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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As for her career, however, “I never regretted choosing the university over church.”

* * *

When I spoke with Bagnall, the papyrologist, I asked whether he agreed with King’s reading of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” He said he found it convincing and appropriately cautious. Was there an Achilles’ heel? I asked. “The greatest weakness, I suppose, is that it is so fragmentary and it is far from being beyond the ingenuity of humankind to take this fragment and start restoring the lost text to say something quite different.”

Like King, he expects the fragment to inspire equal measures of curiosity and skepticism. “There will be people in the field of religious studies who say, ‘It’s Morton Smith all over again.’ ” Smith was a Columbia professor whose sensational discovery of a previously unknown letter by Clement of Alexandria didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Unlike King, though, Smith had only photographs of the alleged document, which had itself somehow vanished into thin air.

“Among serious scholars who work with this material, the reaction will likely be a lot of interest,” Bagnall said. “Outside the professional field, the reaction is likely to be”—he let out a short laugh—“less measured. I think there will be people upset, who will not have read the article and won’t understand just how measured and careful the treatment is.”

* * *

King had e-mailed the anonymous reviewer’s critique to Bagnall, and we were talking in her office when Bagnall’s reply arrived. She lifted her eyeglasses and leaned across the desk to look at the screen. “Ah, yeah, OK!” she said. “Go, Roger!”

What had he written? I asked.

“He’s saying he’s not persuaded” by the critique, “but nonetheless it would be good to strengthen the points the reviewer was raising.”

Four days later, King e-mailed me to say that her proposed revisions had satisfied the Review’s editors. She had shown the critical review to Bagnall, Luijendijk and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, an eminent Coptic linguist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who replied, “I believe—on the basis of language and grammar—the text is authentic.”


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