The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife
Lab tests have suggested that a papyrus scrap mentioning Jesus’s wife is authentic. Why do most scholars believe it’s fake?
For six days in September 2012, some 300 participants came together at Sapienza University, in Rome, for the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies. Among those presenting was Karen L. King. The author of five books, King is a highly respected specialist in early Christianity whose work focuses on a group of Christians commonly known as the Gnostics. Her 2003 volume, What Is Gnosticism?, is already a standard in the field. She currently teaches at Harvard Divinity School, where she is the first woman to hold the Hollis Professorship—the oldest endowed chair in the country. She is, and has long been, considered to be one of the best religion scholars in the world.
King began her lecture at 7 o’clock in the evening, during the last session on the second day, a time when most participants had moved on to dinner, at least mentally. King’s talk followed others with titles such as “A New Branch: Judas Scholarship in Gnostic Studies” and “Wisdom’s Sadness in Valentinian Cosmogony,” and hers promised to be similarly staid. Its title, “A New Coptic Gospel Fragment,” might have suggested she would be describing a newly discovered fragment of a previously known Christian text—nothing more, that is, than a minor addition to the corpus of old Christian texts, of the type that appear on the scene with some regularity. But once King began her lecture, those in the audience quickly realized that she would not be talking about a new fragment of a familiar Gospel. Instead, she would be presenting something extraordinary: a fragment of a previously unknown Gospel.
King believed that the fragment dated from about the fourth century A.D. (later testing would show that it likely dated from about the eighth century) and that it may have been a translation of a Greek text originally written in the second century A.D. The fragment was small, about the size of a credit card, and contained eight incomplete lines of text that read as follows:
1. not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]
2. The disciples said to Jesus
3. deny. Mary is n[ot] 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
Many aspects of the text and the papyrus were unusual. Some were not so obvious at first glance, though they would turn out to be of great significance later on. But one was momentous, and became the focus of attention: the fourth line, in which Jesus makes reference to having a wife. This was a bombshell. No such direct reference, in Jesus’s own words, had ever been discovered before in any early Christian text.
Even though the dialogue recorded in the fragment is only partial, almost anyone can understand the gist. The first line has Jesus recognizing his mother’s importance. The second and third lines have the disciples seemingly debating the worthiness of Mary—a probable reference, given the words my wife in the fourth line, not to the Virgin Mary but to Mary Magdalene, the oft-maligned patron of the Jesus movement. This Mary, Jesus says in line five, can be his disciple, and in lines six and seven he castigates those who would oppose such discipleship as “wicked,” drawing the contrast with himself, who is “with her.”
As King discussed her interpretation of the text and its importance to the history of Christian thought, those in the audience asked whether they could see a picture of the fragment. King’s computer wasn’t working, so they passed around an iPad with a photo of it. Almost immediately upon seeing the fragment, some of the scholars in the room began to openly question its authenticity. The next day, writing on his blog, Christian Askeland, a Coptic scholar currently affiliated with Indiana Wesleyan University, summed up the general feeling about the fragment. The specialists at the conference who had seen the photo were “split,” he wrote, “with almost two-thirds … being extremely skeptical about the manuscript’s authenticity and one-third … essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.”
While the experts were airing their doubts, a very different story was being broadcast to the wider public. At about the time King was presenting her talk in Rome, the Harvard Divinity School put photos and an early draft of her commentary about the fragment online. Even before she left Cambridge for the conference, King had shown the fragment to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Harvard Magazine, which had taken photos of her in her office holding the framed text up for the camera. Just after King gave her talk, therefore, The Times was able to publish news of the fragment’s discovery online, in a story titled “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” That article, accompanied by a photo of King and the fragment, appeared in the print edition of The Times the next morning. The Boston Globe ran a similar story, misleadingly titled “Historian’s Finding Hints That Jesus Was Married.”
