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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.

Some scholars say the statement about Jesus' wife could be metaphorical. Do you think that was the intended meaning?

It could be. But because there is certain correspondence with the Gospel of Philip, I think this is somewhat literal. But not necessarily with sexual intercourse in the picture. Obviously, the church is Christ's bride and so on. But to me that does not seem to be the original context of this, if I'm drawing lines properly.

It seems that if Jesus really did have a wife, the Gospel writers would want to include a major detail like that in their accounts.

Yeah. From time to time, people have fun playing around with the possibility that Jesus was actually married. The argument goes something like this: In first-century Judaism, young men generally got married. Parents found a match for their son, just as in Fiddler on the Roof. We don't have clear explicit evidence that Jesus was not married, so the inference is that Jesus was married and the Gospels just never mention that. Although, when you look at texts like Matthew 19, which historical Jesus scholars ascribe high authenticity to, Jesus says, "There are eunuchs who have been made so from birth, some have been made eunuchs, and some have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." The pretty clear inference is that Jesus himself is a eunuch. In other words, he's a single man.

Ancient biographies, just like modern ones, will mention the spouse of a subject, whether it's Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. The Gospels are types of biographies. I assume that if Jesus was married, they would've mentioned it. And the truth is a lot of people didn't get married. Rabbis took vows of celibacy to demonstrate their own commitment to Torah study. The Essenes were celibate. The Therapeutae in Egypt were celibate. Certain prophets, like John the Baptist, were celibate. So there is a connection between holiness and celibacy already in the first century, and Jesus fits very nicely into that.

Do you think this is getting so much attention just because people think it undermines traditional Christian beliefs?

People like to throw dust in the eyes of the orthodox folks and say, "Look, you can't even get the basic facts about Jesus right. You don't even know whether he was married or not. You thought he wasn't married. Turns out he was. So, there's a good chance that you're awfully wrong about a lot of other stuff—including whether he provided atonement for the world."

The more you can find stuff out of left field that doesn't fit our picture of Jesus as we know it, the more you can make a case that today Christians have got it wrong.

The thing about the wife issue is that it's near sexual ethics. There's no hotter topic in our culture right now than sexual ethics. If you can turn it around and say, "You [Christians] have been thinking for 2,000 years that Jesus was celibate, and you held that forth as an ideal. It turns out that he was married and very much interested in sex. Therefore, he didn't really care about sexual ethics the way modern-day Christians do."

Is there any reason Christians should be unsettled by documents like these?

The Wife of Jesus fragment should not be at all unsettling for the Christian faith. It reflects the belief of someone who was writing between the fifth and ninth century. That belief might go earlier, but when we know that there were all kinds of heretical beliefs cropping up around the end of the first century, so we also know this is nothing new.

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How to Date Jesus' Wife