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The Wife of Jesus Tale

An investigation into the origins of a scrap of papyrus raises more questions than it resolves

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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After an 18-month trial separation, “Jesus’ wife” is back with her man. Only this time with a postnup, a distinctly limited right to the marital property she has previously claimed, and a continuing unresolved debate over whether that big diamond on her ring finger is real or fake.

Karen L. King 2012

The Jesus’ wife fragment.

Karen L. King 2012

On the evening of September 18, 2012, Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and a longtime publicizer of Gnosticism and other “alternative Christianities” of the ancient world, surprised her fellow academics attending a Coptic conference in Rome with the unveiling of a papyrus document that she said dated to the fourth century a.d. The papyrus, actually a tiny 1.5-by-3-inch scrap apparently torn or cut from a larger sheet, appeared to state—for the first time in recorded history—that Jesus of Nazareth was married. Among the eight lines of choppy, crudely lettered text in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language, were the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’ ” For that reason King had dubbed the piece of papyrus “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”

King’s revelations had an orchestrated feel to them. She had titled her Rome paper, presented to the International Association of Coptic Studies, simply “A New Coptic Gospel Fragment”—apparently so as not to tip her hand in advance. Then, that very same night, she publicized online the text of a 52-page, heavily footnoted article she had submitted to the Harvard Theological Review, regarded as America’s most prestigious journal of religious studies. The article included King’s transcription and English translation of the fragment’s Coptic text, plus a lengthy explanatory essay. The Theological Review was scheduled to publish the article in January 2013, pending a testing of the fragment’s ink to determine its authenticity. The next morning, September 19, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the papyrus. The story included a photo of King holding the plexiglass-shielded scrap, taken inside her Harvard office in Cambridge, Massachusetts—obviously sometime before the Rome conference. It also turned out that the Smithsonian had scheduled a previously filmed “Jesus’ wife” television documentary for September 30.

King’s Coptic-conference bombshell and the New York Times article unleashed a rhino herd of news reporters onto the Rome conference and also a torrent of talking-head commentary stateside, mostly directed to the question of whether Jesus had actually been married and what that meant for the future of Christianity. King had repeatedly made it clear that the existence of a centuries-later papyrus fragment wasn’t evidence one way or the other as to whether the historical Jesus who lived during the first century a.d. had actually been a wedded man. That didn’t faze the talking heads, who wanted to explore sexier topics: Was The Da Vinci Code nonfiction after all? Would the Catholic church drop its requirement that its priests be celibate now that it appeared that its founder wasn’t? What did it mean theologically for the Son of God to have a human spouse?

Few of those newspaper columnists and TV pundits had likely read King’s submission to the Harvard Theological Review, but if they had, they would have discovered that King had engaged in quite a bit of grandiose speculation of her own, considering the small size of the papyrus scrap in question. In her very first sentence she declared confidently that the fragment had come from a larger fourth-century Coptic “codex”—an entire handwritten papyrus book. She also asserted that the “Gospel” of which the scrap was a part had consisted of a now-lost “dialogue between Jesus and his disciples” that had probably been composed, possibly in Greek, during the second century, 150 years or so after Jesus’ death.

That period marked the heyday of Gnosticism, an intellectualized amalgam of Christianity and Neoplatonism that orthodox Christian leaders condemned because it turned Jesus into a kind of Zen spiritual master and denied the physical reality of his resurrection from the dead. The city of Alexandria was an important Gnostic center, and many second-century Gnostic documents were translated from their original Greek into Coptic. Since the late nineteenth century, a host of fourth- and fifth-century papyrus documents in Coptic containing Gnostic and Gnostic-like writings have surfaced in Egypt. Princeton religion scholar Elaine Pagels’s runaway 1979 bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels, popularized a trove of fourth-century Coptic codices found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and created a whole new intellectual audience for the “diverse” and spiritualized Christianity that Pagels said the newly discovered gospels represented.

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