In fact, exercising good historical judgment, King had gone out of her way to stress that the fragment provided no evidence whatsoever about Jesus’s marital status. The text, she had pointed out, dated from too long after Jesus’s death to be considered a reliable historical source. Such nuance, however, quickly got lost in the excitement—in part, no doubt, because King had given the fragment a sensational title: the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. As it turned out, she had also already talked to the Smithsonian Channel, which planned to produce a television special titled The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The network declared it would be a blockbuster “of biblical proportions.”
Jesus’s bachelorhood is almost taken for granted today. In the Catholic tradition, his single status forms the basis for the theological argument that priests cannot marry. Those making this argument point to a simple, undeniable fact: the New Testament contains no mention at all of Jesus’s having been married.
That’s true as far as it goes. But as the Gospels present it, the biography of Jesus contains a gaping hole. None of the stories produced about him in the first century A.D.—stories with at least some potential to be accurate—tells us anything at all about his adolescence or 20s. During this time, was he employed, shy, heartbroken? Married or single? We have no way of knowing. One might assume that a man of that age living in ancient Palestine would have been married, but neither the Gospels nor the Apostle Paul has anything to say on the subject. The earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, begins with Jesus in the final years of his life, on the banks of the River Jordan, poised to descend into the water for his baptism.
A great deal rides on this question of Jesus’s marital status. Over the centuries, and up to the present, how people have answered this question has served as a cipher in discussions about clerical celibacy. If Jesus spurned marriage, the argument goes, so too should all priests. And if Jesus chose only men as his apostles, so too should the Church. Iconoclastically minded commentators, however, insist that the idea of a celibate Jesus is a later Catholic conspiracy—the product of a male-led Church and a succession of dry, turgid councils—that’s long been used to keep the laity, and women in particular, in check. Dan Brown made a fortune peddling this very idea in The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003.
What has become clear today, thanks to the scholarship of Karen King and others, is that in the messy early Church—ripe with pretensions of order, brimming with disordered diversity—people actively debated the role of women as leaders. People have been speculating about Jesus’s romantic life since at least the second century A.D., too. In a noncanonical text from that period known as the Gospel of Mary, for example, Peter says to Mary Magdalene, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women.” The second- or third-century Gospel of Philip gets somewhat more explicit, calling Mary his “companion,” and describing Jesus as having “loved her more than all the disciples” and having “kissed her often on the mouth.”
The New Testament pays notable attention to women. The story of Jesus’s life begins with the Virgin Mary holding the newborn child, ends with both Marys stationed at the cross, and along the way suggests that women followed Jesus and helped finance his mission. A woman named Junia is described in Paul’s Letter to the Romans as “prominent among the apostles,” and another, named Phoebe, is called a “deacon.”
Powerful women make appearances in the history of the early Church, too. In the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, a woman named Thecla abandons her fiancé to follow Paul, a story that was used by some third-century Christians in North Africa to justify women’s baptizing of initiates. Traditionalists, for their part, have long pointed to a passage in 1 Timothy, a letter written in Paul’s name, to justify their case against women leaders in the Church. “I permit no woman,” it reads, “to teach or to have authority over a man.” We now know, however, that 1 Timothy is in fact a second-century work falsely attributed to the apostle: evidence that in the early years of Christianity, something of a textual power struggle was under way to redefine Paul’s intentions with respect to women. Today we can also see the question of Jesus’s marital status, and the related question of women’s role in the Church, refracted through a variety of apocryphal sayings and stories in which Jesus and the apostles alternately condemn, encourage, and control female leaders.
For the most part, the texts and narratives that support the notion of female discipleship come from outside the traditional canon—no surprise, really, given that the canonical New Testament was assembled long after Jesus’s death by a male-led Church. Today the mere study of the extracanonical is sometimes associated (both positively and negatively) with liberal bias, in that many of these texts bring to the fore the marginalized and drowned-out voices of women and the rest of the laity. Karen King has made her name studying noncanonical writings, which explains why she was drawn to the fragment she presented in Rome. Unlike the media, she was interested in it less for its late and unreliable mention of Jesus as married than for the light it appeared to shed on the status of women in the nascent Jesus movement. If the fragment was authentic, the conversation it recorded would be a fine contribution to the history of early Christian thought: yet another piece of evidence that the first few centuries of Christianity were not nearly so unified in belief and practice as conventional narratives tend to suggest.
