Did Jesus Have a Wife?

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Peter Williams, the Warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, just sent out this evaluation of the manuscript discovery that to some people suggests Jesus was married. It also includes the evaluation by Dr. Simon Gathercole, another expert in these matters. Dr. Darrell Bock has also weighed in on this issue.

Did Jesus have a wife?

The Web is by now awash with stories of an ancient text in which Jesus says 'my wife'. The story which broke yesterday in the New York Times and some other sources, is being carried today by outlets too numerous to list. Some of the reporting is responsible, but not all. Consider this extract from The Daily Mail:

"If genuine, the document casts doubt on a centuries old official representation of Magdalene as a repentant whore and overturns the Christian ideal of sexual abstinence."

We are of course in a context where there is so much ignorance of basic facts about Christianity that even when the media properly relay facts they get completely distorted and misunderstood in popular perception. This can be seen in the way derivative media put spin on the story and in the online comments below the news items.

Here we try to establish a few facts.

The scholarly article upon which almost all knowledge of the fragment is based is here (PDF).

What do we know from this?

What's in a name?

First, let's start with the name. The scholar involved, Professor Karen King of Harvard, has decided to call this The Gospel of Jesus's Wife. However, it might more appropriately be named The Fragment about Jesus's Relations, since there's no evidence that it was called a gospel and the text mentions at least two family members. Of course, such a name would not generate the same publicity. Despite this unfortunate choice of name, Professor King is to be commended for publishing a good photograph and detailed scholarly analysis of the fragment simultaneously with the press release. Usually in the case of controversial text the media hype comes long before the availability of the text.

Genuine or forgery?

Professor King has provided pictures of the papyrus, but it is not publicly known who owns it, or where it came from. If genuine, it almost certainly came from Egypt because that is where papyri like this are found.

Because it was not found in situ it is obviously possible to doubt its genuineness. Scholars at Tyndale House think that, on the basis of the limited evidence currently available, it is possible it is genuine, though there are good reasons for scepticism — see the comments of Dr Christian Askeland, an expert in Coptic manuscripts.

What about date?

It is written in Coptic, the language of Egypt which descended from the even earlier language of the Hieroglyphs. Coptic is Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet with a few extra letters. Because Coptic was only emerging as a written language in the third century and papyrus went out of use in the seventh century the 8 cm x 4 cm fragment has to be dated some time from the third to the seventh century and the scholars involved with this fragment have stated that it is fourth century on the basis of the handwriting.

Since we have virtually no firmly dated Coptic handwriting, this date is just an educated guess.

Then we turn to the date of the contents. Here Professor King puts the text in the late second century, but all that we really know is that the text is at least as old as the manuscript.

The papyrus at the centre of the publicity

What does it say?

This is King's translation of the text, with square brackets used where the text does not survive:

FRONT:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”

2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[

3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[

4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[

5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [

6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [

7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [

8] an image [

BACK:

1 ] my moth[er

2 ] three [

3 ] … [

4 ] forth which … [

5 ] (illegible ink traces)

We believe this to be a largely reliable translation. But is it evidence that Jesus had a wife? The answer is an emphatic 'no'. Not even Karen King is claiming that it is, though it's inevitable that some of the news outlets will present it otherwise.

What we have here is a typical sort of text which arose after Christianity had become very popular and when derivatives of Christianity began to emerge. The language of the text is very similar to the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 101 and 114, and the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 shows influence of Luke 14:26, as the Gospel of Thomas does elsewhere. This way of speaking belongs to the mid-second century or later, in other words generations later than the books of the New Testament.

We asked Dr Simon Gathercole, an expert on apocryphal gospels and Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the University of Cambridge, for his comments.

He concluded: "Harvard Professor Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus. She is correct that "its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus". But she is also right that this is a fascinating discovery which offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate. If it is genuine.

Best wishes,

Peter Williams,
Warden, Tyndale House, Cambridge

PS from BiblicalTraining: The Tyndale House is a study center in Cambridge and well worth our financial support.

SCHOLARS HAVE NOT FULLY EXAMINED THIS FRAGMENT. WHETHER IT DATES ,AS SUGGESTED, THERE WERE MANY WITH THE NAME OF JESUS. JESUS, THE REAL ONE, HAS A BRIDE, THE CHURCH. I AM SURE THAT ONCE EXAMINED IT WILL GO THE WAY OF OTHER NON-CANONICAL WRITINGS. AS FOR AS IT MAKING US REALIZE  THERE WAS SEXUAL TENSION IN THE APOSTOLIC AND POST- APOSTOLIC PERIOD , THIS IS VERIFIED BY PAUL CENSURING THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH FOR ITS FAILURE TO DEAL WITH THE MAN AND HIS FATHER'S WIFE ( 1 CORINTHIANS 5:1-13). I AM SURE THE POST-STRUCTURALISTS AND THOSE THAT PRAY THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS WILL BE  CANONICAL WILL GO ON A FEEDING FRENZY THAT, AS ALL TEMPESTS IN A TEA CUP, WILL SUBSIDE.I HAVE ONLY SEEN PICTURES OF THE PAPYRUS. ITS AGE MAY TURN OUT TO BE AUTHENTIC, BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THE SEARCH FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS HAS LINED UP AT THE STARTING LINE AND LET THE RACES BEGIN! I AM AFRAID THOSE HORSES HAVE GOTTEN TIRED. HOWEVER, IT IS SENSATIONAL NEWS AND MANY PERHAPS WILL GET THEIR BOOK AND LECTURE MONIES.

larry pearson 4:14pm September 20, 2012

Since this is the first time we discovered an ancient text (if genuine) that tells about Jesus having a wife, I can say that this will not threatened Christendom.

I say this because first, it is the first time and the only text that tells about  Jesus and his wife named Mary.  There is no other ancient documents that supports this story of Jesus Christ on having a wife/wives. 

Second, the name Jesus and Mary were common in those days, so there is a great possibility of a different Jesus and Mary.

Thirdly, this might be another writing of the gnostics or someone else who tried to confuse the Christians in those days.

And lastly, this sole text cannot disprove the numerous ancient writings including the letters of the church fathers which clearly tells us that Jesus is single and have never been married.

We can say this because the Jews who hated Him have searched for faults, wrong doings so that they might charge Him or kill Him but they found nothing against Him. If Jesus took Mary as His wife the disciples could have known it and likely the Scribes, Saducees and Pharisees have recorded it, but there is no record of Jesus  wedding in the Gospels and the Jews today would testify about. If there is no wedding ceremony, then it is fornication- a great offense worthy of death. The Jews who hated Him in His time could have celebrated earlier than 33 AD.


Jesus wedding never took place on earth, but will be in heaven, the Wedding of the Lamb, to His Bride the Church.

theologianz 6:33pm September 20, 2012

These things come out from time to time... remember the Gospel of Judas?

~ I think that they are good opportunities to deepen our own understanding of the Bible and also to teach people about the background of the Bible and other such things. 

Now while on the net, there are a lot of people who just do not listen to anything you have to say, no matter how reasonable it is - in our daily lives there are a lot open ears. So it beehoves us to study the issue and teach people a thing or two about this and whatever else is in the pipeline for the future.  We all benefit.

"Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season" ~ 2 Tim. 4:2

arajrao 8:04am September 21, 2012

Here is what I find interesting.  After centuries of battle to show the authenticity of the scriptures, the media is willing to jump on an incomplete 6 word line from a 2nd or 3rd century fragment.  I wonder why there is a comma in that line(4), why not a period, thus, seperating the two statements?

[email protected] 8:07am September 21, 2012

On reading this fragment I immediately thought of those other apocryphal gospels that some make such a fuss about. The only concern is that, as has been said already, it only gives yet more ammunition to those hostile to the truth of scripture. On a positive note, this straw thrown against a brick wall, will quickly fall to the ground. Our present canon of scripture is still more than safe.

Richard Beaney 7:07am September 29, 2012