The Significance of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”

BCC has smart friends! We’re happy to have some expert commentary from guest Taylor Petrey.

Taylor G. Petrey is an assistant professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College and director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program.  He received his ThD from Harvard Divinity School in 2010 in New Testament and Early Christianity and is a fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

On Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 1:00 PM major media outlets announced the publication and translation of a small fragment of a Coptic manuscript, provocatively titled by its translator “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”  The manuscript represents the only ancient text in which Jesus refers to his “wife” in the first person.  In major media outlets the find is made relevant to the context of Catholic celibacy requirements for clergy, but the text is sure to be of interest to Latter-day Saints, some of whom have long theorized that Jesus may have been married.

In this text, Jesus is engaged in a dialogue with his disciples, apparently about women, family, and discipleship.  The text is likely a post-resurrection dialogue, though this cannot be said conclusively. The text makes mention of Jesus’s mother, his wife, someone named Mary, and the idea that, perhaps Jesus’s wife, may be his disciple.  See the New York Times article for a high-quality, zoomable view of the manuscript and translation of each line.  Another high quality image is available at the Harvard Divinity School website.  These few lines have resonance to other passages in the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas, and quite possibly represents another version of the debate about Mary Magdalene’s status as a disciple.

This exciting manuscript is presented by Dr. Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, a specialist in Coptic Christian texts.  (Full disclosure: Dr. King is my Doktormutter.)  She discusses the find and the significance of the text in his brief video. It was presented to her by a currently anonymous collector.  The collector reports that the fragmentary text was bought as part of a larger collection of ancient manuscripts.  It came with a note from some (now deceased) German scholars stating that the fragment includes a first person statement by Jesus speaking about “my wife…” and the collector sought Dr. King’s verification on this point first in 2010, though she did not obtain the document until December 2011.

Dr. King has rightly cautioned that this text does not shed any light on the historical Jesus, namely, what the first-century Jewish teacher from the Galilee actually said or did.  Rather, it is evidence of an early Christian interest in representing Jesus as married.  The existence of the text reveals that early Christians, beginning in the second century, disputed whether Jesus was celibate or married.  They looked to Jesus’s own practices to settle the issue of Christian attitudes toward marriage and sexual intercourse.  In fact, early Christians never really asked the question about Jesus’s marriage and sex life until the second century, in the context of disputes about the value of the family vs. sexual renunciation in early Christian communities.  Even after the discovery of this manuscript, there remains no definitive evidence about the historical Jesus’s marital status either way, though the lack of any mention of a wife among the male and female disciples of Jesus in the gospels and Pauline texts is notable.  Some gospel and Pauline traditions make reference to the wives of some of the other early disciples, including Peter.

LDS traditions about Jesus being married do not derive from any of the canonical sources.  As far as I am aware, the first mentions of the teaching about Jesus being married date to the early Utah period, connect Jesus to polygamous practices (specifically citing Mary and Martha), and hypothesize that the wedding at Cana was Jesus’s own wedding.  These creative readings of the Bible were meant to authorize Mormonism’s own marriage practices, and were the logical extension of the doctrines of celestial marriage and sealing as a prerequisite to exaltation.  Not all LDS traditions have required that Jesus was married and sealed in mortality, suggesting that he may have been married in the afterlife because of the special conditions of his mission in mortality would have prevented it.  Officially, the Church has stated that there is no official teaching on the matter.

The LDS tradition that Jesus may have been married is certainly not unique in Christianity.  In more modern history, pro-marriage parts of the Protestant Reformation that rejected Catholic teachings on celibacy have flirted with the idea that Jesus was married.  In medieval tradition, the idea that Jesus was not only married but had descendants was a part of some dynastic legends.  Twentieth and twenty-first century stories, like those in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and of course Dan Brown’s massively successful novel, The DaVinci Code follow in this long tradition.  The LDS hypothesis that Jesus was married may be situated in this long-standing counter-claim to normative Christianity.  Both the claim and the counter-claim are made to justify particular practices or statuses by appealing to Jesus as the source of their authority.  The claims tell us little about the historical Jesus himself, but reveal a great deal about how different groups in history have appealed to Jesus’s authority on this issue.  What this new text reveals is just how long this debate within Christianity has been going on.

The text is just eight fragmentary lines on one side of a papyrus sheet smaller than a business card, with a few fragmentary words on the reverse.  No single line is complete, but the words are almost all clearly written and preserved.  It was probably originally part of a codex and has been torn from a page, perhaps by a manuscript dealer in order to have more pieces to sell, and has no margins on either side.  How much of each line is missing is unknown.

From initial reports, Dr. King obtained the manuscript from the current owner and began a process of verification with papyrological, epigraphical, and linguistic experts.  The text contains many features that would be extremely difficult to fake.  According to these initial examinations of the manuscript, its writing, and its language, these scholars have provisionally authenticated the text as a fourth-century text, perhaps representing a copy of an original text as early as the second century. (Full disclosure: two of the three consulted scholars mentioned by name are AnneMarie Luijendijk and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, who were my Coptic teachers many years ago.) Many Coptic texts are translations of Greek originals, and there is no reason to rule out that this text too is derived from an original Greek composition.  Carbon dating of the ink would be too destructive to the small text, but some chemical analysis is currently underway and the results will be included in the final publication of Dr. King’s forthcoming article in the January edition of the Harvard Theological Review.

