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"Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

Nothing calls to mind my latent fantasies of an Indiana Jones lifestyle more than a new fragmentary Coptic papyrus about Jesus' "wife." I will confess that, as a reader/teacher of Coptic and a papyrologist, this was a pretty awesome afternoon. I was giddy like a child. Please, can someone need me on a plane to Cairo immediately? I have the hat already. And I can get the whip on the way to the airport.[caption id="attachment_20817" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Karen L. King"]Karen L. King[/caption]The phone didn't ring, so I settled in to assess the new papyrus. After scrutinizing the wonderfully high-resolution photograph offered in Laurie Goodstein's New York Times piece, I would like first to commend Karen King of Harvard for the ways in which she has presented this fragment to the world. Nowhere in her quotations or the manuscript of her forthcoming article does she engage in the kind of grandstanding that would be so tempting in her situation. Does this fragment prove that Jesus was married? In King's sober evaluation:

No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus's marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century CE, so if the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was also composed in the second century CE, it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus's marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began using Jesus's marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now the Gospel of Jesus's Wife shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.

Next I would like to clarify, for readers unfamiliar with the scholars cited, that a consensus analysis by Karen King (Harvard), Roger Bagnall (NYU), and AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton) is not likely to be incorrect. (For example, many papyrologists would say that Roger Bagnall is the most well-respected papyrologist in the world, like a living library of the collected wisdom of the field.) With the added weight of linguist Ariel Shisha-Halevy (Hebrew Univ.), the initial assessments of the fragment are on very solid ground.Regarding the content of the fragment and how it might be situated in historical, literary, and theological context, King's forthcoming article is characteristically astute and balanced. The text deals with the "worthiness" of women to be "disciples," an issue which arises in other noncanonical literature of the 2nd-3rd centuries (e.g., Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas). (A minor quibble with King's transcription on this point is that I do not see traces of a letter after the alpha that ends line 3, which is offered as a possible nu, thus rendering the sentence possibly negated. It's possible that the top layer of fibers have worn off there at the edge, which could only be judged by examining the papyrus in person.) In addition to the question of women's worthiness, the question of Jesus' origin with his mother is also already a subject of the Gospel of Thomas (logion 101), which may be a variation on the topic with which this fragment begins.

The new content, though, for scholars of early Christianity is the undeniable "my wife." The primary text to discuss wife / husband and bride / bridegroom similarly in the period under consideration is the fragmentary and tantalizing Gospel of Philip, a text usually affiliated with the Valentinian school of thought that developed out of Gnosticism. Imagery of Christ as Bridegroom is present in the New Testament, of course, but the Gospel of Philip significantly develops the theme. The symbol of the "bridal chamber" as a sacramental ritual or, more likely in my opinion, a synecdoche for the aggregate rituals of initiation (anointing, baptism, professions of fidelity, eucharistic feast) is best attested in the Gospel of Philip.One point on which I would like to hear King speak further is the issue of whether "wife" in this context is more likely to an unconsummated, spiritual marriage, such as those championed by ascetic literature from the same time period (especially Thomasine literature: Gospel of Thomas and Acts of Thomas). If the best kinds of "wife" and "husband" in these possibly related texts were those living celibately, then is it more likely that this new fragment uses "wife" in a spiritual sense?That would not diminish the interest of the fragment, since then the likely conclusion would be that Jesus was presented as living in a celibate, spiritual marriage with his "wife" as an "image" of the heavenly union of the Savior and Sophia (so Hans-Martin Schenke in his commentary on the Gospel of Philip, Das Philippus-Evangelium, 1997). Perhaps the "image" (eikon) mentioned in the last line of the fragment suggests such a reading.On the other hand, the fragment's initial defense of Jesus' mother, who gave him life, may be referring to his physical mother and not some spiritual, antemortal mother, and in that case, the fragment might be a flesh-and-body-affirming rejoinder to the ascetic and body-rejecting tendencies of many strains of early Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Thomas 101).What a day! More if and when we have it.


Commenting Guidelines

In less than 3 weeks, Pope Benedict will name the 4th woman Doctor of the Church.

Whoa, I say a lot of things on here, but I didn't spectulate whatever about who no Mary Magdalene on the papyrus. (Re: "Im with Jean Raber, who commented on another thread that she hopes Mary Mags wasnt married, and not to Jesus. Shes pretty cool on her own")"So what if Im inflexible? (An unattractive trait for a woman?)" I'd say that was an unattractive trait for anybody.Yes, St. Hildegard of Bingen (who has nothing to do with the papyrus), a holy woman with deep creative powers. How about everybody calm down and listen to her "Spiritus Sanctus"?