After King’s talk in Rome, specialists around the world began poring over the digital photos of the fragment that appeared on the Harvard Divinity School’s Web site (along with the draft of King’s commentary and translation, which the Harvard Theological Review had agreed to publish in its January 2013 issue). A near-consensus began to emerge among the scholars who studied the photos: the fragment seemed to be a fake.
Francis Watson, a well-respected professor of the New Testament at Durham University, in the United Kingdom, posted cautious but serious doubts online just two days after King’s talk. The fragment, he wrote, could be “more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one.” A week later, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (admittedly not an impartial source) declared the papyrus “an inept forgery.” Leo Depuydt, of Brown University, one of the scholars invited by the Harvard Theological Review to respond to King’s article on the fragment in advance of its publication, summed up the prevailing view. “It is out of the question,” he wrote, “that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, also known as the Wife of Jesus Fragment, is an authentic source. The author of this analysis has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”
Every ancient manuscript comprises an accumulation of features, each of which—the writing implement, the style of the script, the handwriting, the grammar, the syntax, the content—is subject to analysis. If something is off about any of these features, the entire manuscript can be deemed a fake. The judgment required to assess these aspects of a manuscript derives only from years of scholarship and expertise.
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife exhibited a variety of problematic features. Virtually all ancient papyrus texts were written with a reed pen, but the letters on this fragment, blunt and thick, appeared to have been made by a brush. Not only that, they were ill-formed (equivalent, perhaps, to the letter forms produced by clenching a marker vertically in your fist), which suggested the work of a nonnative writer. So did a handful of apparent grammatical errors, one of which can be reasonably likened to writing “he threw the ball me” in English—the kind of mistake that a nonnative speaker or a child might make but that would be difficult to imagine coming from an adult native speaker.
In further comments written a few days after King’s talk in Rome, Watson pointed out the most-damning evidence of forgery: virtually every word and phrase in the fragment—with one important exception—could also be found in a Coptic text known as the Gospel of Thomas, a nearly complete manuscript from the fourth century A.D. that was discovered in 1945, published in 1956, and put online, along with a translation, in 1997. Watson surmised that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife consisted of little more than stitched-together bits and pieces of this publicly available Coptic text.
Watson presented additional evidence to support his claim. For instance, the first line of the fragment begins with the broken phrase not [to] me, in which the beginning of the prepositional phrase to me is missing, followed by the words My mother, and then gave me li[fe]. Precisely the same broken phrase, not [to] me, begins one of the lines in the Gospel of Thomas—and it is followed by a sentence beginning, as in the fragment, with My mother. The next line of the Gospel of Thomas begins with a phrase not found in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (but my true [mother]), but it ends with the same words that end the first line of the fragment: gave me life. Here’s how they compare:
Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]
Gospel of Thomas: not [to] me. My mother … but my true [mother] gave me life
Finding similar phrases in two different works is not necessarily probative. (In fact, King herself had noted some of the parallels.) But finding similar words placed identically along a line of text is almost unbelievable. For Watson and many others, it was certainly highly suggestive of forgery.
Some scholars couldn’t help basing their assessments on something intangible. The text just felt wrong—or, perhaps, too right. “This fragment,” wrote Jim Davila, of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, “is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel.” There is something to be said for this suspicion. Put it this way: if an ancient Christian text describing Jesus as having a wife and elevating the status of women in the Church had emerged in 2004, just after The Da Vinci Code was published, it would have been laughed out of the room.
