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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King, however, could not ask. Laukamp died in 2001, Fecht in 2006 and Munro in 2008.

For legal purposes, however, the 1982 date of the correspondence was crucial, though it — along with the fact that Laukamp, Fecht and Munro were all dead — may well strike critics as suspiciously convenient. The next year, Egypt would revise its antiquities law to declare that all discoveries after 1983 were the unequivocal property of the Egyptian government.

Though King can read Coptic and has worked with papyrus manuscripts, she is by training a historian of religion. To authenticate the fragment, she would need outside help. A few weeks before the collector came to Harvard, King forwarded the photos to AnneMarie Luijendijk, a professor at Princeton and an authority on Coptic papyri and sacred scriptures. (King had overseen her doctoral dissertation at Harvard.)

Luijendijk took the images to Roger Bagnall, a renowned papyrologist who directs the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Bagnall, who had previously chaired Columbia University’s department of classics, is known for his conservative assessments of the authenticity and date of ancient papyri.

Every few weeks, a group of eight to ten papyrologists in the New York area gather at Bagnall’s Upper West Side apartment to share and vet new discoveries. Bagnall serves tea, coffee and cookies, and projects images of papyri under discussion onto a screen in his living room.

After looking at the images of the papyrus, “we were unanimous in believing, yes, this was OK,” Bagnall told me when we spoke by phone.

It wasn’t until King brought the actual fragment to Bagnall’s office last March, however, that he and Luijendijk reached a firm conclusion. The color and the texture of the papyrus, along with the parallel deterioration of the ink and the reeds, had none of the “tells” of a forgery. “Anyone who has spent any time in Egypt has seen a lot of fake papyrus, made of banana leaves and all sorts of stuff,” Bagnall told me.

Also convincing was the scribe’s middling penmanship. “It’s clear the pen wasn’t perhaps of ideal quality and the writer didn’t have complete control of it. The flow of ink was highly irregular. This wasn’t a high-class professional working with good tools. That is one of the things that tells you it’s real, because a modern scribe wouldn’t do that. You’d have to be really kind of perversely skilled to produce something like this as a fake.”

The Sahidic dialect of Coptic and the style of the handwriting, with letters whose tails do not stray above or below the line, reminded Luijendijk of texts from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere and helped her and Bagnall date the fragment to the second half of the fourth century A.D. and place its probable origins in Upper Egypt.

The fragment is some four centimeters tall and eight centimeters wide. Its rough edges suggest that it had been cut out of a larger manuscript; some dealers, keener on profit than preservation, will dice up texts for maximum return. The presence of writing on both sides convinced the scholars that it was part of a codex—or book—rather than a scroll.


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