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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In the early 2000s, King grew interested in another text, The gospel of Mary, which cast Magdalene in a still more central role, both as confidante and disciple. That papyrus codex, a fifth-century translation of a second-century Greek text, first surfaced in January 1896 on the Cairo antiquities market.

In the central scene of its surviving pages, Magdalene comforts the fearful disciples, saying that Jesus’ grace will “shelter” them as they preach the gospel. Peter here defers to Magdalene. “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all the other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.’”

Magdalene relates a divine vision, but the other disciples grow suddenly disputatious. Andrew says he doesn’t believe her, dismissing the teachings she said she received as “strange ideas.” Peter seems downright jealous. “Did he then speak with a woman in private without our knowing it?” he says. “Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’” (In the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, Peter is similarly dismissive, saying, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”)

As Jesus does in Thomas, Levi here comes to Magdalene’s defense. “If the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?” Jesus had to be trusted, Levi says, because “he knew her completely.”

The gospel of Mary, then, is yet another text that hints at a singularly close bond. For King, though, its import was less Magdalene’s possibly carnal relationship with Jesus than her apostolic one. In her 2003 book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, King argues that the text is no less than a treatise on the qualifications for apostleship: What counted was not whether you were at the crucifixion or the resurrection, or whether you were a woman or a man. What counted was your firmness of character and how well you understood Jesus’ teachings.

“The message is clear: only those apostles who have attained the same level of spiritual development as Mary can be trusted to teach the true gospel,” King writes.

Whatever the truth of Jesus and Magdalene’s relationship, Pope Gregory the Great, in a series of homilies in 591, asserted that Magdalene was in fact both the unnamed sinful woman in Luke who anoints Jesus’ feet and an unnamed adulteress in John whose stoning Jesus forestalls. The conflation simultaneously diminished Magdalene and set the stage for 1,400 years of portrayals of her as a repentant whore, whose impurity stood in tidy contrast to the virginal Madonna.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the Vatican quietly disavowed Gregory’s composite Magdalene. All the same, efforts by King and her colleagues to reclaim the voices in these lost gospels have given fits to traditional scholars and believers, who view them as a perversion by identity politics of long-settled truth.

“Far from being the alternative voices of Jesus’ first followers, most of the lost gospels should rather be seen as the writings of much later dissidents who broke away from an already established orthodox church,” Philip Jenkins, now co-director of Baylor University’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion, wrote in his book Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way. “Despite its dubious sources and controversial methods, the new Jesus scholarship … gained such a following because it told a lay audience what it wanted to hear.”

Writing on in 2003, Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek’s longtime religion editor, argued that “Mary Magdalene has become a project for a certain kind of ideologically committed feminist scholarship.”


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