Christian Askeland pointed out another reason the fragment seemed inauthentic: although it is only a tiny portion of a larger work preserved by happenstance, it is improbably easy to read and understand. Despite all the missing words at the end of each line, we don’t have any trouble recognizing that we’re reading a dialogue. At every stage, we know who is speaking, and we know generally what they’re talking about. Strikingly, too, the fragment’s most provocative statement—“Jesus said to them, My wife”—falls right in the middle of the text. Mark Goodacre, of Duke University, has even noted that the two letters representing the word My are darker than the letters around them, as if the scribe were writing in boldface, to be sure that the reader caught the import of the possessive pronoun. Perhaps the final straw: the two words My wife are almost the only words of any significance in the fragment that do not have a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas.
It all just seemed a bit too good to be true.
Ancient manuscripts can be sorted into two basic categories: provenanced and unprovenanced.
A provenanced manuscript is one that comes from a secure archaeological context, which is to say it has been excavated or otherwise uncovered in a manner documented by professional scholars. Unprovenanced manuscripts are everything else: those that appear without documentation in private collections, or are sold on the antiquities market, or are simply “discovered” in an attic or a storage room somewhere. Due to the vagaries and ravages of climate and time, it’s exceedingly rare to discover truly ancient papyri in archaeological contexts—unlike stone or clay, the other common ancient writing media, papyrus disintegrates over time. Thus conditions have to be near perfect, and near impossible, for even small scraps to survive millennia. (This is why the only major discoveries of provenanced ancient papyri, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, have come from relatively inaccessible regions in the desert.)
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a vexingly unprovenanced manuscript. In July of 2010, King has reported, a man asked her to take a look at a papyrus that had come into his possession. The man chose to remain anonymous, she has said, to avoid being “hounded by people who want to buy this.” The same man provided King with five other ancient texts from his collection: a cache of papyri that he said he’d purchased from another collector, a German man named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. The contract for the sale from Laukamp to the anonymous owner indicated that Laukamp had purchased the papyri in East Germany in the early 1960s. That was as far back as the trail went.
More authentication was clearly required. In the wake of growing concerns, the Smithsonian Channel decided to delay its special on the fragment. Likewise, the Harvard Theological Review deferred its plans to publish King’s article. King arranged a full battery of tests—microscopic imaging, ink testing, radiocarbon analysis, multispectral imaging, infrared microspectroscopy, and another round of radiocarbon dating. The work took almost a year and a half.
It’s hard to prove a negative—or so it is usually said. In the case of suspected forgeries, however, exactly the opposite holds true: what’s hard to prove is authenticity. If radiocarbon analysis indicates that a supposedly ancient papyrus was made 50 years ago, it’s obviously a fake. But if the analysis suggests that the original estimate of the date is correct, that doesn’t settle the question. Forgers have access to genuinely ancient papyrus: blank pieces are easily purchasable on the antiquities market, as are papyri containing unremarkable texts from which the ink can be scraped off. Ink has the same sort of problem. Even if its chemical composition looks right, that doesn’t prove anything. At best, the science of detection keeps up with the science of deception, just as it does for athletes using illicit performance-enhancing drugs. Now that we have an understanding of historical ink composition, and the tools to discern it, we no longer have much reason to test the ink on a suspect document. Any decent forger knows how to make ink look old.
Aware of all this, the skeptics collectively shrugged when at last they learned, in April 2014, that the fragment had passed its lab tests. But the results satisfied the popular press, which had been silent about the fragment since the early fall of 2012. In outlet after outlet, tests designed only to rule out authenticity were interpreted as tests that could rule out forgery. “Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say,” read the headline in The New York Times. “Study: ‘Jesus’ Wife’ Fragment Not a Fake,” was how the story appeared on CNN’s Web site. “No Evidence of Modern Forgery in Ancient Text Mentioning ‘Jesus’ Wife,’ ” announced The Boston Globe—despite the quite substantial evidence that had been amassed by scholars during the previous year and a half. The Smithsonian Channel ramped up production of its special, and the Harvard Theological Review published King’s article, which now featured the test results prominently.
