An Ancient Manuscript and Jesus’ Wife?

(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)

In an act of extraordinary kindness, I thought I would offer a little comment on a matter of ancient texts, new discoveries, and a controversial headline I saw today about “Jesus’ Wife.”  This is an act of kindness, of course, because my colleague Jeff Kloha would normally write something helpful about such discoveries—but this one is easy, so maybe I’ll just give him the night off.  He’s a busy guy.

Harvard scholar Prof. Karen King has written a forthcoming essay in which she offers for the first time a translation and description of, in her words, “a fragment of a fourth-century CE codex in Coptic containing a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus speaks of “my wife.”” She immediately comments, “This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife.”  It’s only the first day that this announcement appeared, but one can imagine the frenzy which will likely ensue in the days to come.  Of course, given the attention span of most Americans, the frenzy won’t last for weeks.  And if people would just read the opening paragraph of Dr. King’s essay (available at, then everyone but specialists and those interested in possible reconstructions of the history of the second century AD would lose interest.

Here are the claims that Dr. King makes for her own paper, and I quote her precisely.  She begins by stating clearly, “[This papyrus fragment] does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus married.”  And why not?  This is so, “. . . given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.”  This is clear, and significant.  Did Jesus of Nazareth have a wife?  This papyrus find does not speak to that issue.  And why not?  The fragment is of too late a date for that purpose, even if (please note the deliberate “if” used by King) the 4th century fragment is a copy of a writing that originated between AD 150 and 200.

So, then, what might be the possible significance of this find?  Again, note what Dr. King actually says:  “Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct . . . .”  She argues in her essay that a second century origin is likely, but she realizes that it is not a matter on which she can be certain.  But given the “if,” what then?  King writes, “ . . . the fragment does provide direct evidence . . .”?  Evidence of what?  “ . . . that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.  Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.”

To be sure, Dr. King is using the term “Christians” in a broad sense to refer to any group that held Jesus (or some understanding of him) in very high regard.  Traditional Christian scholars today would likely employ a different term, such as “Gnostic” or “heretical” to describe the group that produced and/or cherished documents such as the fragment under study.  Nevertheless, a simple and direct reading of the opening paragraph of King’s paper (from which all of the direct quotations above are taken) answers the chief question that people might have today.  Does this find “show” that Jesus really was married?  No, the author doesn’t claim that.  Does this find “suggest” that Jesus really was married?  No, the author states that it doesn’t even speak to that question.

To be sure, there are significant debates taking place about the history of the second century, and these are important matters that impinge upon the disciplines of textual criticism and the study of the development of Christian doctrine, to name just two areas of research.  Many scholars no longer operate with the categories of “orthodox” and “heretical,” instead speaking of a diversity of Christian groups.  These discussions matter a great deal, but I will not go into that here and now.  Most people will look at the headline at MSNBC.COM, “Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife,” ( and think that now scholarship has taken away or cast doubt on one more claim of traditional Christianity.

The interesting thing is that Prof. King’s article does no such thing, and does not even claim to do so.  Sometimes, all it takes is the ability to read what someone has written.







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