Sorry, "didn't speculate ABOUT Mary Magdalene ..." etc. Bad proofing.

Id say that was an unattractive trait for anybody.---------- Agree.

David Gibson - or anyone else who knows - can you point us to some scholarly literature that discusses the extent to which 1st century Jewish men were or were not married? Thanks.

The news have made it to the wikipedia article on clerical celibacy: fragment of Coptic papyrus, whose genuineness has not yet been established but which may be of the 4th century, was made public on 18 September 2012. It presents Jesus as speaking of "my wife". It also him say: "She may be my disciple" (see Female disciples of Jesus). It was brought by an anonymous collector to professor Karen King, who stated: "What this shows is that there were early Christians for whom sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God's creativity and generativity and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate." Another professor, Ben Witherington III, said the term translated as "wife" could mean simply a female domestic assistant and follower.[11][12] Doubts soon surfaced about the authenticity of the fragment. Alin Suciu, a papyrologist, said "I would say it's a forgery." Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there is no way to evaluate its significance because it has no context. "It can be anything." He called its form "suspicious". Due to its completely unknown provenance, and the potential financial interest of its current owner, David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk called it "really dodgy". By UNESCO convention, the Archaeological Institute of America refuses to publish articles announcing such discoveries because of concerns about illicit trade in manuscripts.[13]That (by "Esoglou" and "Elizium23") is from yesterday evening and replaces the following wikipedia text (by "grumpy otter") from yesterday afternoon:A fragment of Coptic papyrus fragment revealed in 2012 disproves the celibacy of Jesus because in it he references, "My wife" and states that she may "be my disciple." This would challenge the position of the Vatican that "the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus." Anyone may modify the wikipedia page by using the "Edit" button on the top right of the page (but "Esoglou" seems to be updating the page regularly to undo certain changes.)

"Apostle to the apostles" goes back to St Hippolytus (d235), I think his commentary on the Song of Songs.It became a popular term in the Middle Ages, particularly among the Dominicans who counted MM as a patroness of the order. (Preaching, the charism of the order, was considered an episcopal responsibility, so MM as preacher showed a non bishop preaching, justifying an order of non bishops dedicated to preaching. more complicated than that of course)

Karen King identifies the wife as Mary Magdalene, based primarily on the logic found in her book about the Gospel of Mary. This scrap looks like part of a "sayings gospel" like the Gospel of Mary, ie the first line is about Jesus's mother, the disciple say something to Jesus and Jesus replies "my wife..." apparently moving on to another topic.The 'see photo above" suggested by David is not as far fetched as it seems. One line is "she is worthy n..." The n might be 'not' or from another sentence. And the last line is "an image" but probably is not referring to a photo.

I really don't understand why folks aren't recognizing the reaction to this papyrus as blatant eisegesis, reading into an old document their modern politico-religious issues.

More on Paul and the thorn in his flesh: He refers to himself in I Corintians as "agamos", not as "parthenos".Agamos means an unmarried person who may have been married before and could now be widowed or divorced. Parthenos means someone who never was married -- a virgin.Maybe the thorn was his ex-wife. McK: Where does Karen King identify the wife mentioned on the papyrus scrap as Mary Magdalene?)

"I really dont understand why folks arent recognizing the reaction to this papyrus as blatant eisegesis, reading into an old document their modern politico-religious issues."Um, because they're not as smart as you are?

A suggestion for David Budiash: Marriage in Antiquity, by Michael L. Satlow, Princeton University Press, 2001.If you don't have the time or the inclination to read the whole book, the extensive notes at the back are fascinating and very instructive. The bibliographies -- primary and secondary sources -- are magnificent. A man is not permitted to live without a wife, and a woman is not permitted to live without a husband. T. Yev. 8:4

Gerelyn, parthenos was almost always used to refer to young women; for Paul to use it in reference to himself would have been unexpected, even if not totally unheard of. In the context of the 1 Cor passage, hes discussing the advantages of the unmarried state, without any reference to virginity, and so using agamos in such a discussion makes sense, because it is generic. It just means unmarried, and indicates nothing about whatever previous state the person it modifies may have been in. The thing about the Satlow book that you recommend is that it distinguishes between what is prescribed and idealized as normative, and what is actually the case on the ground. Its not exactly a shocker that early Judaism promotes marriage as a duty; such was typical of the Mediterranean (hell, dont most cultures treat marriage as normative for adults?). The thing is, theres a difference between what gets presented as reality in texts by people who have a pony in the race (such as the rabbis), and what is actually happening. Another thingand this is pretty fundamental when it comes to positing things about Jesus Judaismis that looking to rabbinic texts for evidence about the beliefs and behaviors of 1st century Judaism is an exercise in anachronism. Using the Talmud to illustrate 1st century Judaism (including marriage practices) could be compared to using the acts of a Church Council to fill in the blanks of early 2nd century Christianity.