Major questions remain about this text, including its provenance, more accurate dating, and further scholarly reflection on the meaning of the lines on issues of kinship, gender, and sexuality in early Christian communities. No doubt a continued discussion of its authenticity will be undertaken by experts, and any definitive scholarly conclusions about the text should wait for such further analysis.  Nevertheless, the strong possibility that this text is authentic represents a significant contribution to our understanding of second to fourth century Christianity.

Comments

  1. I was just reading about this elsewhere. It appears that the consensus is that the fragment is an authentic Coptic text from sometime in the second century and not a forgery, but Dr, King clearly draws a line on whether the information in the text is historically accurate. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. There is also a Smithsonian channel special scheduled to air later this month about the fragment.

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    Taylor, can you explain a bit more about the medieval dynastic legends you refer to? I’m not familiar with those.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t dating it to the second century make it roughly as historically accurate as most of the books of the New Testament.

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  4. BTD Greg, the second century date makes it as old as most of the books of the New Testament. Being a Coptic text means it is from Egypt, as I understand it, and more similar to other Coptic gospels of that same era, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary. None of these are considered canonical, which would have been the better way of saying it rather than historically accurate.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Taylor. I saw a news crawl this morning that said something like “New discovery suggests Jesus was married” (rather than something more accurate like “New discovery suggests some early Christians believed Jesus was married.”) I immediately felt sorry for Karen; she was at pains to qualify this point, but it is obvious that the nuances are lost on the media.

    If anyone would like to read the actual (provisonal) Harvard Theological Review article, you’ll find it here: http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf
    I just finished reading it. It is long and technical for the average reader, but I thought it was excellent. (I noticed a half-dozen typos, which I presume will be cleaned up before the dead tree publication in January.)

    I was interested in this partly because I studied Sahidic Coptic in college. My Coptic is very rusty because I hardly ever have occasion to use it, but I think with a grammar in one hand and a lexicon in the other, I could ride the English translation pony pretty well and follow along with the transcribed text. Here’s a word that should jump out at you guys: When you look at the picture in the New York Times article, in a couple of places (including right in the middle of the text), you’ll see what looks like IC with a line over it. That’s the nomen sacrum for the name “Jesus.” The I is the first letter of his name, the C the last (lunate sigma), and the bar over it indicates an abbreviation. This was a common way of writing his name in early Christian manuscripts, and was the first thing that jumped out at me when I saw the picture.

    In fn 74 she suggests that the countours of the argument over whether Jesus was married can be traced by reading Willam E. Phipps (pro) and John P. Meier (con). Folks might be interested to learn that Phipps actually published a short treatment of this subject in Dialouge: A Journal of Mormon Thought, a long time ago. You can read it here: http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V07N04_46.pdf

  6. Jonathan@2,
    That is more your period than mine, and your questioning of it has got me thinking that I may be taking some of the medieval claims to a Jesus bloodline tradition uncritically. IIRC, the Cathars believed that Jesus was married to Mary, but I don’t know if they did anything politically with that claim. If you’ve got a good source talking about the tradition in the Middle Ages, let me know!

  7. Thanks Kevin for providing the link to the draft of the HTR article! (Among the typos in the article is a misspelling of my name in footnote 133). The article is still a draft, as it says, so it is incredibly generous that it has been made available to the public in advance of final publication.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Speaking of Jesus bloodline traditions, not only was there speculation about a married Jesus among Church leaders in the 19th century (including the spin of polygamous marriage), there were also Mormon Jesus bloodline traditions, to the effect that Joseph Smjith and some of the other prophets and apostles of the 19th century were descendants of Jesus. This was even reiterated more recently in that book by Vern Swanson, Dynasty of the Holy Grail. Of course, this old Mormon bloodline thought doesn’t work, because these folks didn’t understand population dynamics. If Jesus had children such that he had a posterity that exists to today, then (almost) everyone alive today is descended from Jesus. That was something that bugged me about The Da Vinci Code; that Jesus would have a single descendant on the earth today doesn’t make any sense.

  9. Robert Bennett says:

    Nice review and comments to put things into some perspective… I have a strong inclination to believe that the man, Jesus, was married and had children. btw – I know that He is the Son of God. In the south of France, there is a tradition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary of Magdala arriving on the southern shores of ancient Gaul. Good to hear from you Taylor!

  10. Fantastic. So great to have an expert like Taylor to explain the broader issues and implications of this momentous find. Ironically, I was at a religion colloquium at Harvard’s Divinity School last night, and this was obviously a main point of discussion; it was fun to hear the background story to the text’s verification from the Dean, not to mention more analysis from the faculty’s experts.

    “It was probably originally part of a codex and has been torn from a page, perhaps by a manuscript dealer in order to have more pieces to sell, and has no margins on either side.  How much of each line is missing is unknown.”

