Recently the media has been abuzz with news (they tend to be) about a papyrus fragment called “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” In my view, a poor name choice, since this is not a gospel by genre. But it raises important questions that the church (and those outside the church) have been asking for centuries! So what to think about this fragment?
I wrote up a post on the Logos Academic Blog about this, which you can see in full here. Here’s an excerpt:
In the fall of 2012, Karen L. King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment written in Coptic, which she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Since then, debate has circulated about the authenticity and verisimilitude of the document. The topic has recently resurfaced with some vigor from scholarly and news sources. Below is the transcription provided by Harvard. Full scientific reports on dating, ink, and more are also available from Harvard.
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it [
4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] . Let wicked people swell up … [
7] . As for me, I am with her in order to . [
8 ] . an image … [
. . .
This fragment’s mention of “my wife” on line four and the reference to Mary on line three bring all sorts of old questions back to the surface, ripe for the media to hone in on. But they also rejuvenate helpful academic study of our ancient sources. The question is asked once again, “Was Jesus married?”
Is this a new question?
No. Not only do Mormons believe that Jesus was married (to multiple women), but Mary Magdelene is represented as Jesus’ wife in some ancient texts, including The Gospel of Mary (read about this in The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene), which many suppose to be written in the second century, though Karen King suggests it may have been written during Jesus’ lifetime. Perhaps more compelling than The Gospel of Mary is the gnostic Gospel of Philip, which is generally dated around the third century. In this apocryphal text, a section reads as follows:
Wisdom (Sophia), whom they call barren, is the mother of the angels, and the consort of Christ is Mary Magdalene. The [Lord loved Mary] more than all the disciples, and he kissed her on the [mouth many times]
It is only natural that speculation would arise about whether Jesus was married or not, and it seems that Christians (and certainly gnostics) have been asking these questions for many centuries.
Could it be a forgery?
Francis Watson, professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, says “Yes.” He cites Egyptologist Leo Depuydt, who notes three observations about the fragment: 1) the use of “lamp black” ink, 2) the age of the papyrus as a method that forgers are known to utilize, and 3) a letter from Professor Greg Hodgins in which the radiocarbon date is questioned based on “certain stable isotope measurements.” Looking at these three points, Watson remarks, “These analyses do not demonstrate that the text is a fake, but nor do they ‘indicate’ it ‘to be ancient’ as the Divinity School’s press release claims.” Read the rest of Watson’s article.