The Magazine

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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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).

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