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The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus
Resources about the fourth-century papyrus fragment available here are images of the fragment and a translation of the text; information (in question-and-answer format) about the fragment; and a draft of Karen L. King's article about the gospel papyrus.
Images and Translation
No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus's marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century CE, so if the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was also composed in the second century CE, it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus's marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began using Jesus's marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now the Gospel of Jesus's Wife shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.
Many people may initially doubt whether this fragment really is an ancient text and not a modern forgery, primarily because its contents are so unfamiliar, or because they suspect someone might have an agenda to prove that Jesus was married or use the forgery to get rich. Scholars, however, use established procedures to determine if a papyrus is indeed an ancient document. In this case, Karen L. King, Hollis Professor Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, hand-carried the fragment to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in New York, where it was carefully examined by the Institute’s director, the renowned papyrologist Roger Bagnall, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, a scholar of New Testament and Early Christianity from Princeton University.
Since pieces of blank ancient papyrus might have been found and written on in modern times, authentication involves more than just affirming that the papyrus itself is ancient, which it surely is in this case. It also includes close study of the handwriting and of how the ink was chemically absorbed by the papyrus, especially in the faded and damaged areas, since it is almost impossible to reduplicate these kinds of patterns of interaction between ink and papyrus at such a very fine level. King and Luijendijk used high resolution digital and infrared photography and also examined the papyrus itself in different kinds of light and with magnification. In addition, questions were raised about particular use of grammar and spelling. Here Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Professor of Linguistics at Hebrew University and a leading expert on Coptic language, was asked to consider the text's language. He concluded that the language itself offered no evidence of forgery.
Thus, on the basis of the age of the papyrus, the placement and absorption of the ink on the page, the type of the handwriting, and the Coptic grammar and spelling, it was concluded that it is highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text. Although a final conclusion about the parchment's authenticity remains open to further examination by colleagues and to further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink, these assurances were sufficient for work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment to begin in earnest.
If authentic, this tiny, damaged fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians. The main topic of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is one that deeply concerned early Christians, who were asked to put loyalty to Jesus before their natal families, as the New Testament gospels show. Christians were talking about themselves as a family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother, and once of his wife—one of whom is identified as "Mary." The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that "she can be my disciple." Although this is less clear, it may be that by portraying Jesus as married, the Gospel of Jesus's Wife conveys a positive theological message about marriage and sexuality, perhaps similar to the Gospel of Philip’s view that pure marriage can be an image of divine unity and creativity.
This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. The Gospel of Jesus's Wife makes it possible to say with certainty that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. This conclusion potentially has significant implications for the history of ancient Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.
The real author of the gospel is not known and would likely remain unknown even if more of the text of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife had survived. This remaining piece is too small to tell us anything definite about who may have composed, read, or circulated it. Perhaps, like other gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip), this gospel was attributed pseudonymously to one or more of Jesus's closest followers, but that is only speculation. Its late date means that the author is not someone who knew Jesus personally.
The name, the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," has been given to the fragment simply so that there is a way to refer to it. It is not possible to know whether the word "gospel" would have been part of the ancient title of the work to which this fragment belongs. The subject matter of the text is similar to other texts in the gospel genre, which depict Jesus in dialogue with his disciples. The genre of gospel includes all early Christian literature whose narrative or dialogue encompasses some aspect of Jesus's career (including post-resurrection appearances) or which was designated as "gospel" already in antiquity. Two reasons for thinking of this fragment as a gospel are that 1) it presents a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, and 2) it discusses discipleship in terms similar to select passages in other early Christian gospels, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of the Egyptians. The use of the term "gospel" here makes absolutely no claim to canonical status or to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that "Jesus's wife" is the "author" of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather, the title refers to the fragment's most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.
The gospel fragment is a small, honey-colored piece of papyrus, measuring only four centimeters in height by eight centimeters wide, with writing in Coptic script on both sides. On one side there are eight incomplete lines of script (with illegible traces of a ninth line), and on the reverse side, there are six lines, but that side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible. Since there is writing on both sides of the fragment, it most probably belongs to an ancient papyrus book (codex) rather than a scroll, which would have had writing only on one side. Since there are no margins preserved and no other known copies of the same text that would help with reconstruction, it is not possible to estimate the original size of the page, let alone of the whole gospel.
One very likely possibility is that a papyrus fragment that is this damaged came from an ancient garbage heap, like almost all of the earliest fragments of the New Testament. Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt, where the dry climate allows ancient writings to survive, and because it is written in Coptic, the form in which the Egyptian language was written and used by Christians in Egypt beginning in the Roman imperial period (second to fifth centuries CE), when Egypt was increasingly becoming a vital center of early Christian activity.
The text of the fragment is written in Coptic, the primary form of the Egyptian language used by Christians in Egypt in the first centuries CE. Coptic uses letters from the Greek alphabet as well as some letters from an older Egyptian script called Demotic. We know that a substantial part of early Coptic literature was translated from Greek, so this fragment may also have originally been written in Greek, and was only later translated into Coptic for use among Coptic-speaking Christians.
Newly discovered papyrus writings like this one are dated by close examination of the materials (papyrus and ink) and by comparing the handwriting with known examples. Experienced papyrologists can see that the papyrus is clearly ancient, and chemical analysis of the ink will also be performed. The handwriting of the scribe who copied down the Gospel of Jesus's Wife most closely resembles other papyri from approximately the fourth century, although it seems the scribe wrote with a nubby pen that didn’t let the ink flow well, causing uneven letters and blotting.
Although the newly found material fragment of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife dates to the fourth century, it is a copy of an earlier copy which had probably been translated from a Greek copy. This means that the date of the material fragment is unlikely to be the date when the gospel was first composed; rather, it indicates that the gospel could not have been composed later than the fourth century. How much earlier might the Gospel of Jesus's Wife have been composed? Since it refers to Jesus and Mary, it had to have been written after the first century CE. This gospel likely dates to the second half of the second century, because it shows close connections to other gospels which were written during that time, in particular the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.
Nothing is known about the circumstances of its original discovery or early ownership, but there are some clues about its modern history. The earliest documentation about the fragment is a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus. It now belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted Karen L. King at Harvard Divinity School for help in identifying its contents.
Various previously unknown early Christian texts have come to light in the modern period. The most important of these in Coptic are the writings discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi; a book called the Berlin Codex, discovered at the end of the nineteenth century; and the Tchacos Codex, which came to light in the early 1990s. They contain a wide variety of literature, such as the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, the Gospel of Truth, and Thunder Perfect Mind, all available in English translation. These works are valuable in providing evidence for a fuller and more accurate history of the diverse forms, practices, and ideas held by early Christians in the earliest centuries after the death of Jesus.