In Luijendijk’s judgment, the scribe’s handwriting—functional, but not refined—suggests that this gospel was read not in a church, where more elegant calligraphy prevailed, but by early Christians who gathered in homes for private study. “Something like a Bible study group,” Luijendijk told me.
To help bring out letters whose ink had faded, King borrowed Bagnall’s infrared camera and used Photoshop to enhance the contrasts. The papyrus’ back side, or verso, is so badly damaged that only a few key words—“my mother” and “three”—were decipherable. But on the front side, or recto, King gleaned eight fragmentary lines:
1) “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]...”
2) The disciples said to Jesus, “
3) deny. Mary is worthy of it
4) ” Jesus said to them, “My wife
5) she will be able to be my disciple
6) Let wicked people swell up
7) As for me, I dwell with herin order to
8) an image
The line—“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’”—is truncated but unequivocal. But with so little surrounding text, what might it mean?
Some of the phrases echoed, if distantly, passages in Luke, Matthew and Thomas about the role of family in the life of disciples. The parallels convinced King that this gospel was first composed, most likely in Greek, in the second century A.D., when such questions were a subject of lively theological discussion. (The term “gospel,” as King uses it in her analysis, is any early Christian writing that describes the life—or afterlife—of Jesus.) Despite the New Testament’s many Marys, King infers from a variety of clues that the “Mary” in Line 3 is “probably” Magdalene, and that the “wife” in Line 4 and “she” in Line 5 is this same woman.
For King, the best historical evidence that Magdalene was not Jesus’ wife is that the New Testament (which is silent about his marital status) refers to her by her hometown, Migdal, a fishing village, rather than by her relationship to the Messiah. “The most odd thing in the world is her standing next to Jesus and the New Testament identifying her by the place she comes from instead of her husband,” King told me. In that time, “women’s status was determined by the men to whom they were attached.” Think of “Mary, Mother of Jesus, Wife of Joseph.”
The first known statements about Jesus’ celibacy appeared about a century after his death. Clement of Alexandria, a theologian and church father who lived from A.D. 150 to A.D. 215, reported on a group of second-century Christians “who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married or had any possession in this world, boasting that they understand the gospel better than anyone else.”
Clement himself took a less proscriptive view, writing that while celibacy and virginity were good for God’s elect, Christians could have sex in marriage so long as it was without desire and for procreation. Other church fathers also invoked Jesus’ unmarried state. Complete unmarriedness—innuptus in totum, as Tertullian puts it—was how a holy man turned away from the world, and toward God’s new kingdom.
What the papyrus fragment suggests, King said, “is that there were early Christians...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 a 52-page article submitted to the Harvard Theological Review, King speculates that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” may have been tossed on some long-ago 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.”