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
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.
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.
In 2003 King published The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, about another long-lost Coptic writing, the Gospel of Mary. She concluded that the “Mary” mentioned in that document had to be the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene, even though the text of the Gospel of Mary doesn’t specifically identify her as such. King also argued that the Gospel of Mary—actually a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples like many other Gnostic texts—represented a tradition that stretched back to the earthly lifetime of Jesus himself. King’s book was another bestseller, capitalizing on feminist enthusiasm for the Magdalene as an intimate of Jesus whose importance, some feminist scholars maintain, was suppressed by early churchmen who wanted an all-male Christian clergy.
Sure enough, the “Jesus’ wife” fragment unveiled by King contains tantalizing parallels to themes in Gnostic codices. Although none of its eight scratchy lines forms a complete sentence, it contains, besides the “my wife” clause, such phrases as “my mother,” “the disciples said to Jesus,” “Mary is worthy of it,” “she will be able to be my disciple,” and “I dwell with her.” That seemed to be enough for King, who once again decided that the unidentified “Mary” was the Magdalene. “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,” she wrote. She argued that the “Jesus’ wife” text was part of an ongoing theological debate among Christian groups, starting in the second century, over proper attitudes toward marriage and sexual desire, with some Gnostics having a more pro-sex, pro-marriage stance than their orthodox opponents.
Perhaps because of the sudden press spotlight on the 2012 Rome conference, or perhaps because the academics there were disgruntled that King had apparently chosen to share her find with the New York Times and the Smithsonian before releasing it to the scrutiny of most of her fellow scholars, the reaction in Rome to the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was overwhelmingly incredulous and hostile.
For one thing, the papyrus scrap had no provenance. It had belonged to a private collector who wished to remain anonymous, and it seemed to have surfaced only a few decades (if that) before the collector bought it in 1999 on the assurance of some earlier correspondence apparently involving two now-deceased professors at a German university. According to King, the collector delivered the fragment to her in December 2011. She consulted two other scholars: AnneMarie Luijendijk, a papyrologist at Princeton, and Roger Bagnall, director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and regarded as the dean of world papyrological studies. It was Bagnall who judged the fragment to date authentically from the fourth century, on the basis of his paleographic analysis of its handwriting. The Harvard Theological Review had passed King’s draft article to three peer reviewers and then to Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a specialist in Coptic linguistics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Those were the only Coptologists known to have viewed either the fragment itself or photographs of it before September 18, 2012.
On September 19, just a day after its unveiling, Christian Askeland, now a research professor of Christian origins at Indiana Wesleyan University, conducted a poll of his confrères at the conference and found that two-thirds of them doubted the fragment’s authenticity and one-third deemed it an outright forgery. Some pointed to the crude Coptic letters that looked as though they had been applied with a brush instead of the reed pen that ancient scribes used (Bagnall has since maintained that the scribe might have used a broken pen). Others pointed to grammatical errors in the text itself (something that Shisha-Halevy had also noted).
Around the same time Francis Watson, a theology and religion professor at Durham University, looked at an online photograph of the “Jesus’ wife” fragment and noticed that whole phrases in it were identical to phrases in the Gospel of Thomas, the best-known and most widely reprinted of the Nag Hammadi texts. On September 20 Watson published an eight-page online article titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed.” His theory was that a forger who knew some Coptic and had access to a printed text of Thomas (one was published in 1970) got hold of an old piece of papyrus and confected a text out of bits and pieces from the well-known Gnostic text. Other scholars found even more word-for-word correspondences between Thomas and the “Jesus’ wife” fragment, until it appeared that the only original word in the fragment was tahime, the Coptic word for “my wife.”
And so, while the “Jesus’ wife” story lived on for weeks in the news, with people wondering whether Dan Brown had been on to something when he hitched Jesus and Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, or speculating whether a married Jesus could still be one’s lord and savior, it seemed to die a quiet death at Harvard. Some Coptic scholars continued to defend the fragment’s authenticity, but the Harvard Theological Review announced that it would delay publication of King’s article until both the papyrus and the ink had undergone scientific testing, and the Smithsonian canceled the airing of its television documentary. Complete silence followed, for more than a year and a half, during which some scholars wondered whether Harvard was quietly hoping that everyone would forget about Karen King’s Coptic scrap.
