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.