One of the other papyri turned over to King from the Laukamp cache was a slightly smaller fragment containing part of a Coptic translation of the Gospel of John. Scholars first saw this fragment when the Harvard Theological Review article appeared, because the scientists conducting the lab tests on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife had used it to carry out comparative testing. And when scholars at last got a look at this second fragment, in the lab reports posted on the Harvard Divinity School’s Web site, the walls came tumbling down. Even for those not trained as specialists, the visual similarities between the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the Gospel of John were striking. For instance, both had the same oddly formed letters, ostensibly made by the same blunt writing instrument. For Askeland and other experts, there was only one explanation: both fragments had been produced by the same hand.
Within a few days of the publication of the Gospel of John fragment, most scholars agreed: it was even more clearly a forgery than the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Though it was carbon-dated to somewhere between the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., it was written in a dialect of Coptic known as Lycopolitan, which died out before the sixth century. If authentic, it would be a bizarre anomaly: the sole example of a text in Lycopolitan from the seventh century or later. It’s possible, of course, that a scribe in the seventh or eighth century had simply copied an earlier Coptic text in a dialect that was no longer actively spoken or written. We still make copies of Chaucer, after all, though no one has spoken or written Middle English for centuries. But no evidence exists that Coptic scribes ever did this.
What does exist is a Lycopolitan Gospel of John from the third or fourth century A.D.: the best-known of all surviving Coptic manuscripts of John. It was discovered in 1923, published in 1924—and made available online around 2005. King’s Gospel of John fragment has exactly the same words, in exactly the same order, as this 1924 edition. This is not altogether improbable: both manuscripts are translations of the same Gospel. But scholars comparing the two texts soon discovered similarities that bordered on the impossible. Alin Suciu, a papyrologist and Coptologist, observed that every line on one side of the fragment corresponded exactly to every second line in the 1924 edition. Mark Goodacre, of Duke, thereafter demonstrated that the same one-to-two correspondence was true for the other side of the fragment: every line of the papyrus matched up perfectly with every second line in the 1924 edition. For this to be the case, one would have to assume that the original page to which the fragment once belonged was precisely twice as wide as the pages in the 1924 edition; that the width of every single word written by both scribes—indeed, of every single letter—was the same; and that it’s merely accidental that this fragment happens to correspond to the best preserved, best-known, and most widely available of the many Coptic manuscripts of John that survive.
Suspicions now arose that the entire cache of Laukamp papyri might be fake. So people began asking questions about the few documents in the group that were definitely of modern origin, especially the contract for the sale between the German collector, Laukamp, and the anonymous owner. Owen Jarus, a contributor to the Web site LiveScience, began looking into who Laukamp might have been, and found a man of the same name and, seemingly, the same biography. He spoke to one of this Laukamp’s business partners and a representative for his estate, neither of whom had ever heard about any papyri in his possession, not even the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Laukamp, Jarus wrote, had not been a collector of antiquities at all: he was a toolmaker who, according to the representative for his estate, “had no interest in old things.” Conveniently, he had died in 2002 and seemed to have left behind no children or living relatives. Indeed, everyone named in these modern documents is now dead—at least everyone mentioned by King in her Harvard Theological Review article. (Everything we know about these documents comes only from what King has chosen to make public.) The most recent death came in 2009, just a year before the anonymous new owner approached King.
After having investigated Laukamp, Jarus was almost certain he had found the right man. “It was clear,” he told us, “that something was very much amiss.”
King doesn’t take the concerns about the fragment’s authenticity lightly. “This is substantive,” she told The New York Times in May. “It’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery.” Although King told us that she has not done any further work on the fragment, she added that she remains “quite open to new evidence and argument regarding the dating and interpretation of the fragments.” Many media outlets, however, continued to tell the story they wanted to tell. Before the Smithsonian Channel aired its special, on May 5, 2014, it added only a minute at the end to catch viewers up on the most-recent developments—and in that minute mentioned none of the objections to the document’s authenticity, instead focusing solely on the fragment’s passing the lab tests. “There is much new evidence for its authenticity,” the show concluded, “and none that it’s a modern forgery.”
That conclusion flies in the face of the scholarly consensus today. Even though King herself has refused to declare the case closed, for all practical purposes, judgment has been passed on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: it’s a fake.
