The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus

According to a top religion scholar, this 1,600-year-old text fragment suggests some early Christians believed Jesus was married—possibly to Mary Magdalene

Karen L. King, the Hollis professor of divinity, believes that the fragment's 33 words refers to Jesus having a wife (© Karen L. King)

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7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to  

8) an image

The line—“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”—is truncated but unequivocal. But with so little surrounding text, what might it mean? Into what backdrop did it fit? 

This is where King’s training as a historian of early Christianity came to bear.

Some of the phrases echoed, if distantly, passages in Luke, Matthew and the Gnostic gospels about the role of family in the life of disciples. The parallels convinced King that this gospel was originally composed, most likely in Greek, in the second century A.D., when such questions were a subject of lively theological discussion. (The term “gospel,” as King uses it in her analysis, is any early Christian writing that describes the life—or afterlife—of Jesus.) Despite the New Testament’s many Marys, King infers from a variety of clues and comparisons that the “Mary” in Line 3 is “probably” Magdalene, and that the “wife” in Line 4 and the “she” in Line 5 is this same Mary.

In the weeks leading up to the mid-September announcement, King worried that people would read the headlines and misconstrue her paper as an argument that the historical Jesus was married. But the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was written too long after Jesus’ death to have any value as biography—a point King underscores in her forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review.

The New Testament is itself silent about Jesus’ marital status. For King, the best historical evidence that Mary was not Jesus wife is that the New Testament refers to her by her hometown, Migdal, a fishing village in Northern Israel, rather than by her relationship to the Messiah. “The most odd thing in the world is her standing next to Jesus and the New Testament identifying her by the place she comes from instead of her husband,” King told me. In that time, “women’s status was determined by the men to whom they were attached.” Think of “Mary, Mother of Jesus, Wife of Joseph.”

For King, the text on the papyrus fragment is something else: fresh evidence of the diversity of voices in early Christianity. 

The first claims of Jesus' celibacy did not appear until about a century after his death. Clement of Alexandria, a theologian and Church father who lived from A.D. 150 to A.D. 215, reported on a group of second-century Christians “who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married or had any possession in this world, boasting that they understand the gospel better than anyone else.”

Clement himself took a less proscriptive view, writing that while celibacy and virginity were good for God’s elect, Christians could have sexual intercourse in marriage so long as it was without desire and only for procreation. Other early Church fathers, such as Tertullian and John Chrysostom, also invoked Jesus’ unmarried state to support celibacy. Complete unmarriedness —innuptus in totum, as Tertullian puts it—was how a holy man turned away from the world, and toward God’s new kingdom.


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