The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”: Now What?

The last few days have seen a firestorm of attention and debate over a piece of text smaller than the new iPhone: the so-christened Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. My colleague Jeff Gibbs offered some observations the day the news broke; I’ve followed the discussion over the last few days and here draw together the issues and discussion. I won’t rehearse everything; I’ll assume that you’ve heard something about all this. But I’ve provided links to several articles and posts throughout the essay so that you can trace the discussion further. In summary, the origins, authenticity, and significance of this fragment are shrouded in extreme uncertainty. Even if authentic, this fragment tells us nothing about the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. As it stands, any claims derived from the analysis of this fragment are, at best, premature, and may turn out to be completely wrong.


What is it?

The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a small fragment (about 4cm x 8 cm) written in Coptic (an Egyptian language) containing a few words which refer to Jesus, his mother, his disciples, and most tantalizingly, “my wife.” The text has only recently been published online by its editor, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King, and its scholarly assessment is still in the very earliest stages. Any statement made to this point about the fragment and its significance must be viewed as are only preliminary and subject to further refinement and even rejection. As in the case of the Gospel of Judas, first published with great attention in 2006, subsequent scholarly assessment will almost certainly temper and alter much of the initial assessment of its meaning and significance. (See April DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says).


What does the fragment say?

The original photographs, transcription, and translation by King can be viewed here. If authentic, there is little doubt that there are references to Jesus’ mother, to the disciples, and to “his wife.” This last phrase, of course, is what has generated the most heat. It must be said immediately, however, that King has attempted to downplay any connection between this text and the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. As the initial NYTimes article notes: “She [King] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.”


Date and origins of the fragment

This is among the most debated—and significant—aspects of the discussion of this fragment. King dates the fragment to the 4th century, and claims that it may be a copy of a writing originally produced in the second century. Unfortunately, that claim cannot be verified without other examples of the text. Indeed, several other fragments of “sayings of Jesus” have been discovered in the last one hundred years, and to this point each one contains unique text, with parallels to other similar sayings collections but nevertheless not direct copies of other known writimgs. So, if authentic, the physical fragment itself might be dated to the 4th century, but there is no way of accurately dating the wording to an earlier period.

Other scholars are not as confident in a fourth century date. Simon Gathercole, who recently published a study of the Gospel of Thomas, notes that because there is no evidence about the discovery of the text and because the dating of Coptic handwriting is very imprecise, extreme caution should be used in dating this fragment.

The origins of the fragment are troubling. At a meeting of the International Association of Coptic Studies, significant doubt was expressed about many aspects of the fragment, including the handwriting style, the grammar of the text, and the shape of the fragment (see below). Although top papyrus scholars in America, including Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk, have authenticated the text, questions remain. King herself cautions that further analysis is necessary, including (but not limited to) chemical analysis of the ink.


Why is this fragment so small?

This is a major concern. The fragment itself is approx. 4cm x 8cm—this is about 20% smaller than the new iPhone. Unlike all other randomly preserved fragments of papyrus from the 2nd-4th century, this fragment is almost perfectly symmetrical. The top of the fragment has been sliced off, and both the left and right edges have been broken off in remarkably straight lines:


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

Comparison may be made to what is perhaps a fragment of Jesus’ sayings, first published in 2011 (P. Oxy. 5072, in The Oxyhrynchus Papryi LXXVI):

Notice how, unlike the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, the edges of this fragment are randomly broken and torn, exactly what should be expected of an ancient fragment. Indeed, it is striking that this fragment, which is earlier (ca. AD 200), contains more text than the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, and is written in Greek, has received no attention in the mass media. A transcription and translation is available here. Dirk Jongkind points out that the even the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment’s authenticity raised concerns about the way that the fragment has been preserved. Jongkind notes: “So clearly, Bagnall thinks that current shape of the fragment is modern, and that it was deliberately forced into its current shape ‘to maximize profit’. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the lamentable loss of the words immediately following the famed words ‘My wife’ might not have been accidental, but perhaps made in order ‘to maximize profit’?”