A fundamental question remains, however. Why would someone have forged a document like this? As long as King preserves the anonymity of the papyrus’s owner—and she has yet to give any indication that she will do otherwise—any answer to this question is unavoidably speculative. But some possibilities do suggest themselves.
Money is surely the leading candidate. A text that changes the way we understand the history of Christianity, and potentially the story of Jesus himself, would be worth a lot. In this scenario, the target of the scam would be the anonymous owner, not King—but King’s authentication of the fragment, and the publicity she garnered for it, would of course enhance its value immeasurably. (The owner said he wanted to avoid being hounded by buyers, which is not quite the same as saying he didn’t want someone to buy it.) The possibility that the owner has a financial investment in the contents of the papyrus, in turn, might explain his reluctance to come forward in the wake of the forgery accusations.
The forger might also have had ideological motivations. For denominations invested in allowing priests to marry—prominently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—the mere mention of Jesus’s being married would provide a strong foundation for contemporary beliefs. One can also imagine the forger as a feminist activist, or someone opposed to Catholic clericalism, or perhaps some combination of the two. Conversely, the forger might have been trying to undermine the supposed liberal agenda of scholars like King, by revealing them as naive and easily fooled. Some commentators have taken that stance. In early May, for example, a Web site called Stand Firm—which has, along with sections on Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims, an entire section dedicated to abortion—ran a short article titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Fragment Part of Elaborate Ruse,” which directly attacked King. “It’s hard to believe,” the author wrote, “that you can be an ‘expert’ and still be taken in on this ruse.” King’s response to these kinds of attacks has been relatively generous: she told us only that she is “disappointed” by them, because they have “thrown cold water on open discussion of the arguments.”
Still, this last possibility—public shaming as a mode of expressing dissatisfaction—has its own history in academia. In October 2013, more than 150 open-access scientific journals were humiliated when it was revealed that they had accepted for publication a fake article about a lichen-based cancer treatment, which had been written as an academic sting operation precisely to expose the low standards of scholarly journals and publishers. Perhaps the forger of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife hoped that the exposure of the text as fake would similarly tarnish the reputation of feminist inquiry into the New Testament. Whether or not this was the forger’s goal, in the minds of some, the feminists were asking for it. Hyperfeminist interest in early Christianity, Christian Askeland claimed, was what had led to this whole debacle.
Perhaps the forger merely intended to play an elaborate practical joke on the academy. Scholarly punking is not unprecedented. In the early 20th century, the German Church historian Hans Lietzmann inserted lines into a Byzantine text and challenged his colleagues to see whether they could identify them. (They couldn’t.) Similar motivations have been ascribed to Morton Smith, a Columbia University historian who in 1958 “discovered” a passage from a supposedly ancient text known as the Secret Gospel of Mark featuring a scene in which a youth wrapped only in a linen cloth was said to have spent the night with Jesus. The announcement at first created a media sensation (Jesus was gay!), but numerous factors—not least that the original manuscript was somehow “lost” after Smith’s photographs of it were published—led the majority of researchers to conclude that it was a fake. In The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, his book about this strange episode, Peter Jeffery describes Smith as playing a game primarily devoted to “congratulating his own creative brilliance.” In academia, such a thing is hardly unimaginable.
Indeed, in the scholarly world of ancient history and ancient texts, little is truly unimaginable—because so little, in the end, is truly known. Despite the piles of evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery, there remains the possibility, however slim, that it is authentic. So the question becomes this: How much historical reconstruction are scholars willing to stake on such narrow grounds? Or, alternatively: Even if the fragment were proved beyond a doubt to be authentic, could one small piece of papyrus really be so important as to fundamentally change our understanding of the past? The problem with reconstructing the distant past is that with so little evidence available, the discovery of even the tiniest pieces can lead to outsize ramifications. It’s a situation ripe for abuse. The more sensationally these sorts of discoveries are reported, the more such abuse we can expect.