Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife

You know when it's a big breaking news story when your phone is pinging all day with people asking, "Hey, have you heard about this?", "What do you think?", "Is there anything in it?" and so on.  Actually, it's going to provide a fantastic teaching opportunity (or two) for me this semester, especially as I am running my Non-canonical Gospels class at the moment, and we are in the middle of looking at the Gospel of Thomas, with other important related texts like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip to come.

I am referring, of course, to what has been labelled The Gospel of Jesus' Wife, announced today and covered in many media outlets, two of the fullest and most prominent of which are the following:

by Laurie Goodstein (New York Times)

Lisa Wangsness (Boston Globe)

A quick google news search will reveal many, many more pieces.  I rather like the Globe headline, which illustrates nicely why it is that other news outlets go for something a touch more sensational.  

The gist of the story is that Prof. Karen King from Harvard Divinity School has published a papyrus fragment that appears to date to the late fourth century, a fragment that appears to be from a hitherto unknown, unpublished Gospel.  No one knows where the piece comes from or what the date of the literary work might be.  It is therefore labelled by means of its most distinctive feature, where Jesus seems to refer to "my wife"!

Not surprisingly, the bloggers have been doing sterling work on the story all day, with an excellent round-up of lots of the key posts over on James McGrath's Exploring Our Matrix.

It is difficult to get on top of the find in one evening, especially when it's an evening that has been filled with all the other usual grind through emails and admin., but I'd like to offer one or two initial impressions, with the hope that I will be able to offer more in due course.

(1) The way that this has been handled by Karen King and the others who have been involved (Harvard Divinity School; AnneMarie Luijendijk etc.) is exemplary.  They have avoided sensation, they have not rushed to judgement and they have not used the media as the primary outlet for publication.  Harvard Divinity School have published a helpful press release:

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus

It features a high-definition picture of the fragment in question, an FAQ aimed at journalists, and most importantly a draft of King's forthcoming article offering a detailed and balanced study of the fragment:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus
by Karen L. King
with contributions by AnneMarie Luijendijk

The article runs to a whopping 52 pages (and a lot of typos) but it is clear and informative and it is a nice gift to scholars and students to make this peer-reviewed article available several months ahead of publication in Harvard Theological Review.  (See also the New York Times piece for a superb magnifying glass effect for looking closely at the fragment).

[Note added 24 October: the draft article now appears also appears here, and this is now the version linked on the above site.]

(2) The fragment appears to be genuine but some will definitely want to place a question mark over its authenticity until more study can be done.  The fact that it has a bit of Da Vinci Code frisson inevitably inclines one to question the piece, but sometimes fascinating discoveries do coincide with popular cultural obsessions.  The Gospel of Judas, for example, is a genuine ancient text in spite of the fact that its fascination with Judas coheres with our culture's interest in the character over the last generation or two.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to read in Karen King's article that one of the three referees, for Harvard Theological Review, was sceptical about the authenticity of the piece.

(3) Karen King and others have repeatedly, rightly stressed that the fragment tells us nothing about the historical Jesus and whether or not he was married.  It is a fragmentary witness of a work that may date as early as the late second century, but it is a work that does not tell us anything about Mrs. Jesus.  It's not what the press will want to hear, and there is no doubt that there will be lots of hang-wringing and stomping up and down from scholars all too eager to spoil the media's party.

(4) The text really does seem to presuppose that Jesus had a wife.  In Jesus' speech, he uses the Coptic phrase tahime, "My wife".  He speaks similarly, in the same fragment, of "My mother", tamaau.  Jesus also refers to "Mary" but the text is too fragmentary for one to be able to conclude whether the name refers to his wife or mother or both.

(5) Even though the fragment has only a few lines, it definitely evokes the atmosphere of other second and third century Gospels, especially the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary.  One of the strongest passages in King's article looks at the similarities between the new find and two famous passages in the Gospel of Philip.  The fragment instantly reminded me of Gospel of Philip 59, which speaks about Jesus' relationship with his mother, his sister and his companion, all of whom were called Mary (King, 37-9 etc.).

(6) I am not a papyrologist but I can't get over how amateurish and blotchy the fragment's text looks.  It is clearly written by someone using a thick nibbed pen and it looks weird.  Several letters are particularly bold, as if someone has written over them them for emphasis, including TA, the "my" in "my wife".

Well, these are just a few initial thoughts.  I'm looking forward to reading more and hearing more about the unknown gnostic Mrs Jesus in this mysterious fragment of an enigmatic work.


Anonymous said...

It does get frustrating to watch my facebook wall after a story like this comes out. Even though Dr. King has handled herself well, people still sensationalize the story and its claims. Almost makes it harder to appreciate the actual value of the discovery.

Anonymous said...

"(4) The text really does seem to presuppose that Jesus had a wife. In Jesus' speech, he uses the Coptic phrase tahime, "My wife"."

One of the problems with the fragment is found here. The text may contain the correct words BUT Jesus is NOT saying he has a wife. Some guy in the 4th century is saying that and there is no hope of discovering motive of the author or evidence that he is actually writing something true (though we know he isn't).

For all we know the author, if the fragment is authentic, is merely writing a piece of historical fiction and altering the characters to fit his point of view or exploring the idea of what life would be like if Jesus had married.

Ancient documents do not over-rule the Bible and if they disagree with the biblical record then it i snot the Bible that is in error.

Andy Rowell said...

Less seriously on Twitter:

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 8: "We need milk. It's just on the other side of the lake there." #JesusWifeGospel

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 7: "I see the way Mary Magdalen looks at you."

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 6: "You could feed the 5000 but you couldn't stop to buy a roasted chicken on your way home."

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 5: "You spend more time with your men's group than you do with me."

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 4: "You sure are a Daddy's boy."

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 3: "You just think you're perfect, don't you?"

The Gospel According to Jesus' Wife, part 2: "The Healing of the Missed-Anniversary Flesh Wound"...

Now that we know that Jesus had a wife, I hope we will discover the lost passages, such as "The Miracle of the Washed Dishes"....

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark:

I don't know if you can read speak or read Spanish.

If you can, there is an interesting post of Dr. Xabier Pikaza:

"some Christians...thought the believing soul is the wife of Jesus and celebrated a kind of sacrament of the sacred marriage of the Christian faithful of God in Christ

This Jesus speaks of his "wife". But in this context the wife is not a physical woman (a person) ... and the relationship of Jesus with her ​​are not of type "marital", but are in line with the gnostic revelation (mystical type)"

Anonymous said...
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Fai Mao said...

How big is a fragment?

Can the context be seen?

For example let me make up a parable that might appear in a pseudo gospel;

"There was a certain man who traveling to a distant land said to himself; "Behold it is not good to leave my family here in this this place. Therefore lest they fall into destitution while I am gone or I fall into temptation from the wiles of foreign women let me take my wife" Jesus said. Then turning to his disciples he admonished them; "Likewise, you should not allow those I give you to fall into destitution. Keep them near you, care for them and by doing so you keep yourself from falling away from the way which I have showed you.

That is a very different passage than saying Jesus refers to his wife even though in the middle of the passage4 it clearly says my wife, Jesus said.

So what does the whole passage say?

Anonymous said...

In all the years the Jesus and MAry M. romantic link has been discussed, has anyone ever raised the question--

Was Mary M. married to another man at the time Jesus knew her?

I have only seen the assumption that she was single and interested in Jesus. The scriptures certainly do not detail her personal life so why hasn't this issue been raised before?

Why should we automatically assume that Mary M. was not married to another guy?

Jean Oliver said...
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Souheil Bayoud said...
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