Jesus had a wife! It’s the Gospel of Judas all over again. An exotic Gnostic document claimed to date from the fourth century,* written in Coptic, containing something startling about Jesus, and shrouded in secrecy until its sudden and dramatic unveiling. Next comes the derecho of media publicity, the carefully timed television documentary, the speculation that this means the end of Christianity as we know it, and then, with the finality of a soufflé collapsing as the oven door opens, the revelation that the document isn’t, or may well not be, exactly what its promoters say it is.
In Judas’ case the deflation took several months over 2006 and 2007, as it became clear that the “good Judas” (instead of the traitor Judas of the four Christian gospels) revealed in the Gnostic document was the product of hasty mistranscriptions and wishful thinking. In the case of “Jesus’ Wife”—a tiny rectangle of tattered papyrus on which the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’ ” appear in Coptic, contradicting two thousand years of Christian belief that he was celibate—the deflation process has taken only a week. Amid the Niagara of press coverage and speculation, a number of Coptic scholars have concluded that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment is a fake. They deem it a collage of phrases cribbed nearly word for word from another fourth-century Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, and inked by a modern forger onto a blank scrap of ancient papyrus.
At the center of both controversies is Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who announced the existence of the fragment and its contents at a Coptic conference in Rome on September 18. King is known for her writings about alternative early “Christianities” that seem more easygoing and congenial to moderns than the traditional version. King’s writings have also promoted Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus whose importance was suppressed by misogynistic church fathers—but not by the female-friendly Gnostics, who made her a key figure in many of their writings, including one text in which Jesus kisses her, possibly on the lips. King maintains that a “Mary” who may be the “wife” referred to by Jesus is Mary Magdalene. It’s shades of The Da Vinci Code, where Mary is not only married to Jesus but the mother of his children—although King has repeatedly insisted that the text is not evidence that Jesus was actually married, but only that some early Christians, namely the Gnostics, thought that he was married. King believes that “Jesus’ Wife,” like many Gnostic manuscripts, is a fourth-century copy of a text probably written during the second century, when the Gnostics were most prolific and also most vigorously denounced by their orthodox Christian enemies.
The parallels in trajectory for the two Gnostic texts are inescapable. Both came from dubious sources, private dealers in antiquities who often sell manuscripts and other objects that have been stolen from archaeological sites or spirited illegally out of the countries where they were found. No one knows, for example, where the codex containing the Gospel of Judas came from, although it is widely agreed to be an authentic 1,700-year-old manuscript, probably buried for centuries in the Egyptian desert. The National Geographic Society bought the rights to translate and publish Judas for a reported $1 million, then assembled a team of scholars to transcribe the Coptic words and produce an English translation, all in utmost secrecy over a few months, so that the release would coincide with a National Geographic television special about it, all nicely timed for Palm Sunday 2006. The team included such biblical-studies celebrities as Elaine Pagels, author of a string of bestselling books about Gnosticism, and Bart Ehrman, author of the bestselling Misquoting Jesus (2005), which argues that the scribes who wrote down the New Testament deliberately mangled the narratives.
It was the lead translator, the recently deceased Marvin Meyer, a religious-studies professor at Chapman University, who, helped along by Ehrman, more or less invented the “good Judas.” In Meyer’s translation and subsequent statements by him and Ehrman, Judas is Jesus’ closest friend and confidant, who betrays his master only because Jesus wants him to, so that Jesus can shed his material body at the crucifixion and ascend into the spiritual realm (in Gnostic theology Jesus didn’t rise from the dead bodily as Christians believe). Newspapers around the world reported on the sudden transformation of Judas from villain to hero. There was speculation that Christianity would be similarly transformed—that the crucifixion story would have to be rewritten in order to accommodate the rehabilitated Judas. Meyer and others tried to make it clear, as Karen King has done with “Jesus’ Wife,” that the Gospel of Judas was more about second- and fourth-century Christian diversity than about the historical Jesus, but few people paid attention to that.
Problems with Meyer’s translation came to light when April DeConick, a Coptologist and professor of biblical studies at Rice University who knew about the Judas manu-script’s existence although she was not on the National Geographic team, downloaded the translation and realized that Judas wasn’t selling out Jesus as a favor to his master but sacrificing him to a malevolent deity in the complex Gnostic cosmology. In short, Judas was an even worse figure in the Gospel of Judas than in the four traditional Gospels. DeConick faulted Meyer for, among other things, translating the Greek loanword “daimon,” which in Christian literature always means “demon,” as the more neutral word “spirit,” so that Judas looked more appealing. In a subsequent essay for the New York Times, she wrote of the mistranslations: “Were they genuine errors or was something deliberate going on?” Meyer, for his part, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, accused DeConick of sour grapes because she hadn’t been on the National Geographic team. But she was only one of several Coptic scholars to criticize Meyer’s translations, which he modified to some extent in a subsequent edition.
Five years later, and with Meyer now dead from cancer at age 64, DeConick faults the National Geographic’s secrecy rules more than Meyer himself for the mistranslations. “The National Geographic wouldn’t release photos of the manuscript itself,” she said in a telephone interview. “The translators were under a deadline for publishing, so they worked at it piecemeal. They would transcribe a page and then translate it into English, and what happens when you work like that is that you can’t easily go back and see how your translation fits with what you’ve already translated. It was that process that probably led to the mistranslations. That and the nondisclosure agreements they all signed, which prevented them from passing around their work to other scholars for their comments, which is the usual practice.” DeConick said that the translation team might have been unduly influenced by the second-century bishop Irenaeus, who wrote that the Gnostics had produced a gospel that put Judas in a good light. “They were looking for that, and they found what they were looking for,” she said.
Karen King got involved with the Gospel of Judas when she and Pagels coauthored a bestselling book, Reading Judas, that came out about a year after the National Geographic documentary. King, who is skilled in Coptic, made her own translation, while Pagels added an interpretive essay exploring themes of early Christian diversity that she has championed in many of her other books. King’s translation was less tendentious than Meyer’s, but she and Pagels did insist that the Judas they saw in the Gospel of Judas was not the evil figure DeConick had seen, but a complex character who seemed to be a sounding-board for the gospel author’s Gnostic speculations. King translated the word “daimon” as “god,” another word that DeConick and others criticized as off-base (and Pagels later said she regretted having chosen).
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.