Whether or not the intentional manipulation was done to “maximize profit,” the lack of surrounding context makes it extremely difficult to understand the few words that are preserved. Although “my wife” appears on the page, without additional text there is no possibility of knowing whether this is an attribution that “Jesus” accepts or denies, or whether the statement is to be taken as “literal” or “metaphorical.”


How does this fragment relate to other Coptic texts about Jesus?

In many ways, the text is completely unsurprising. Other texts from the same period (2nd-4th century) came to light in the mid-20th century sound very similar. The Gospel of Philip, generally dated to the third century and also written in Coptic, is perhaps the most similar. It is not a narrative “gospel” (like the canonical Gospels), nor is it a sayings gospel (like The Gospel of Thomas), but a pastiche of “gnostic” or Valentinian sayings. The text refers to both Jesus’ “mother” and to his “companion”: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.” This is also contains the passage made famous in The Davinci Code, where Jesus “used to kiss her [Mary Magdalene] often on her mouth.” However, “kissing” in this text is not sexual activity, but (as is common in other “gnostic” texts) is a sign of the imparting of knowledge: “It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment. […] him from the mouth. . . For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.” Given the thematic and linguistic parallels between the newly-discovered fragment and the Gospel of Philip, it cannot be said with certainty that “his wife” is intended to signify an actual physical union, but may be symbolic of a mystical union between male and female, revealer and recipient.

This understanding of male and female is found also in The Gospel of Thomas, one with very close linguistic parallels (indeed, perhaps too close, as we will discuss below). This text was also discovered in 1945, and contains apparently random sayings of “Jesus” (not “Jesus Christ”).


A modern forgery?

The most damaging assessment of the presentation of this text is offered in the detailed arguments of Francis Watson, professor at the University of Durham. Watson argues that the fragment is a modern forgery which has been copied from the print edition of a manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas. Numerous observers have pointed out the similarity in wording between this new fragment and certain saying in the Gospel of Thomas; Watson notes that six of the eight lines of the fragment match the layout and vocabulary of a readily-accessible modern printed edition. Francis concludes:

Six of the eight incomplete lines of GJW [Gospel of Jesus’ Wife] recto are so closely related to the Coptic GTh [Gospel of Thomas], especially to Sayings 101 and 114, as to make dependence virtually certain. A further line is derived from Matthew; just one is left unaccounted for. The author has used a “collage” or “patchwork” compositional technique, and this level of dependence on extant pieces of Coptic text is more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one.

Watson’s analysis may be decisive; further research into the fragment’s origins is necessary. This has happened before. Watson notes that the “Secret Mark” fragment is now considered by many scholars to be a modern forgery, though that certainly is not a consensus conclusion. It may be that scholars never reach consensus on the authenticity of this tiny fragment. This is all the more reason for caution. We must work from the known to the unknown, and unknown pieces like this must not be held up as overturning far stronger evidence to the contrary.


Why the debate about marriage in the second century?

King has consistently insisted that the fragment says nothing about whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was married, but that it gives insight into the way that marriage was viewed by different groups in the second to the fourth century. These debates are already familiar, and this text may offer additional insight. Many today might be surprised to learn that orthodox followers of Jesus in the second and third centuries came to view marriage and the marriage bed as impure and to be avoided by Christians. Sexual continence and asceticism came to be viewed by some Christians as the ideal, and in some cases read back into the New Testament. If authentic, this fragment does demonstrate that some groups may have participated in these debates and tried to clinch their argument by creating a “wife” for Jesus. But while the fragment (if authentic) may fill in some gaps in our knowledge of the debates about marriage in the ancient world, they tell us nothing about Jesus of Nazareth.


Why is this fragment called a “gospel”?

