Is it a fake? More on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”

The New York Times has a follow-up on the sensational announcement this week in which scholars express both excitement and considerable skepticism about Karen King’s discovery. (My previous discussion is here).

Mark Goodacre links to a line-by-line takedown of the text by Francis Watson of Durham University. His summary:

Six of the eight incomplete lines of GJW recto are so closely related to the Coptic GTh,
especially to Sayings 101 and 114, as to make dependence virtually certain. A further line is derived
from Matthew; just one is left unaccounted for. The author has used a “collage” or “patchwork”
compositional technique, and this level of dependence on extant pieces of Coptic text is more plausibly
attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one. Indeed, the GJW
fragment may be designedly incomplete, its lacunae built into it from the outset. It does not seem
possible to fill these lacunae with GTh material contiguous to the fragments cited. The impression of
modernity is reinforced by the case in line 1 of dependence on the line-division of the one surviving
Coptic manuscript, easily accessible in modern printed editions. Unless this impression of modernity is
countered by further investigations and fresh considerations, it seems unlikely that GJW will establish
itself as a “genuine” product of early gospel writing.

An earlier post by Goodacre assembles links to some of those casting doubt on the text’s authenticity.

It turns out there is a documentary in the works.

The Significance of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”

Today, it’s splashed across the headlines. Yesterday, Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced at an international conference in Rome the discovery of a papyrus fragment in which Jesus seems to refer to his wife. Dan Brown must be thrilled.

But let’s take a step back and consider what we’ve got here.

  1. The text itself and its origin. The text came to King from a private source who remains anonymous; there are considerable gaps in the text itself, making a reconstruction of what actually lies on the page quite difficult. There is considerable work that needs to be done to ascertain the fragment’s age, authenticity, and what the text actually says.
  2. it’s written in Coptic, probably dating from the late fourth century (perhaps even later). King posits (based on what she considers “parallels” with the Gospel of Thomas and other texts) that it is a translation of a second-century Greek text. That’s quite a leap.
  3. Is it a gospel? King assigns it to this genre without strong supporting evidence. Jesus does seem to be speaking and the text refers to Mary but is that enough to tell us the larger textual context of the fragment we have?
  4. King did follow correct scholarly norms in announcing the find. She took it to scholars of Coptic and ancient papyri; she wrote an article that she submitted to scholarly review; she announced the find, not in a sensationalistic press conference or National Geographic TV special (as the Gospel of Judas was announced) but at a prestigious international conference; and she has provided scholars with everything they need to make their own judgments.
  5. Most importantly, as King stresses repeatedly, this text in no way proves Jesus was married. It provides no evidence concerning the historical Jesus.

So what does it mean?

If it’s proved authentic–a text dating from the late fourth century (I’m not speculating on whether it actually dates to the 2nd century)–what does it tell us about early Christian belief and practice?

Well, not a lot. That there were groups calling themselves Christian that had interesting and unconventional beliefs about Jesus is not news. By this time, there was a strong tendency toward ascetism in early Christianity that emphasized celibacy and chastity and looked at marriage with a critical eye. In earlier centuries, say the second and early third, there is evidence, cited by King in her draft article, that the debate whether Jesus had a wife was open, and that the belief he had a wife was used as justification for Christians practicing marriage.

Whatever the debates in early Christianity over marriage and celibacy, they provide little guidance for contemporary Christians who seek to follow Jesus. In our very different historical and cultural context, with radically different understandings of sexuality and human personhood, we have to look for moral guidance elsewhere than ambiguous texts from unknown sources.

Did Jesus have a wife?

Karen King of Harvard Divinity School made the announcement today.

From the New York Times:

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The press release from HDS might be available here. (h/t David Brakke)

Of course, as the Times piece points out, the fragment is hardly reliable historical evidence for the claim that Jesus was married. Written in Coptic, it dates from several centuries after Jesus’ death and its provenance is uncertain.