The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

The New York Times includes an article by Laurie Goodstein, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” According to the article, Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School announced at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome yesterday that a 4th-century Coptic papyrus fragment includes the line, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,'” at which the manuscript tantalizingly breaks off.

The manuscript came into Dr. King’s possession through an anonymous collector who in turn in 1997 bought it from a German collector. The fragment has been vetted by two papyrologists, Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of religion at Princeton University, both of whom concluded that the manuscript was authentic.

Unfortunately, the text is very fragmentary, most likely because a dealer divided up a larger piece so he could charge more for multiple pieces. Dr. King pointed out that phrases in the fragment such as “My mother gave to me life” and “Mary is worthy of it” are reminiscent of similar language in the Gospels of Thomas and Mary and so surmised that the fragment may have been copied from a second-century Greek text. The papyrus fragment was not carbon tested, but Dr. King is planning to have the ink tested by spectroscopy.

The discovery renews debate as to whether or not Jesus was married, popularized in the mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code. It is also potentially relevant for the Roman Catholic celibacy requirement. Even if genuine, however, there is a long way from inferring from the reference to Jesus’ wife in this fragment to concluding that Jesus was in fact married. There is no reference to Jesus being married in the four canonical Gospels, our best first-century evidence concerning the life of Jesus. It will be difficult to connect this reference to actual historical knowledge of an alleged marriage of Jesus.

Still, the find is another startling instance of a discovery involving Jesus and the Bible and is likely to provide fodder for another round of spirited debate. Dr. King has already called the fragment, somewhat pompously, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” (even though it is far from clear that the document was in fact a Gospel). King’s article detailing the find is published in the Harvard Theological Review.

More recently, however, Christian Askeland and others have conclusively proven the document to be a forgery. You can find Askeland’s piece here. A gripping piece of detailed journalistic work exposing King’s role and the dubious origins of the manuscript can be found in Ariel Sabar’s, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which you can view and, if you like, purchase, here. I read the entire volume and found it highly informative.

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