The Gospel of Jesus' Wife
By Eric Francke

A tremendous amount of press has been given this last week to an ancient document (called by some “The Gospel of Jesus' Wife”) that purportedly offered evidence that Jesus was married, possibly to Mary Magdalene. The fragment of Coptic Egyptian written very possibly in the 4th century is being touted by a Harvard theologian, Karen L. King, as evidence to this claim. From a literary standpoint, might this be a valid claim?

For the purpose of discussion, we can grant the presumption that it is actually a papyrus from the 4th Century. It should be noted that there are a number of inconsistencies that have been cited by other scholars. Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster and Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg have said they are either “unconvinced” or have called it an out-and-out “forgery”. However, since the most important forensic tests are still pending, we shall give it the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

The Text Translated
The actual text is just a fragment, only 1.5 inches by 3 inches, and because if just a small flake of a larger papyrus, there is not complete thought or context in the text. There are only a few phrases or words that are legible.

Below is the text, ordered in the lines as they appear, tranlsated by Prof. King:

...not to me. My mother gave to me life.....”
...The disciples said to Jesus. …
...deny. Mary is worthy of it ….
...Jesus said to them “my wife...
...She will also be my disciple …
...Let the wicked people swell up...
...As for me, I will dwell with her in order to..

Being fragmentary, with just imcomplete phrases, one can see what a leap it is to claim that this papyrus states that Jesus was married. There is no punctuation in the Coptic, so even that is a presumption. On line four, for example, the “Jesus said to them” could be concluding a quote from Jesus, and the “My wife” statement could be a third person, or a disciple questioning Jesus about their spouse. We have no way of knowing. Without having the rest of the sentence before that phrase, and the sentence after it, we are making a huge assumption that “my wife” are words being put in Jesus' mouth in the text.

Gospel Structural Parallels

If we were to give the benefit of the doubt, and presume that Jesus is the one saying “my wife”, another possibility that Prof. King has not considered is the idiomatic way that Jesus, in the canonical Gospels, used terms for his close relations. He made a point to spiritualize such terms, broadening them to include anyone who was his disciple. This is clearly seen in Luke's Gospel, Chapter 8:20,21:

And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.

Jesus extends the phrase “mother” and “brothers” to those who diligently follow him. He likewise could be, if the context was known, declaring that his “true” wife are those who hear and obey the word of God. The very next line “she will also be my disciple” might be part of a complete thought expressing this concept, that he has a spiritual union, as a bridegroom and his bride, with those who are his disciples.

This would likewise be consistent with the frequent imagery that the Apostle Paul uses in his epistles, where he calls the church “The bride of Christ” pledged in marriage to Christ. (Eph 5:23-33, 2 Cor. 11:2).

This of course is speculatory, but more consistent with all of the canonical writings about Jesus, and thus more probable than Prof. King's novel claims.

The “Late Date” Elephant in the Room

With so many new sources reporting that an “ancient” text reveals that Jesus was married, the most glaring problem from an historic and literary view is rarely mentioned. That is, that the fragment, which is dated at the very earliest 4th century, is still a piece of writing from at least 300 years from the time of Christ anyways... meaning that it's value as historical documentation- regardless of what it says- is basically worthless.

Despite the fact that Prof. King will parley this into a number of paid speaking engagements and a book deal (as she is fond of doing), even she gets this one fact right when writing her own “Questions and Answers” on the site. She asks, then answers:

Does the Gospel of Jesus' wife prove that Jesus was married.
Harvard's Answer
No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus ….argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus.

So one has to wonder, if the Harvard department which is publicizing this is going on record to say that it in no ways provides any historic information because it was so far removed from the actual events, then WHY are new sources all over the world simplisiticly reporting this as a text that demonstrates Jesus was married? Unfortunately that is the current condition of contemporary media. Tantalizing headlines, misleading taglines, just to sell papers or drive web traffic.

The fact of the matter is, we know there were huge amounts of extra-biblical writing about Christ in the centuries after his life. Besides the patristic writers in the first few centuries, there were dozens of schismatic sects and Gnostic groups, each trying to recast Jesus into a figure that would better fit into their brand of theology. Generally, the Greek and Latin writers that were closest to the actual events (ie. Papias, Ignatius, Barnabas, Mathias, and others) were congruent and in agreement with the First Century canonical Gospels that we have today in the New Testament. The 4th Century writings (many which are Gnostic in origin, and many writing in Coptic) are discongruent, and contradictory with both the canonical gospels and the patristic writers as well as themselves. They are, to use the colloquialism “out in left field”. This may be an accurate category for “The Gospel of Jesus' Wife.

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife is still waiting for solid forensic documentation that it is indeed from the 4th Century A.D. At the moment, it is just a presumption. Even if it were from the 4th century, it would be a presumption to claim that it says that Jesus, in this text, used the words “my wife”. Even if he did, it would be a presumption, not knowing the context, to think that he wasn't spiritualizing the term, as he does “mother and brothers” and as Paul did for the “Bride of Christ” in the epistles. And even if the presumption is made that the Jesus in the text, was literally talking about his literal wife, then we are still left with the fact that the origin of the document is so far removed from the actual events, and likely just another rogue gnostic fragment, that it doesn't deserve any consideration for answering any questions about Jesus' life.

The canonical Gospels from the 1st Century don't elude to, or in the slightest suggest he was married. Tradition passed down by those who actually knew him says he was not married. Without a single 1st century source to contradict that, an incomplete Coptic fragment from 300 years later doesn't challenge the established facts.

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