@ David Gibson:Im glad that someone appreciates my impulses.I realize that it is easy for folks like yourself to flog the DaVinci Code saga [as you put it] and attempt to pigeon hole the significance of this Coptic papyrus, turning Karen Kings announcement into nothing more than another conspiracy snausage.I think you're just a bit too eager to put what this papyrus fragment may represent into a very convenient little box that can easily then be dismissed and discounted.Remember, the DaVinci Code is just a novel - a work of fiction. No more, no less.I contend, as I believe Karen King does, that this Coptic papyrus is a new opportunity to revisit a very old and divisive argument/debate for Christians: To re-examine a long-held but problematic tradition with fresh eyes may just be the anecdote for modern alienation and disbelief.Mary Magdalene is way beyond cool. It is evident from the NT record that there was real contention, if not conflict, about her role as first witness to Jesus resurrection among the primitive community of believers. It is almost as if Mary Magdalenes relationship to Jesus was one of those inconvenient, maybe even embarrassing, truths among those apostles and disciples who were contending for the mantel of leadership of the Jesus movement.We shouldnt minimize that King is only considering a tiny fragment of a papyrus manuscript: Though very tantalizing, we are still left with only speculation.If I have a DaVinci Code-like conspiracy, it would be that somewhere deep in the bowels of the Vatican library within a dark vault there is a dust covered manuscript that would really illuminate, maybe even discredit, the early churchs fateful decision to ensconce and deify patriarchy.What has the Catholic Church really to fear from learning the truth among its heavily guarded secrets? Let's let science have a look at all of what is in the vaults.

Gerelyn,On the other thread, Lisa Fulham posted a link to a draft article by Karen King that will be in the Harvard Theological Review in Jan. On page 32 she begins arguing for the identification of Mrs Jesus as MM:These two cases from the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary identify Mary as the disciple whose status was being challenged, and in both cases her worthiness is defended by appeal to Jesus, the Savior. So, too, in GosJesWife 5, Jesus declares that she is able to be/come my disciple. This statement immediately follows Jesuss reference to my wife in 4, indicating his affirmation that the ability to become his disciple concerns his wife, not his mother. This line of interpretation, then, suggests that it is the worthiness of Jesuss wife, not his mother, which is being discussed. If so, then Jesuss wife is named Mary here and can presumably be identified with Mary Magdalene. It is she who he declares is able to be his disciple.

Kathy stated: I really dont understand why folks arent recognizing the reaction to this papyrus as blatant eisegesis, reading into an old document their modern politico-religious issues.Are there people who do not recognize this?Karen King is quite clear that this tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus. It is evidence that there was a controversy about whether Jesus was married 150+ years after his death, something we know about from other sources like Tertullian. (It could be like the current controversy, 150 years after Lincoln's death, about whether he was a vampire hunter.) Newspapers have run with it, asking if Jesus was married. That is the point of interest for many people, and is sheer eisegesis in the eyes of most scholars, not to mention silly.

Abe - Do you think that we can't (because of the reasons you listed) therefore know with any reasonable degree of certainty what the marriage practices of 1st century Palestinian Judaism were?Or if you do think we can know something, what are the sources?

Thanks, Jim McK. (I read Karen King's book on Mary Magdalene several years ago and did not get the impression that she thought Mary was Jesus' wife. Maybe in recent years she's come to believe otherwise. Not hard to accept, imho, since Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, called her by name, etc.)

Hi, Abe: I hope no one will be discouraged from reading Satlow's great book by your reservations about it. (He addresses the issues you raise, including ideal vs. reality, quite specifically.) I hope anyone interested in the topic will take a look at the sample available on Amazon, which includes the Introduction, and judge for yourself.

"Not hard to accept, imho, since Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, called her by name, etc.)"I call a lot of people by name to whom I am not married. Unless there's a text in which Jesus Christ calls Mary "my wife," I don't think we need to rethink two thousand years of tradition, though the Vatican's statement, essentially--that it doesn't care what scholars say, teaching Christ's marital status is fixed--sounds a lot like the way my Baptist in-laws talking about the facts of the fossil record.I think anybody who wants to claim that Jesus was married, which swims upstream of tradition, needs more solid evidence than has been offered here.

