by Deirdre Good
Reposted with edits:
Academic conferences are not usually electrifying. But on Tuesday September 18th at 7pm, at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, the last speaker in the evening panel “Gnosticism and Manichaeism,” announced the discovery of a fourth century Coptic papyrus fragment. The tiny fragment, scarcely bigger than an NYC Metro Card, contains the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…” In subsequent material, Prof King has named the Coptic fragment, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” as part of a longer text. The website of Harvard Divinity School has published an image, transcription and translation of the text here, together with an FAQ and a draft of an academic article about the text to be published in HTR (Harvard Theological Review) in January 2013. The Smithsonian channel will premier a documentary about the discovery on September 30th, 2012.
The FAQ documents the earliest reference to the fragment in 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.
The fragment seems genuine and not a forgery, although not much is yet known about its provenance. It belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted Prof King several years ago. The fragment carefully examined by several people including eminent papyrologist Prof Roger Bagnall of New York University, and Ariel Shisha HaLevy, Professor of Linguistics at Hebrew University , a leading expert on Coptic language, who concluded that “the language itself offered no evidence of forgery.” The size of the fragment warrants further investigation—it would be helpful to reconstruct how might it have been removed from a larger codex and whether there are other similarly-sized fragments already in existence.
The recto of the fragmentary Coptic text can be viewed here with magnification and provisionally translated thus (square brackets indicate reasonable conjectures):
1. not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe
2. the disciples said to Jesus [
3.deny. Mariam is worthy of it [
4. …..Jesus said to them, ‘My wife [and…
5. …..she will be able to be my disciple [
6. Let wicked people swell up [
7. As for me, I exist with her because [
8. ] an image [
The verso has only isolated words. The translation of the recto above indicates that the text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ opening words, “My mother gave me life…” may refer to the Holy Spirit. Both Origen On John 2.12 and Jerome On Micah 7.6, preserve a quotation from a lost Gospel of the Hebrews in which Jesus says, “Even so did my mother the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away on the great mountain of Tabor.” Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 that his birth mother “gave him death” but his true mother (perhaps the Holy Spirit) “gave him life.” Similarly, in the new fragment, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit gave him life. Next comes the disciples’ response. Perhaps they query whether women are worthy of life since Jesus then responds that Mary (Mariam) is worthy. Then Jesus says “his wife [and]..” will be able to be his disciple. The next line speaks of wicked people who perhaps think otherwise. Jesus then speaks of himself existing with her for unknown reasons or purpose.
It is not difficult to place the fragment in a Valentinian Christian orbit. The Gospel of Philip 9, 6-11 describes Mary as Jesus’ “sister, mother and companion.” This is analogous to the description of Jesus’ wife in the fragment who may or may not be Mary. Moreover, the conjectured word “and” after Jesus’ words, “My wife” in the fragment indicates that Jesus is not saying something like, “My wife, the…” Professor King is careful to say that this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. What it does indicate is that some Christians in the second-century claimed that Jesus was married and that such a discussion belongs in second century debates about marriage and discipleship where it will have a wider resonance.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.