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 late June 2011, nearly a year after his first e-mail, the collector gave her a nudge.  “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail King shared with me, after stripping out any identifying details. (The collector has requested, and King granted him, anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector didn’t want the fragment to disappear in a private archive or collection “if it really is what we think it is,” he wrote. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.” Had she made any progress?

Four months later, after making a closer study of the photographs, she at last replied. The text was intriguing, but she could not proceed on photographs alone. She told the collector she would need an expert papyrologist to authenticate the fragment by hand, along with more details about its legal status and history.

William Stoneman, the director of Harvard’s Houghton Library, which houses manuscripts dating as far back as 3000 B.C., helped King with a set of forms that would permit Harvard to formally receive the fragment.

King brushed aside the collector’s offer to send it through the mail—“You don’t do that! You hardly want to send a letter in the mail!” So last December, he delivered it by hand.

“We signed the paperwork, had coffee and he left,” she recalls.

The collector knew nothing about the fragment’s discovery. It was part of a batch of Greek and Coptic papyri that he said he had purchased in the late 1990s from one H. U. Laukamp, of Berlin.

Among the papers the collector had sent King was a typed letter to Laukamp from July 1982 from Peter Munro. Munro was a prominent Egyptologist at the Free University Berlin and a longtime director of the Kestner Museum, in Hannover, for which he had acquired a spectacular, 3,000-year-old bust of Akhenaten. Laukamp had apparently consulted Munro about his papyri, and Munro wrote back that a colleague at the Free University, Gerhard Fecht, an expert on Egyptian languages and texts, had identified one of the Coptic papyri as a second-to fourth-century A.D. fragment of the Gospel of John.

The collector also left King an unsigned and undated handwritten note that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence—this one concerning a different gospel. “Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage.”

When I asked King why neither Fecht nor Munro would have sought to publish so novel a discovery, she said, “People interested in Egyptology tend not to be interested in Christianity. They’re into Pharaonic stuff. They simply may not have been interested.”

Neither, necessarily, would have Laukamp. Manuscript dealers tend to worry most about financial value, and attitudes differ about whether publication helps or hinders.


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