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Photo of the scrap of papyrus mentioning Jesus's wife

Posted: 26 September 2012

A small scrap of papyrus (the ancient Egyptian equivalent of paper) just 8 centimetres wide has caused a storm in the academic world and in the media by implying that Jesus had a wife. The papyrus, which is written in the Coptic language, apparently records a conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which he says ‘My wife…’ The rest of the sentence can only be guessed at as the papyrus is torn from a larger page.

The papyrus was discovered by a Harvard professor, Karen King, although she does not know where or when it was originally found. She believes the ink and papyrus date from the 4th century AD, and that the text may first have been written down as early as the 2nd century, within 200 years of Jesus’ life and death. Professor King has dubbed the text ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, although it is not known if it comes from a gospel or some other kind of work, such as a sermon.

Professor King says the papyrus does not prove that Jesus was married, as it was written so long after his lifetime. But she argues that it shows people were talking about Jesus’ marital status in the early centuries of the church, as part of ‘vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage.’

The seven most legible lines of handwriting (all of which are cut short by the torn edges of the papyrus) say this:

not to me. My mother gave to me life…
The disciples said to Jesus…
deny. Mary is [not] worthy of it…
Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…
she will be able to be my disciple…
Let wicked people swell up…
As for me, I will dwell with her in order to…

Kate Cooper, Professor of Ancient History at Manchester University, writing for the BBC website, says, ‘The new Jesus is a family man, willing to stick up for his wife and mother with his male disciples. The Gospel recounts a debate between Jesus and his disciples about the role of women, with Jesus taking the side of the women. He honours his mother by saying that she gave him life. He speaks also of his wife, naming her as a disciple and making her special role clear: “I will dwell with her”.’

Since the news broke on 18 September, the story has moved extremely quickly, and it has been revealed that the release of the news by Professor King was timed to perfection for the screening of a sensational TV documentary, The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which has been in production for months and airs on 30 September.

Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of New Testament at Duke University and blogger on the influential NT Blog, says, ‘There is something a touch disappointing about finding out that after all, the press releases were timed to coincide with the the pre-publicity for the documentary.’

Just three days after publication, Francis Watson, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, argued that the papyrus fragment might be a modern fake. ‘Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas,’ he says.

‘The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.’

Francis Watson has written a technical article on the issue, but also see his introduction and summary for general readers. He has also written a longer piece on the wider significance of the story, Inventing Jesus’ Wife.

Meanwhile, Mark Goodacre says, ‘there does not seem to be much doubt about the way that the wind is blowing, and there does seem to be sufficient doubt about the authenticity of the piece.’

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan