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On the “Jesus’ wife” fragment

On the “Jesus’ wife” fragment

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.

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Jane Redmont

I'm of three (related) minds (and probably more) about this.

1) I think this is an exciting discovery and am curious about it in a geeky sort of way. I have the greatest respect for Prof. King and have used her scholarship on Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Mary in both my preaching and my teaching. I hope I can attend the webinar on Tuesday and I appreciate Deirdre/Prof. Good's clear presentation of the discovery.

2) Part of me just thinks "ho hum" about the matter of whether Jesus was married and about whether the fragment is "authentic" or not. This is not the first story outside the canonical gospels about details of the life of Jesus. My faith and life as a Christian probably won't be changed by this. (Of course, I could be wrong.) I've never been dependent on believing Jesus was celibate or sexually active, married or single, straight or gay or bi. He was, by all accounts (of believers and non-believers) fully human. Hence anything that is part of our common humanity is possible.

(So in that sense I am resonating with Julian's belly button story above.)

3) I found Deirdre's last paragraph most interesting and significant for my own reflection. What the fragment tells us is as much (or probably more) about the preoccupations of certain early Christian communities as about Jesus himself.

(This may be significant for the teaching of the history of Christianity.)

On a related matter, the discussion (in the newspapers, on Facebook, here, in faith communities, and at the water cooler) about this new piece of scholarly news tells us a lot as well! I'm actually rather interested in why and how HDS (full disclosure: like Deirdre I am an alumna and way back in the 1980s was the p.r. director for a few years, long before the internet and school websites) chose to spin this story. (I use "spin" as a neutral descriptive verb here.) I'm also always interested in how the various media report and cover this. As some of you above have noted, it's also interesting what people find significant about this discovery. I could say a lot more about this but this is a short version of much longer thoughts on the matter. Suffice it to say that we are dealing with text and hermeneutics as *we* receive the story about the papyrus, not just as we look at the papyrus and what it may tell us about early Christian communities and their preoccupations and perhaps about Jesus.

I have also become increasingly interested in Coptic Christianity (for reasons mostly outside this discussion) during the past year or so, so that is a "4th mind" in my response. I'm interested to learn more about what this tells us about Coptic Christian communities and their preoccupations and texts.

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Maplewood

Yes, it is no proof in any sense of the word that Jesus had a wife. That said, it is interesting to ponder.

Suppose that Jesus was married as a younger man and his wife and child both died in childbirth, which was pretty common back then. How differently we'd read the Scriptures if that were true!

I wish that Jesus had been married, simply because my marriage has been so wonderful. I can't imagine anything replacing the joy of love, and being loved.

Kevin McGrane

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deirdregood

Deirdre Good and Katherine Shaner, Professors of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, are hosting a webinar and informal presentation on Tuesday September 25th from 7.30pm - 9.30pm about a newly-unveiled papyrus fragment that includes an electrifying sentence suggesting that Christians in the late second century believed Jesus had been married. The fragment is intriguing both for what it says and for what it does not say. There will be ample opportunity for questions and discussion.

Register here: https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/927391862

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rank liturgist

Thanks for filling in some of the details -- very interesting.

It is fascinating looking around the web at comments below news reports on this subject and seeing the breadth of responses - especially interesting reading those who are threatened by this news and their efforts to debunk or denounce. Like the fragment itself, these comments seem to be more about the expectations and discussions of the day than anything else.

Andrew Wright

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Jules

My godson was born in Mexico, and one of my favorite stories about him took place in a typical South American Catholic church with large graphic crucifixes. He was a toddler at the time, and had just discovered his belly button. Right in the middle of Mass one Sunday he pointed up at the crucifix and declaimed loudly, "Jesus got a belly button!"

As a text, this is a great find and impressive scholarship, but I'm not sure Jesus' having a wife is much more surprising than his having a belly button. Unless of course one has invested an awful lot in Jesus' not having a wife....

julian sheffield

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