The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ~ A Rogueclassicist Perspective

I’m sure most folks have seen all the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ coverage in the morning Blogosphere posts and perhaps some people were wondering why I hadn’t commented yet. It was mostly a matter of lack of time, but it’s kind of interesting that I couldn’t respond because the story took a couple of interesting turns as it made its way through the news cycle. So here’s a compendium-cum-commentary sort of post which should bring you up to speed if you have missed it and which also asks some questions that have arisen for me along the way. The best place to begin is with the press release from the Harvard Divinity School (which has some internal links worth exploring, but I’ll mention them again later):

Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies today.

King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the existence of the ancient text at the Congress’s meeting, held every four years and hosted this year by the Vatican’s Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome. The four words that appear on the fragment translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The words, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about one and a half inches by three inches.

“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.”

Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, believes the fragment to be authentic based on examination of the papyrus and the handwriting, and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers it likely to be authentic on the basis of language and grammar, King said. Final judgment on the fragment, King said, depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink.

One side of the fragment contains eight incomplete lines of handwriting, while the other side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible, even with infrared photography and computer photo enhancement. Despite its tiny size and poor condition, King said, the fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians.

King and colleague AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, believe that the fragment is part of a newly discovered gospel. Their analysis of the fragment is scheduled for publication in the January 2013 issue of Harvard Theological Review, a peer-reviewed journal.

King has posted a draft of the paper, an extensive question-and-answer on the fragment and its meaning, and images of it, on a page on the Divinity School website.

The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it. The collector provided King with a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus.

King said that when the owner first contacted her about the papyrus, in 2010, “I didn’t believe it was authentic and told him I wasn’t interested.” But the owner was persistent, so in December 2011, King invited him to bring it to her at Harvard. After examining it, in March 2012 King carried the fragment to New York and, together with Luijendijk, took it to Bagnall to be authenticated. When Bagnall’s examination of the handwriting, ways that the ink had penetrated and interacted with the papyrus, and other factors, confirmed its likely authenticity, work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment began in earnest, King said.

Little is known about the discovery of the fragment, but it is believed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic, the form of the Egyptian language used by Christians there during the Roman imperial period. Luijendijk suggested that “a fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament.” Since there is writing on both sides of the fragment, it clearly belongs to an ancient book, or codex, not a scroll, she said.

The gospel of which the fragment is but a small part, which King and Luijendijk have named the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for reference purposes, was probably originally written in Greek, the two professors said, and only later translated into Coptic for use among congregations of Coptic-speaking Christians. King dated the time it was written to the second half of the second century because it shows close connections to other newly discovered gospels written at that time, especially the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.

Like those gospels, it was probably ascribed to one or more of Jesus’s closest followers, but the actual author would have remained unknown even if more of it had survived. As it stands, the remaining piece is too small to tell us anything more about who may have composed, read, or circulated the new gospel, King said.

The main topic of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is one that deeply concerned early Christians, who were asked to put loyalty to Jesus before their natal families, as the New Testament gospels show. Christians were talking about themselves as a family, with God the father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother and once of his wife—one of whom is identified as “Mary.” The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.” Although less clear, it may be that by portraying Jesus as married, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife conveys a positive theological message about marriage and sexuality, perhaps similar to the Gospel of Philip’s view that pure marriage can be an image of divine unity and creativity.

From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether they should marry or be celibate. But, King notes, it was not until around 200 that there is the earliest extant claim that Jesus did not marry, recorded by Clement of Alexandria. He wrote of Christians who claimed that marriage is fornication instituted by the devil, and says people should emulate Jesus in not marrying, King said. A decade or two later, she said, Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa declared that Jesus was “entirely unmarried,” and Christians should aim for a similar condition. Yet Tertullian did not condemn sexual relations altogether, allowing for one marriage, although he denounced not only divorce, but even remarriage for widows and widowers as overindulgence. Nearly a century earlier, the New Testament letter of 1 Timothy had warned that people who forbid marriage are following the “doctrines of demons,” although it didn’t claim Jesus was married to support that point.

In the end, the view that dominated would claim celibacy as the highest form of Christian sexual virtue, while conceding marriage for the sake of reproduction alone. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, if it was originally written in the late second century, suggests that the whole question of Jesus’s marital status only came up over a century after Jesus died as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage, King said. King noted that contemporary debates over celibate clergy, the roles of women, sexuality, and marriage demonstrate that the issues are far from resolved.