This particular issues is one where modern scholars and media have been too incautious. The canonical gospels, which we often call simply “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” were labeled in a very specific way in all ancient manuscripts: “The Gospel according to Matthew”; “The Gospel according to Mark”; etc. Those who labeled the canonical gospels did not think that there were four gospels, they thought that there was one “Gospel,” which was expressed by four different evangelists. Gospel was not a literary genre, but a message, the “good news” that Christ has come into the world and accomplished salvation by his death and resurrection (see Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ). However, beginning in the mid-late second century the word “gospel” came to mean a writing that had Jesus as a character in the story or which contained sayings of Jesus. So, while the canonical gospels were labeled “The Gospel according to . . .”, later writings were labeled “Gospel of Judas,” “Gospel of Thomas,” etc.  Indeed, many recently discovered fragments have no titles at all, and the description of them as a “Gospel” is a modern invention. Larry Hurtado notes that calling this new fragment as a “gospel” is extremely problematic.


Was this fragment used by “Christians”?

Terminology is important. The media reports about the fragment frequently refer to debates among “Christians” about marriage and Jesus. However, the writers and users of similar texts like Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary would likely not have labeled themselves as “Christian,” and it is certainly the case that early orthodox writers like Irenaeus did not consider the groups that used these texts to be “orthodox” or “Christian.” Tellingly, this fragment uses the name “Jesus,” but he is not described as “Jesus Christ” or the “Lord Jesus.” In other words, the “Jesus” of these texts is not a “Messiah” who was sent by the creator to restore creation. Rather, he is a “Jesus” who teaches things, and most of what he teaches could scarcely come from the lips of a man raised in Galilee who attended synagogue and taught from the Law and the Prophets. If you can’t call Jesus the “Christ,” you can hardly be “Christian.” Modern language games that downplay the theological and even sociological differences between groups that would not have tolerated one another are not helpful to sober assessment of the texts. (For a fuller discussion, see my essay “Jesus and the Gnostic Gospels,” esp. pp. 124-31. The Gospel of Judas, for example, not only avoids calling Jesus “Christ,” it actually labels a character called “Seth” as “Christ.”

We should be very careful not to use ancient texts for our own purposes. In our day, too often scholarship—at least as it is interpreted in the mass media— seeks to recast the definition of “Christian” and “church” in order to depict Christianity as only one possible option in a pluralistic, post-modern world. Rather than a theological movement centered in the teachings of Jesus, it is depicted as a sociological movement that sought to crush opposition and assert power. In this reconstruction, the church of our day is heir to this violent past and should therefore be rejected. In such a context, it is not surprising that a tiny fragment that has only a handful of words receives such attention. Other new fragments, like P.Oxy. 5072 (mentioned above), which may be more significant historically, are ignored. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for careful scholarship to make its slow progress, to fit tiny pieces like this into a far larger puzzle—If indeed this fragment is an authentic piece at all. For now, we should make ourselves aware of the issues, and keep teaching and preaching what has been handed down to us.

Here are a few key discussions:

The draft of Karen King’s article on the fragment.

 An excellent and cautious summary of the issues, by Simon Gathercole.

The most recent of Larry Hurtado’s cautions; he has several helpful posts on the issue.

Francis Watson’s argument that the fragment is a modern forgery.





4 responses to “The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”: Now What?”

  1. Marc Engelhardt Avatar
    Marc Engelhardt

    Jeff, thank you for this clear and concise information. I haven’t received too many questions about this yet, but I know I will and this article gives me some sound ground to stand upon.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Not getting any questions is good. Several people in my Sunday Bible study said that they had heard comments/questions from co-workers.

  2. Tim Koch Avatar
    Tim Koch

    I’ve had three questions on this thus far. One from my family, one from a parishioner, and one from a student I taught in South Dakota’s Lay Leadership Institute. I’ve talked to other pastors in my district who have had this matter derail a few Bible Studies, but thus far, the reactions are pretty tame.

    Honestly, I think the biggest surprise of this whole thing is that it didn’t come out during Holy Week.

  3. Concordia Theology » “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Redux Avatar

    […] (by modern scholars) as the “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” first made news in September, 2012. Dr. Karen King, professor at Harvard, first published and commented on the previously unknown […]

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