with Professor Karen King herself (16 June 2016), where she admitted “that the Atlantic's investigation ‘tips the balance towards forgery’ and that the preponderance of the evidence now presses in that direction.” In other words, although initially it was celebrated as a possible new find, very quickly experts began to doubt it, and every new piece of evidence made it more clearly fake.

The lesson that Christians should take from this is to regard new evidence against Christianity with suspicion, because it is nearly always quickly disproved, although the media is never as vocal about the retraction as it is with its initial reporting.

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

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).”1 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.”3

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.”4

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.”3 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.1

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.”4 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.”3

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.3

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.”5

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.”6

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.”7 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”8 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.”9

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.10

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.”11


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.

References and notes

  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. 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.
  4. Askeland, C., Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (updated), evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com, 19 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  5. 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.
  6. Goodstein, L. A faded piece of papyrus refers to Jesus’ wife, nytimes.com, 18 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012. Return to text.
  7. 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.
  8. Ref. 7, p. 2. Return to text.
  9. 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.
  10. Watson, F. Addendum: The End of the Line? Accessed 24 September 2012, markgoodacre.org/Watson3.pdf. Return to text.
  11. Davila, J. Gospel of Jesus’ Wife update, 20 September 2012, accessed 24 September 2012, paleojudaica.blogspot.com. Return to text.