Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall overlooks a quiet street some 15 minutes by foot from the bustle of Harvard Square. A Gothic tower of gray stone rises from its center, its parapet engraved with the icons of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was two weeks before the Rome announcement. (This magazine had learned of King’s find from Smithsonian Channel colleagues, who are preparing a documentary.) I found her office by scaling a narrow flight of stairs that appeared to lead to the roof but opened instead on a garret-like room in the highest reaches of the tower.
“So here it is,” King said.
On her desk, next to an open can of Diet Dr Pepper promoting the movie The Avengers, was the scrap of papyrus, pressed between two plates of plexiglass. The fragment was about the size of a business card, honey-hued and inked on both sides with faded black script. When she lifted the papyrus to her office’s arched window, sunlight seeped through where the reeds had worn thin. “It’s in pretty good shape,” she said. “I’m not going to look this good after 1,600 years.”
King, who is 58, had moved to Harvard from Occidental College in 1997 and found herself on a fast track. In 2009, the divinity school named her the Hollis professor—the oldest endowed chair in the United States and a 288-year-old post that had never before been held by a woman.
Her scholarship has been a kind of sustained critique of what she calls the “master story” of Christianity: a narrative that casts the New Testament as divine revelation that passed through Jesus in “an unbroken chain” to the apostles and their successors—church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried its truths into the present day.
According to this “myth of origins,” as she has called it, followers of Jesus who accepted the New Testament canon—chiefly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written roughly between A.D. 65 and A.D. 95, or at least 35 years after Jesus’ death—were true Christians. Followers inspired by noncanonical gospels were heretics hornswoggled by the devil.
Until the last century, virtually everything scholars knew about these other gospels came from broadsides against them by early Church leaders. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, France, pilloried them in A.D. 180 as “an abyss of madness and of blasphemy”—a “wicked art” practiced by people bent on “adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” (Many will no doubt view “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” through the same prism.)
A challenge to Christianity’s master story surfaced in December 1945, when an Arab farmer digging near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, stumbled on a cache of manuscripts. Inside a meter-tall clay jar containing 13 leatherbound papyrus codices were 52 texts that didn’t make it into the canon, including the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip and the Secret Revelation of John.
As scholars translated the texts from Coptic, early Christians whose views had fallen out of favor—or were silenced—began speaking again, across the ages, in their own voices. A picture began to take shape of long-ago Christians, scattered across the Eastern Mediterranean, who derived sometimes contradictory teachings from the life of Jesus Christ. Was it possible that Judas was not a turncoat but a favored disciple? Did Christ’s body really rise, or just his soul? Was the crucifixion—and human suffering, more broadly—a prerequisite for salvation?
Only later did an organized Church sort the answers to those questions into the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. (Some scholars prefer the term “Gnostic” to heretical; King rejects both, arguing in a 2003 book that “Gnosticism” is a construct “invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.”)