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Jesus’ Ex-Wife

Another much-hyped Gnostic “gospel” fails to upend Christianity

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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King’s handling of the “Jesus’ Wife” manuscript has been far more circumspect and determinedly conscientious​—​although not without its own high drama and apparently orchestrated publicity. For example, the title of the paper she presented to the International Association of Coptic Studies on September 18 was simply “A New Coptic Gospel Fragment,” as though she had not been eager to tip off her fellow scholars about the paper’s explosive contents until she started reading. Nearly simultaneously, she released online a 52-page, heavily footnoted article that she had submitted to the Harvard Theological Review that included her transcription and translation of the fragment’s text. King said the article would be published in January 2013, pending a testing of the fragment’s ink to determine its authenticity.

Meanwhile, she wrote, Roger Bagnall, head of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and widely regarded as dean of the world’s papyrologists, had examined the fragment and vouched for it, assigning to it a solid fourth-century date. King gave the 1.5″ x 3″ scrap, smaller than an ATM card and containing not a single complete sentence in its eight lines of crudely lettered script, the grandiose title Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. She wrote, with equal grandiosity: “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife makes it possible to speak with certainty of the existence of a tradition affirming that Jesus was married (probably to Mary Magdalene), and it is highly probable that this tradition dates to the second half of the second century.” That’s an extravagant claim for eight incomplete sentences. It is, for example, impossible to determine from the scrap’s fragmented text who exactly the “Mary” is, much less that she is Mary Magdalene.

Standing in for National Geographic this time around is the Smithsonian, which has scheduled a “Jesus’ Wife” television documentary for September 30. As happened with the Gospel of Judas in 2006, the massive press coverage has focused more on the possibility that the historical Jesus actually said “I do” than on what some obscure group of Gnostics might have believed about his marital status a couple of centuries later. And as before, scholars knowledgeable about Coptic manuscripts wonder if King was rolled. 

Among the first to weigh in, on the day after her presentation in Rome, was Christian Askeland, a research scholar in Münster who attended the conference and polled his confrères, two-thirds of whom appeared to be extremely skeptical about the fragment’s authenticity and one-third of whom concluded it was a forgery. Commenters on Askeland’s blog who had access to a photograph of the fragment noted such oddities as the fact that the words “my wife” (tahime​—​three syllables in Coptic) appear on line 4, nearly in the middle of the scrap, screaming, “Look at me!” and that the cramped, inelegant letters on the papyrus looked as though they had been applied by a brush instead of the calamus, or reed-pen, that ancient scribes used. Other commenters noted grammatical irregularities in the Coptic, something that Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had already pointed out to King, as she noted in her article. The fragment had a shadowy provenance. King stated in her article that it belonged to a “private collector” who preferred to remain anonymous, that the collector had correspondence in hand from the 1980s indicating the item once belonged to a professor in Germany, and that it appeared to have been cut from a larger, page-size piece of papyrus for the possible purpose of a sale.

The scrap then caught the attention of Francis Watson, a theology and religion professor at Durham University. Watson noticed that the enigmatic reference to “Mary”​—​“Mary is worthy of it” on line 3​—​was similar to a line in the Gospel of Thomas, “Mary is not worthy of it,” spoken by the apostle Peter, who deems Mary’s female sex a bar to her heavenly ascension. Watson reached for his printed edition of Thomas to see if there were any other correspondences. He discovered that the first half of the first line of “Jesus’ Wife” was identical to the first half of the last line on page 49 of his printed edition of Thomas (including an identical word-break)​—​and that the second half of that first line of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment was nearly identical to the second half of the first line on page 50 of the printed edition. That suggested that a forger might have simply flipped the page to paste together a line of text out of two consecutive lines in his source. “That was an absolute red flag to me,” said Watson in a telephone interview.

Watson worked through the Gospel of Thomas methodically, coming up with nearly five lines in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife that appeared to have been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of Thomas. On September 20, just two days after King made her presentation in Rome, Watson published
a six-page online article, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed.” Watson concluded that the alleged forger knew some Coptic and had to have been familiar with a printed edition of Thomas​—​and thus confected his text relatively recently (the Gospel of Thomas, part of a trove of manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, wasn’t published until the 1970s). Once Watson’s article appeared, other Coptic scholars began chiming in, finding more word-for-word correspondences between “Jesus’ Wife” and Thomas. It appears that “the whole thing is from Thomas,” Watson said. He speculated that King might have gotten fooled because she was looking for something large​—​a Gnostic context in which to place the fragment. “I was looking for something small, the Gospel of Thomas,” he said. There have been reports that the Harvard Theological Review has withdrawn King’s article​—​although a spokesman for the Review insisted by email that the article will go forward if the fragment can be authenticated.

King did not respond to email requests for an interview. Roger Bagnall, also contacted by email, wrote back, “I’m sorry, but I’m fully occupied this week.” Still, there is something to be said in King’s defense. For one thing, many of those bits and pieces from Thomas really are bits and pieces, drawn, if they were indeed drawn, from some 18 separate lines in the printed Gnostic gospel. “It doesn’t really demonstrate anything,” said Michael Peppard, a theology professor and Coptic expert at Fordham University, in a telephone interview. “All it demonstrates is that this manuscript resembles things said in the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, maybe what we have here is a variant manuscript of Thomas.” Peppard faulted Watson and the other online writers for ignoring the worn back side of the papyrus, which contains some nearly unintelligible words that haven’t been accounted for in Thomas​—​and for drawing conclusions based only on photos of the manuscript rather than the papyrus itself. Finally, Peppard pointed out, there is one phrase in the fragment that doesn’t appear in Thomas: those telling words “my wife.” “Where would a forger have gotten that?” asked Peppard, pointing out that “hime” is an uncommon spelling of the Coptic word “s-hime” for “woman” or “wife.”

One lesson to be learned from the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife​—​and from the Gospel of Judas, for that matter​—​is that people really do find what they are looking for. Ever since Elaine Pagels published The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, bringing the Nag Hammadi texts to public attention and using them to argue for a diverse array of early Christian beliefs, people have turned to Gnosticism to carve out for themselves an alternative Christianity more suited to contemporary tastes: nonhierarchical, feminist-leaning, focused on inner spiritual development rather than sacrifice and suffering. Actually, the process began long before Nag Hammadi. Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and author of The Hidden Gospels (2001), notes that the first “lost” Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, was discovered in 1773, and it inspired two centuries’ worth of spiritual-but-not-religious questers before anyone had ever heard of Pagels. “It gave them a Jesus who’s free of dogma and church rules, who’s easily integrated into Hinduism and Buddhism and alternate routes to the sacred. But people still feel that they need scriptures to justify this. It’s their Jewish and Christian heritage: Something is only justified if there are real scriptures behind it.”

Charlotte Allen, author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, has a doctorate in medieval studies.

*Article has been corrected to clarify the age of the fragment.

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