    There are few better examples of the “problem of evil” than this.

  11. Thanks for the article Taylor. While it is doubtful that the codex will be found, it is nevertheless an interesting find.

  12. Maxine Hanks says:

    Thanks Taylor, a very nice recap and discussion.

    I was ecstatic to learn of this yesterday. I’ve expected something like this for years, due to other clues that suggest the idea was around as early as 2nd century or earlier… ala Thomas and John. Now that this idea shows up textually, ahem, it refutes the dismissal by many scholars as originating in Medieval romance, thus having nothing to do with early Christianities. I was happy to see that dismissal blown out of the water.

    The text that first came to mind was Philip, which resembles this text, an especially nice resonance given the nature of Philip (as a mystery of the bridal chamber). It also has resemblance to the Gospels of Mary and Thomas, giving additional credence to the authenticity of such an idea appearing in gnostic texts.

    The Magdalen shows up literally and suggestively in Medieval legend, romance, heresy, and especially art, even watermarks. Images depict her as everything from the the penitent sinner to pious disciple, and secret lover to woman with the alabaster jar (Mary of Bethany). Starbird’s book by that name traces some of the Medieval legends, as do other books.

    I published a brief essay about the Mormon view of Magdalen as Jesus’ wife (Secrets of Mary Magdalene, 2006, edited too short and sans footnotes…), noting that although the idea had precedence in Medieval and British Israelite tradition, thus crossed the water into American Christianity, I dont think that’s where Joseph Smith got it, nor from the Masons, who don’t offer that idea. I think he derived it from his own study and interpretation of the NT — his source is biblical and based in notions of chosen lineage, the idea of the royal priesthood lineage being continued after Jesus’ death.

    One source that does tie this uniquely Mormon version of the legend to Joseph Smith is Brigham’s explanation of Joseph’s claim in King Follet “no man knows my history” — which Brigham says refers to Joseph being descended from the chosen lineage of Jesus. I mention this and other refs in the 2006 essay I wrote.

    I loved reading Karen’s article (and her comment about how the previous standard position will now have to be questioned). I was supposed to be at HDS this week but had to cancel my trip, now wish I’d been there for the news. This is as exciting as having the Gospel of Judas announced while I was at HDS in 2006.

    Congrats on making it into the footnotes…

  13. My Sahidic Coptic is also very rusty, but sometimes I try to strike up conversations with the Egyptian cashier at our local Walmart. Let me just say that she is REALLY old.

  14. Adamjpowell says:

    Not sure if this was already corrected, but the New Testament books definitely date to the first century. James is probably from the 40’s with Paul and the Gospels following in subsequent decades. Even if this discovery is actually a Coptic translation of an originally Greek text, it still would be late second century at the earliest. This does place it close to other texts like Thomas. Adding to the confusion, however, is that it would also be close in temporal proximity to Clement of Alexandria who specifically mentions that some in his day wanted to justify Christian celibacy by appealing to the seemingly taken-for-granted belief that Jesus was celibate.

  15. Last Lemming says:

    Catholics believe that Christ was “married to the Church,” and would undoubtedly interpret Jesus’ “wife” from this fragment in that context. Until we have something that identifies the wife as a specific person, we don’t really have very much.

  16. What is interesting is the bulk of the discussion on the articles around the news are based on the misunderstanding encouraged by the newspapers: that this is proof that Jesus was married.

  17. Sharee Hughes says:

    I have no problem believing that Jesus was married. Makes perfect sense to me. Long before Holy Blood, Holy Grail, (and when Dan Brown was just knee high to a grasshopper) a religion professor professor at Church College of Hawaii taught us that the scripture about the branch of Jesse and the stem of Jesse, etc. was saying that Joseph Smith was descended from Christ. He believed that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s wife, and said it was also possible that Mary and Martha were as well (he even thought Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene may have been the same person). His reasoning was the intimate relationships Jesus had with the Bethany family and with Mary Magdalene. Works for me. It’s the people who think sex is nasty and just one of those things humans have to endure that think Christ should have been celibate. Those who recognize sex as divine have less problem accepting that the Son of God could have had a wife.

  18. My Sahidic Coptic is non-existent, but it won’t stop me from commenting. So, I can no longer complain about my husband being gone for hours serving in the church? Jesus’ wife/wives had him gone for years! I do have to say that I always thought the women who went to anoint Christ’s body with spices had to have somewhat of an intimate relationship with him as that is such an intimate act usually performed by family members.

    My issue is with demigods running around, although I do think that is where mythology got a lot of its stories from. So when we are told our nature is divine, it means physically/literally? Pretty wild concept for me. As one who struggled with infertility, I used to think that maybe Christ and/or his wife may have also struggled with this. Does no one else have issue with demigods? Did they only have half of a carnal nature to overcome? 3/4?

  19. And now it seems the tide has shifted and many experts are declaring the codex fragment a forgery. Interesting that the Vatican has come out so vocally on it – wonder if they have additional motivation here.

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