But the story of Jesus’ wife is a Christian story, in a sense, and so it contains a resurrection. Two weeks ago, on April 10, in a manner reminiscent of King’s carefully controlled original unveiling of the fragment, the Harvard Divinity School issued a press release declaring that a “wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words ‘Jesus said to them my wife’ is an ancient document” and that “its contents may have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.” Harvard had given an advance viewing of the test results and an interview with King to reporters for just three newspapers—the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Harvard student newspaper, the Crimson—on condition that they embargo their stories until April 10, the date of the press release and also the release, at last, of King’s article, this time in the April issue of the Harvard Theological Review (the Smithsonian documentary will finally air on May 5). The press release and a packet of scientific studies appended to King’s article also stated that tests conducted at Columbia University indicated that the chemical composition of the ink, a carbon-based substance made from lampblack, matched that of the ink on other ancient papyrus writings. The Globe’s online headline duly declared: “No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’ wife.’ ”
Nonetheless, the scientific results have raised more questions than they’ve answered, especially within the cohort of scholars who were already convinced that the fragment was a modern forgery. For one thing, the papyrus scrap qualifies as “ancient” only if you count the Middle Ages as “ancient.” The scrap’s fibers were carbon-dated twice. An analysis conducted at the University of Arizona during the summer of 2013 yielded a date range for the papyrus of between 405 and 209 b.c. That would have automatically meant that the document was a forgery. The papyrus was retested by Harvard biologist Noreen Tuross just a few months ago, in January and February 2014. Tuross found that the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus dated from between 681 a.d. and 877 a.d., with a median, or most probable, date of 741 a.d.
To put the 740s into a historical context, that was the decade in which Charlemagne was born. Egypt, hitherto part of the Roman and later the Byzantine empire, had been invaded and conquered by Muslims in 639. By the 700s, the official language of Egypt was Arabic, not Coptic or Greek. It was a very different world from the Egyptian world of the fourth century, much less the second century, and it is hard to imagine Gnostic intellectuals debating marriage and sexuality at a time when the Copts were engaging in a series of unsuccessful rebellions against Egypt’s Islamic rulers.
Furthermore, those skeptical of the authenticity of the “Jesus’ wife” text have never rested their case on the age of the papyrus itself. “Anyone can get hold of old papyrus,” Janet Timbie, a Coptologist teaching in the Semitic and Egyptian languages department at the Catholic University of America, told me in a telephone interview (Timbie was at the Rome conference where King delivered her paper). She added: “We have some right here in our department.”
The results of the ink testing are similarly problematic. The ink could not be carbon-dated using current technology without destroying the tiny piece of papyrus, so the Columbia test results merely confirmed the ink’s ancient-style composition, very different from that of modern lampblack, not the ink’s age. An amateur forger probably wouldn’t be able to replicate ancient ink, but a skilled professional might be able to do so, possibly by scraping off and then rehydrating ink from existing papyri.
A second paleographic analysis (after Bagnall’s) of the handwriting on the fragment, by Malcolm Choat, an expert on fourth-century Coptic scripts at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, yielded equivocal results. In a brief article, Choat declared that he had been unable to find a “smoking gun” indicating that the text wasn’t written “in antiquity,” but he added, “nor can such a . . . [paleographic] examination prove that it is genuine.” Choat did say that the scrawled handwriting on the fragment was too “informal” for a literary text—such as a gospel—but it could have been used to write a nonliterary magical or school text.
For these reasons, neither Askeland nor Watson has retracted his position that the fragment is a forgery, and both have blogged scathingly to that effect. Watson has been especially critical of the Harvard Divinity School’s overhyping press release, which failed to mention Choat’s extreme ambivalence about the fragment’s authenticity. In an email to me Watson wrote: “It’s to be expected that a forger would work with an old piece of papyrus, so even a reliable dating to say the 4th century a.d. would tell us absolutely nothing about the date of the writing. The same is true of analysis of the composition of the ink. So as far as I can see, there’s nothing new here.”
