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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“Were I to write a story involving Mary Magdalene,” he wrote, “I think it would focus on this: that a small group of well-educated women decided to devote their careers to the pieces of Gnostic literature discovered in the last century, a find that promised a new academic specialty within the somewhat overtrodden field of Biblical studies.”

“Among these texts,” he continued, “The Gospel of Mary is paramount; it reads as if the author had obtained a DD degree from Harvard Divinity School.”

King didn’t hesitate to respond. Woodward’s piece was “more an expression of Woodward’s distaste for feminism than a review or even a critique of [the] scholarship,” she wrote on Beliefnet. “One criterion for good history is accounting for all the evidence and not marginalizing the parts one doesn’t like .... Whether or not communities of faith embrace or reject the teaching found in these newly discovered texts, Christians will better understand and responsibly engage their own tradition by attending to an accurate historical account of Christian beginnings.”

King is no wallflower in her professional life. “You don’t walk over her,” one of her former graduate students told me.

* * *

On July 9, 2010, during summer break, an e-mail from a stranger arrived in King’s Harvard in-box. Because of her prominence, she gets a steady trickle of what she calls “kooky” e-mails: a woman claiming to be Mary Magdalene, a man with a code he says unlocks the mysteries of the Bible.

This e-mail looked more serious, but King remained skeptical. The writer identified himself as a manuscript collector. He said he had come into the possession of a Gnostic gospel that appeared to contain an “argument” between Jesus and a disciple about Magdalene. Would she take a look at some photographs?

King replied that she needed more information: What was its date and provenance? The man responded the same day, saying he’d purchased it in 1997 from a German-American collector who acquired it in the 1960s in Communist East Germany. He sent along an electronic file of photographs and an unsigned translation with the bombshell phrase, “Jesus said this to them: My wife…” (King would refine the translation as “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife … ’”)

“My reaction is, This is highly likely to be a forgery,” King recalled of her first impressions. “That’s kind of what we have these days: Jesus’ tomb, James’s Ossuary.” She was referring to two recent “discoveries,” announced with great fanfare, that were later exposed as hoaxes or, at best, wishful thinking. “OK, Jesus married? I thought, Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Even after reviewing the e-mailed photographs, “I was highly suspicious, you know, that the Harvard imprimatur was being asked to be put on something that then would be worth a lot of money,” she said. “I didn’t know who this individual was and I was busy working on other stuff, so I let it slide for quite a while.”


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