“The discovery of this new gospel,” King said, “offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’s marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”

So the initial press release gives some important info:

  • the claim is being made by a chaired professor (Dr. King)
  • the fragment is written in Coptic and is written/translated in such a way as to suggest that Jesus had a wife
  • Roger Bagnall thinks the piece authentic on papyrological and paleographical grounds
  • Ariel Shisha-Halevy thinks the piece authentic on grammatical grounds
  • further testing of the ink is forthcoming (maybe)
  • the fragment has close connections to the Gospel of Thomas (more on that later)

… so far, so good, but then we get into things that initially me feel somewhat  uncomfortable:

  • the provenance of the fragment is unknown and somewhat suspicious
  • we are told it came from a codex, because it is written on both sides; one side is really faded, however (more on that later)
  • Dr King and her associate have named the fragment Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for reference purposes, but in the process are predisposing people what to think about it

Setting that aside, there was a ‘head on media’ assault — for want of a better term — with this one … from Harvard came:

a video:

… all of which led to quite a bit of media coverage … here’s a sampling:

… and of course, the Daily Mail took it that one step further:

We also saw some things from the Smithsonian, which may have added some gravitas to the story:

… and it became apparent that this was connected to a documentary on the subject which was funded by the Smithsonian and which will appear on the Smithsonian Channel later this month.

After the initial wave, Dr King presented her paper and AP came out with a piece which — to its credit — noted the suspicion of scholars … some excerpts:


Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster who was on the international advisory panel that reviewed the 2006 discovery of the Gospel of Judas, said the text accurately quotes Jesus as saying “my wife.” But he questioned whether the document was authentic.

“There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.

“I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the 4th century, he said.


Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context. It’s a partial text and tiny, measuring 4 centimeters by 8 centimeters (1.5 inches by 3 inches), about the size of a small cellphone.

“There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. “It can be anything.”

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was “suspicious.”


Some archaeologists were quick to question Harvard’s ethics, noting that the fragment has no known provenance, or history of where it’s been, and that its current owner may have a financial interest in the publicity being generated about it.

King has said the owner wants to sell his collection to Harvard.

“There are all sorts of really dodgy things about this,” said David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk and author of the Looting Matters blog, which closely follows the illicit trade in antiquities. “This looks to me as if any sensible, responsible academic would keep their distance from it.”

He cited the ongoing debate in academia over publishing articles about possibly dubiously obtained antiquities, thus potentially fueling the illicit market.


Hany Sadak, the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, said the fragment’s existence was unknown to Egypt’s antiquities authorities until news articles this week.

“I personally think, as a researcher, that the paper is not authentic because it was, if it had been in Egypt before, we would have known of it and we would have heard of it before it left Egypt,” he said.

If you kept up with the various Blogosphere posts, you know our biblioblogger friends were also on the suspicious side. Ecce:

As an aside, as might be expected, both Simcha Jacobovici and Dr James Tabor are very interested in this because it adds weight to their Talpiot Tomb claims:

… for more Bibloblogger reaction, see James McGrath’s compendia here and here … In addition, there was an NBC article which actually seems to have looked at assorted Bibliobloggers on this one: Reality check on Jesus and his ‘wife’ (NBC)

The common thread through most of this coverage is that people aren’t buying the authenticity of the piece and this seems to be a major sticking point. A major development in the questioning of authenticity came the other day when Dr Francis Watson posted an article (pdf) on Mark Goodacre’s blog pointing out why it is a forgery and whence came the ‘subject matter’ — mostly from the Gospel of Thomas:

The article’s findings are currently percolating through the press:

… and even the Daily Mail has become skeptical:

Finally (in terms of press coverage) we read that Harvard seems to be having second thoughts … an excerpt from an AP piece via PhysOrg:

[…] The research centers on a fourth-century papyrus fragment containing Coptic text in which Jesus uses the words “my wife.” On Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced at an international conference that the fragment was the only existing ancient text in which Jesus explicitly talks of having a wife. Harvard also said King’s research was scheduled to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January and noted the journal was peer-reviewed, which implied the research had been fully vetted. But on Friday, the review’s co-editor Kevin Madigan said he and his co-editor had only “provisionally” committed to a January publication, pending the results of the ongoing studies. In an email, Madigan said the added studies include “scientific dating and further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”[…]