The most acrid denunciation came from Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University who wrote a 19-page article in the Harvard Theological Review, a kind of rejoinder to King’s article, in which he declared that he was “personally 100% convinced that the Wife of Jesus fragment is a forgery” cribbed from the Gospel of Thomas. Depuydt speculated that the alleged forger had been motivated by a desire to “make points of a theological kind” about Jesus’ celibacy and other traditional Christian beliefs about him. Unlike the careful-with-the-press Karen King, who did not respond to my emailed request for an interview, Depuydt neither hoards nor minces words. In an hour-long telephone conversation with me, he pronounced the choppy, seemingly non sequitur clauses of the fragment “mumbo-jumbo.” He explained: “I’m a grammarian—I’ve written a grammar of Middle Egyptian. I did my doctorate in Coptic manuscripts at Yale. This is unlike anything you see in a Coptic literary text. The people who wrote Coptic literary texts wrote fully grammatically. Reading one of those texts is like reading the New York Times.” Depuydt characterized King’s lengthy interpretive analysis of the context of the fragment and its supposed place in early Christian thought as “overkill.”
And indeed King herself might have decided that she had indulged in some overkill, at least the first time around. The 28-page version of her article in the April 2014 issue of the Harvard Theological Review bears only a passing, severely downsized resemblance to the version that had been scheduled for publication in January 2013. Even the subtitle is different: “A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment” instead of “A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Gone is any claim that the fragment is a portion of a larger “gospel” or other formal literary codex. King now speculates, probably taking a hint from Choat, that the papyrus scrap might have been an “amulet,” a charm against demons, an “aide-mémoire or even a practice text.” Gone is any definitive effort to identify the “Mary” mentioned in the fragment with Mary Magdalene (although she could have been, King maintains). And most significantly, gone is the assertion that there was likely an early Christian “tradition” that Jesus was actually married—a linchpin of King’s earlier draft. Instead, King modestly maintains that “the main point of the GJW fragment is simply to affirm that women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’ disciples.”
Speaking of mothers, the entire “Jesus’ wife” episode calls to mind another ancient text: Aesop’s fable about the mountain that goes into rumbling labor but disgorges only a mouse. If accurate scientific dating of the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was central to its publication—as it certainly should have been, given the scrap’s shadowy provenance—why were no carbon and chemical tests run on the papyrus until after King had presented her paper at a major scholarly conference and it was about to go to press as an article in a major theological journal? Why was the entire publication process carried out in near-secrecy and then stage-managed in a way that made it look like a publicity stunt for the benefit of a Smithsonian television special? What does this say about the careful standards of scholarship that are supposed to characterize a premier research university with unlimited resources such as Harvard?
I emailed Roger Bagnall at NYU, the only expert whom King consulted between December 2011 and September 2012 for the purpose of determining the fragment’s authenticity—and that solely on the basis of its handwriting. My question had to do with what Bagnall made of the carbon-dating of the papyrus to the eighth century and not the fourth as he had earlier concluded. He emailed this reply:
In other words, no one connected to the “Jesus’ wife” fragment can account for the presence of fourth-century Gnostic or Gnostic-derived material on an eighth-century papyrus sheet manufactured long after much of Egypt had become Islamic—as even Karen King concedes in an afterword to her published article.
“For my dissertation I catalogued all the Coptic manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library,” Leo Depuydt said in our phone conversation. “I’ve never seen a Gnostic text later than the fifth century. Gnosticism must have vanished after the fifth century. The fourth century was the great century of Christianization. In the year 300 in Egypt everyone lived side by side: pagans and Christians and Gnostics. By the end of the fourth century Christians were persecuting pagans and Manicheans and Gnostics. By 425, it was like medieval France, where everybody’s a Catholic. I’ve never seen any evidence of any Gnostic sects surviving past then.”
Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the
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