UPDATE: The Reaction to Karen King’s Gospel Discovery

When a divinity scholar unveiled a papyrus fragment that she says refers to Jesus’ “wife,” our reporter was there in Rome amidst the firestorm of criticism

The "Mary" in the controversial text, King says, may be Mary Magdalene, who was present at the Crucifixion. (Ryan Reed)
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Among the papers the collector had shown King was a typed July 1982 letter to Laukamp from Peter Munro, a prominent Egyptologist and former director of the Kestner Museum, in Hannover. Laukamp had apparently consulted Munro about a batch of papyri, and Munro wrote back that a colleague at Berlin’s Free University, Gerhard Fecht, an expert on Egyptian languages and texts, had identified one of the Coptic pieces as a second- to fourth-century A.D. fragment of the Gospel of John.

The current owner also left King an unsigned, undated handwritten note— concerning a different papyrus—that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence. “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.”

I asked King why neither Fecht nor Munro sought to publish so tantalizing a discovery. “People interested in Egyptology tend not to be interested in Christianity,” she said. “They’re into Pharaonic stuff.” Also, manuscript dealers tend to worry most about financial value, and attitudes differ about whether publication helps or hinders.

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

For legal purposes, the 1982 date of the correspondence was crucial, though it 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 papyri, she would need outside help to authenticate the fragment. She forwarded the photos to AnneMarie Luijendijk, an authority on Coptic papyri and sacred scriptures at Princeton. (King had overseen her 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. Every few weeks, a group of papyrologists in the New York area gather at Bagnall’s Upper West Side apartment to 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 images of the papyrus, “we were unanimous in believing, yes, this was OK,” Bagnall told me by phone.

It wasn’t until King brought the fragment by train to Bagnall’s office last March that he and Luijendijk reached a firm conclusion. The papyrus’ color and texture, along with the parallel deterioration of the ink and the reeds, were signs of authenticity. 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,” said Bagnall. “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’s rough edges suggest that it had been cut from a larger manuscript; experts told me that some dealers, keener on profit than preservation, will dice up a text for maximum return. The presence of writing on both sides indicated it was part of a codex—or book—rather than a scroll.

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