The 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife' Is Real: What Now?

Historians, engineers, and linguists have pored over a three-inch piece of papyrus that makes mention of Jesus's wife. What does this discovery actually mean?
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An image of the so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife under blue fluorescent light (Harvard Divinity School)

Over the past two years, roughly a dozen scholars from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Australia's Macquarie University have been focused on answering one question: Is the Gospel of Jesus's Wife real? In 2012, historian Karen L. King announced her initial findings about a three-inch piece of papyrus, thought to be an eighth-century version of writings from the disciples of Jesus. The most stunning line from the text is this:

"...' Jesus said to them, 'My wife..."

This is how the fragment got its name: not because it's canonical, but because it refers to Jesus having a wife.

This line doesn't prove anything about Jesus's marital status, though. "The question that the broader public immediately grabbed onto is, 'Does Jesus have a wife?'" King told me. Although that's obviously an interesting topic, the more important question is historical: What does this text say about his early followers? "Early Christians were grappling with the question of whether you should get married and have children, or whether it's better to be celibate and virgin," she said. "This fragment seems to be the first case we have where a married Jesus appears to be affirming that women who are mothers and wives can be his disciples."

When King first introduced the text at a conference in 2012, some historians immediately questioned its authenticity, pointing to grammatical errors, similarities to other gospels, and inconsistencies with typical Coptic script. But on Thursday, Harvard Divinity School announced that it would be publishing new findings about the authenticity of the fragment, citing scientific and scholarly analysis of the ink, papyrus, writing style, and calligraphy. They will also publish a dissenting opinion from Brown University professor Leo Depuydt, who maintains that the fragment was forged in modern times. In the rather-scathing foreword to his article, he notes that the phrase "my wife" was written in what look like bold letters. 

As a student of Coptic convinced that the fragment is a modern creation, I am unable to escape the impression that there is something almost hilarious about the use of bold letters. How could this not have been designed to some extent to convey a certain comic effect? The effect is something like: “My wife. Get it? MY wife. You heard that right.” The papyrus fragment seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.

Clearly, this is a controversial, emotional issue in the Coptic-scholars community. But what does this mean for everyone else?

In general, the text raises a lot of open questions. Other than Jesus's wife, it mentions Mary and the phrase "she is worthy," but these are short phrases that seem to come from the beginning, middle, and end of different sentences. Here is the full translation of the front of the papyrus, which contains most of the legible text:

Harvard Divinity School

 

 

 

 

 

 

"There are so many questions this fragment can't answer," King said. "Is Jesus talking about a real wife, or the church, or a sister-wife? Who is the Mary—his mother, his wife, or some other Mary entirely?"

She says that rather than trying to answer those questions definitively, it's more important to analyze what this text might say about the historical Jesus. "Was anybody talking about Jesus being married or not, and how was that question being used? Were people arguing about who's worthy of discipleship or not?"

These questions illuminate possible controversies in early Christianity, which provide context for how the role of women in the church evolved over time. For people trying to understand what this piece of papyrus means for their faith, that's what's most important.

"I think with regard to religion, it’s always incredibly important that people take a critical and a constructive point of view to their belief and practice," King said. "Good historical information can be a good resource for people to do that well. My perspective is: We need to do good history, making this as clear as we can. People will take it and do thing we can't imagine."

At the end of her article on the fragment in the Harvard Theological Review, King quotes the editor who worked on publishing the Berlin Codex, a set of early gnostic Christian texts first discovered in 1896. 

“At some point,” he wrote, “a man must find the courage to let the manuscript leave one’s hand, even if one is convinced that there is much that is still imperfect. That is unavoidable with all human endeavors.” So, too, this article is not the last word on the subject of the GJW fragment, but I hope it will be a useful contribution to ongoing discussion and research.

As with all scholarly work on the ancient world, it seems impossible to ever fully resolve disputes over the text and its interpretations. This isn't the last word on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife, but it is a fragment of understanding about how early Christians saw their savior.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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