So that’s what others think; on to what I think (if anyone cares), with the caveat that I am not a papyrologist except in the looking-up-pOxy sense, and am not at all versed in Coptic … In any event when these sorts of claims come along, your friendly rogueclassicist generally pulls a Sheldon:

… and stares at the thing for much longer than is normal. What I was staring at were the Karen King’s photos which were posted on the Harvard Divinity School page:

Karen King photo
Karen King photo

So here’s what bugs me: in the initial press stuff we were told this fragment was from a codex, because it had writing on both sides. That would be a reasonable explanation, but also predisposes us to think that what we’re looking at was, in fact, a codex. Looking at the fragment itself, it seems rather strange, does it not, that the ink on one side could be so dark and nice, while on the other side it is barely legible? It seems also strange that the ‘legible’ side seems to comfortably hold eight lines of text, while the other side has barely six. Indeed, the other side is probably the best clue about the authenticity of this fragment — barring further testing — because it can barely be read and is so illegible that one really can’t say that it actually is some sort of religious text.

With that in mind, let’s think of some recent ‘sensational’ discoveries: the James Ossuary is still being debated, but the dates check out … perhaps a good indication that some ‘forger’ simply gave a less spectacular — but genuine — ancient piece some added value. Similarly, those Jordan lead codices are speculated to have been made from ancient lead which was reused for ‘other reasons’. Just looking at the condition of this papyrus fragment, does it not suggest that this is a situation where there was some vague, and probably of little value, fragment of papyrus which some forger decided to ‘add some value’ to by adding something interesting and controversial to the other side? It seems to be a modus operandi for many of these claims of late …

ADDENDA (the next day): this a.m. I realized I neglected to include some very apropos posts in regards to provenance from David Gill’s blog:


7 thoughts on “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ~ A Rogueclassicist Perspective

  1. Provenance is basically irrelevant as many genuine papyri lack provenance and it is not that hard to fake a plausible provenance for a forged papyrus.
    Papyrologically appears to be a forgery but something I have not yet seen commented on, most papyri if only written on one side are written on the side with horizontal strips leaving the side with vertical strips blank. If the original text fell out of use scribes would sometimes use the blank side as a form of scrap paper for all sorts of purposes such as scribal practice. So two questions:
    Question 1 : has anybody determined if the difference between the feintness of the ink and the spacing of the lines on the front and back can be explained by two scribes or are the scribal hands the same?
    Question 2: If there are two scribes, is the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” the original text, or the reuse text?

    1. Good questions … we might add that the ‘good side’ might originally have been as faded as the other side (some of those ‘blotches’ might be purposeful) and a forger chose the ‘easy side’ to add value … testing the ink is probably the most important thing that has to be done on this.

    1. That’s where my lack of Coptic refrained me from speculating too much … I have no idea whether “the mother” and “my mother” would be rendered the same in coptic but might be translated differently in context. When I was doing most of my work in p. Oxy things, I was looking at legal documents of various kinds and the faded side of this thing struck me as possibly a legal document of some sort, but I lack the skills to say for certain …

  2. The unsigned and undated letter purporting to give the views of now-deceased Prof. Fecht may be notable for, reportedly, having the opinion that this ms could be evidence for a possible marriage. Unlike Prof. King, and many others, who acknowledge that this ms does not provide evidence for first-century history, would it be typical of Prof. Fecht to make such a claim? Or might this be spin to increase sales price?

    1. Seems logical … as we see Harvard now pulling back on the claim, I can’t help but wonder whether this is our first example of scholarly ‘negotiating in the press’ … Harvard had no idea what it’s worth; the seller wanted a price … Harvard has pretty much managed to bring the price down with all this publicity?

  3. In the preliminary version of King’s article there is a mention of GJW as part of a batch of MSS including a 2nd-4th century Coptic Gospel of John. Assuming (which I don’t) the GJW is genuine then the dating of the coptic Gospel of John to as early as the 2nd century means either it is a Coptic copy much older than any other Coptic copy or whoever is doing the dating is allowing for dates that are too early by a century or so.

    Has anybody with Coptic paleographical expertise evaluated the palaeographical claims that the GJW is 4th century, rather than a century or so later?

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