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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Though King makes no claims for the value of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” as, well, a marriage certificate, she says it  “puts into greater question the assumption that Jesus wasn’t married, which has equally no evidence,” she told me. It casts doubt “on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy. They always say, ‘This is the tradition, this is the tradition.’ Now we see that this alternative tradition has been silenced.”

“What this shows,” she continued, “is that there were early Christians for whom that was simply not the case, who could understand indeed that sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God’s creativity and generativity and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate.”

In her paper, King speculates that the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” may have been tossed on the garbage heap not because the papyrus was worn or damaged, but “because the ideas it contained flowed so strongly against the ascetic currents of the tides in which Christian practices and understandings of marriage and sexual intercourse were surging.”

* * *

I first met King in early September at a restaurant on Beacon Street, a short walk from her office. When she arrived, looking a little frazzled, she apologized. “There was a crisis,” she said.

A little over an hour earlier, the Harvard Theological Review had informed her that a scholar who was asked to critique her draft had sharply questioned the papyrus’s authenticity. The scholar—whose name the Review doesn’t share with an author—thought that grammatical irregularities and the way the ink manifested on the page pointed to a forgery. Unlike Bagnall and Luijendijk, who had viewed the actual papyrus, the reviewer was working off low-resolution photographs.

“My first response was shock,” King told me.

After getting nods from Luijendijk, Bagnall and another anonymous peer reviewer, King had considered the question of authenticity settled. But the Review would not now publish unless she answered this latest criticism. If she could not do so soon, she told me, she would have to call off plans to announce the discovery, at an international conference on Coptic studies, in Rome. The date of her paper there, September 18, was just two weeks away.

Because of the fragment’s content, she had expected high-wattage scrutiny from other scholars. She and the owner had already agreed that the papyrus remain available at Harvard after publication for examination by other specialists—and for good reason. “The reflexive position will be, ‘Wait a minute. Come on.’ ”

Once the shock of the reviewer’s comments subsided, however, “my second response was, Let’s get this settled,” she told me. “I have zero interest in publishing anything that’s a forgery.”


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