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How to Date Jesus' Wife
Image: Harvard Divinity School

In 2012, Harvard Divinity School historian Karen L. King unveiled a fragment of papyrus she called the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. The fragment says, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...,'" and the rest of the sentence is cut off. Another segment says, "As for me, I dwell with her in order to…" but the speaker is not named.

Several scholars quickly dismissed the manuscript as a modern fake, prompting the Smithsonian Channel not to air its documentary on the papyrus piece. Thursday, Harvard Theology Review, which had planned to publish King's findings more than a year ago, released reports on the testing of the manuscript's papyrus and ink, calling them "consistent with an ancient origin." Professors at Columbia University, Harvard University, and MIT found that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries. But some scholars, such as Leo Depuydt, professor of Egyptology and ancient Western Asian studies at Brown University, still believe the fragment is a modern forgery. Their issue has not been with the papyrus or ink, but with grammatical "blunders" they say seem remixed from the Gospel of Thomas.

Both the 2012 announcement and yesterday's drew headlines worldwide—far more attention than other manuscript fragments purportedly from the fourth to eighth centuries. Should we care? Does this tell us anything about Jesus or early Christianity? We asked Nicholas Perrin, Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, and the author of several books on the Gospel of Thomas.

Do you think this fragment is a legitimate ancient document?

The consensus is that it is authentic, in the sense of being from sometime between the fifth and the ninth centuries. That's important and interesting. It likely reflects that an earlier text was copied down.

Can someone, on the basis of this fragment, say, "A-ha! So now we know Jesus was married"?

No, that's an illegitimate move. [This document is] so far removed from the first century that this rather reflects the speculations a later sect had about the earthly Jesus.

In the Coptic, the phrase really says, "Jesus said to them, 'My woman…'" It could mean "woman" in the generic sense, but I think it just means his wife. The word is chime, which in this context, I think, means "wife." And then it goes on to say, "she will be my disciple." To me, this seems most reminiscent of another text dated to the third century AD, called The Gospel of Philip.

In the Gospel of Philip, there are intimations of Jesus being married, or at least having a partner. The Coptic term is a little ambiguous, at least regarding Mary. It's a mysterious text, but what's going on, to the best of our knowledge, in the Gospel of Philip is that Jesus and Mary are reconstituting a kind of mythic primeval androgyny. What the folks behind the Gospel of Philip are saying about Jesus is that he is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. And the whole point about redemption is to get male and female together once again (in my interpretation), but this time without sexual intercourse.

I believe the Gospel of Philip represents a sect where men and women cohabitated and followed Jesus, but forbade sexual intercourse within what would otherwise be a marriage relationship. So the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment could give theological warrant to that.

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How to Date Jesus' Wife