Gerelyn,I think Karen King's identification of MM and Jesus' wife only happens with this new text, which she reads as identifying Jesus' wife with a woman named Mary who was "worthy" (or not). In the gospels of Mary and of Thomas, she sees the worthy Mary as MM, which leads to MM is worthy woman is Jesus' wife.The Jewish Annotated Bible has some info on marriage and sexual mores in 1st century Judaism, which makes marriage sound very common. But men usually were 10-15 years older than their brides, meaning they were unmarried until they were about 25. So depending on how old Jesus was when he died, it might have gone unmarried a few years longer than normal. Or been widowed a couple of times. I have not yet looked at the section on Essenes and other Jews who valued celibacy.

Stephen Prothero says it well, I think, in his latest at CNN's Belief Blog, titled "I don't know if Jesus was married (and I don't care)": closer:

What is going on here, as I see it, is a reluctance to say, I dont know.The truth of the matter is that we dont know what Jesus looked like. We dont know where he was or what he was doing when he turned 18. And we dont know if he was ever married or divorced.What we do know is that we live in a country besotted with Jesus and in an age obsessed with marriage and sexuality and the body, which is why this tiny papyrus is making such big waves.As for me, I dont much care what Jesus thought about marriage, or whether he engaged in it. I think we as a society tend to collapse religion far too readily into bedroom questions, as if Jesus came into the world to tell us with whom we should be having sex, and how.Im more interested in what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor. And there is plenty in the available record to read and heed, "if only we have ears to hear."

David--Great find! I think Prothero says it perfectly, especially in the closer.

Gerelyn, I did not express reservations about the quality of Satlows book; I expressed reservations about how much support it would lend your argument about marriage.David, sources are sparse for 1st century Palestinian Jewish marriage practices, but I do not claim that there is nothing available. There are literary sources (e.g., Jospehus), papyri of personal documents, and inscriptions. When disaporic Judaism is added to the fray, the sample of sources grows. Also, to an extent, the marriage practices arent alien to the surrounding cultures.One complicating issue is the fact that the New testament itself is an important source of info about family life in the period, but because NT texts tend to promote fictive kin groups over and even against real family relationships, the data demands special interpretation. That is something that seems to be getting lost in the shuffle by those who want to make a claim concerning Jesus life based on a hypothetical reconstruction of an everyday man from 1st century Galilee: the social values promoted by the NT do not necessarily conform to those common to the culture.

About "worthiness" as a criterion of a disciple --I don't think this criterion is found in the canon. Peter, chosen by Jesus Himself to be the leader of the apostles, betrayed Jesus three times, which should have disqualified him if "worthiness" were a criterion for serving as disciple. So I suspect that "worthiness" is a characteristics that the gnostics added to the narrative, not Christ, and this indicates that the little parchment is of gnostic origin.

I call a lot of people by name to whom I am not married. ---------But this is the 21st century, and that was the 1st. Forms of address were different. Mary Magdalene did not recognize her own husband (?), because he was wearing a big hat and he was dead, she thought. But when he called her by name, an extremely intimate thing to do at that time and in that culture, she recognized him immediately.------------Abe, you're misinterpreting my suggestion to David Budiash. Read his question again. I was suggesting a masterful work by a great scholar because I thought it would shed light on the "extent to which 1st century Jewish men were or were not married", not because of "how much support it would lend [my] argument about marriage".I'm not presuming to make an "argument about marriage". I've simply said what I believe. Obviously, no "argument", no papyrus, no scholarship, no amount of mockery about "Mrs. Jesus" and her "honey-do list" can unravel the true facts. No one will ever prove that Jesus was or was not married, widowed, divorced, parthenos (or anything else about Jesus), so why the consternation? (Rhetorical question. People have gladly burned, disemboweled, beheaded, etc. one another over less.)

I doubt we'll ever know for sure if Jesus was married or not (though the Vatican thinks it knows) but I do think it should matter to us. All the bits we learn about Jesus help us to know him better.I was really hoping the fragment would be authentic - I would like a married Jesus - but I've been following Duke professor Mark Goodacre's blog New Testament blog on the subject, and the news doesn't look so good ...

@ David Gibson:If as you suggest that [we should not care] whether Jesus was married, had a consort, or may have had children, then I suppose you would also agree that Catholic hierarchs SHOULD NOT care about maintaining their patriarchal hegemony over the church, either. Yeah, right!Of course it matters! The whole Roman all-male feudal oligarchical house-of-cards would come crashing down on a discovery that Jesus indeed had a family. There would be no more legitimacy for requiring mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination. The whole mythology of the Catholic male priesthood would be undermined. [Remember all that nonsense about how ministers of the Eucharist needed to anatomically resemble the male Christ???]You understand this. The hierarch certainly understands this.BTW: Questioning this King papyrus manuscript because it dates from "at least" the fourth century C.E. is a canard. What we know as the NT was not written down in it's collective form until the 4th century - essentially the same dating as for the King papyrus. In fact, the exact list of NT documents was only confirmed at the third Synod of Carthage (397 CE - that's the end of the 4th century), but this was only a regional council and by this time the 27 New Testament documents had already been agreed upon by most of the church...but there were some exceptions. The editing and translations of the four gospels and apostolic letters by later scribes continued for hundreds of years as they were copied again and again from their original 1st and 2nd century editions were written.The hierarchs have a vested interest in closing down the debate about Jesus' personal history and the practice of the primitive Christian communities. The Catholic hierarchy is a perfect example that the victors in any conflict always get to write the history.

"Rhetorical question. People have gladly burned, disemboweled, beheaded, etc. one another over less."I don't see an interrogative there, and I don't see how atrocities committed in the name of religion in the past are relevant here. No one here wants to burn, disembowel, behead, or etc. anyone for their beliefs about Jesus' marital status.Neither, as you state yourself, does the papyrus in question here or any other scholarship or Vatican statement definitively establish Jesus' marital status, one way or the other.

MM is quite in, even with the Leginaries of Christ:

jim J. --Sometimes I think the issue isn't celibacy but the wider one of asceticism. Asceticism seems to have entered the Churhc in a big way with the Gnostics who disvalued the body and, therefore, were anti-sex. I really don't understand the sort of extreme asceticism they championed. In fact, I think that asceticism has generally done more harm than good in Christendom. It leads to sour dispositions, holier-than-thouism, and Calvinism. Until the psychiatrists/analysts really understand masochism I don't think we'll understand this element in the Church and Christianity generally. Sure, some physical self-discipline is a very good thing, but i think the Church has in some cases over=done it. In fact, when we concentrate on the problems our bodies sometimes present it is very easy to neglect the ugliness and meanness of our spirits. Or maybe I've just known the wrong ascetics.

Regardless of the legitimacy of her current find, there is definitely one element of King's work that is strong and relevant here, which is her critique of how "Gnosticism" gets talked about. Whether it's the idea that "Gnostics" were anti-sex or just the representation of them as an actual group in general, she has a lot to say that is useful in forcing a reconsideration of the role (so useful, so malleable) that captial-G Gnosticism gets assigned in Church history.

Abe --How did the Gnostics come to be anti-body? Were they descendents of the Manichees? And where did the Manichees get such a notion (that body is bad)? Are there antecedents in the primitive religions of the middle east and other Mediterranean cultures? They certainly didn't get it from the likes of Zoraostrianism. Is it somehow connected to primitive indian beliefs?

Ann, i should have been more explicit in my previous comment. i do not think that the term "Gnostic" is useful as a designation for actual groups, individuals, texts, or systems of thought in antiquity. Nobody can provide a definition for "Gnostic" that successfully incorporates the materials we have that traditionally have been placed under that term. Certainly, nobody has provided such a definition that accounts for "Gnosticism" as something specific that is also specifically distinguishable from Christianity. So I think that the fervor for uncovering origins that has plagued scholarship that discusses Gnosticism has caused people to overlook the more likely scenario, which is that there isn't any origin of Gnosticism (because Gnosticism isn't a defined movement), and thus nor is there any origin of Gnostic ideas or tendencies (like being anti-body). Instead, you have to take individual cases and look into the development of their ideas APART from any notion that this development coincides with the emergence of something we can call Gnosticism.By the way, Mani wasn't born until the beginning of the 3rd century, so much of the stuff that gets labeled "Gnostic" predates him.

Abe --You seem to be saying that "Gnosticism" is a family resemblance term. That is, each of its uses has some meaning in common with at least one other use, but there is no one meaning or note that all the uses share. My question: didn't all of the Gnostics.or at least the vast majority of them, think that body/matter is evil? Regardless of how many thought that, the idea has been extremely influential in Christianity, and I'm just wondering what its origin(s) was. I'm no Biblical scholar, but I don't remember Jesus ever saying that the body and matter is intrinsically evil. So where did this notion come from? Was it a reaction against the super-hedonist Romans? Or what? I think it's still an extremely important issue because the stereotype of "the conservative Christian" against which so many academics react -- and their students with them== is of a body-disparaging, fun-squelching, closed-minded meanie.

As Jesus was dying on the cross he addressed both his mother Mary and John his apostle by saying "Mother behold your son" referring to John and "John behold your mother" referring to Mary. He made no mention of a wife, Mary Magdalene was there also.It is inconceivable that had there been a wife he would not have asked his mother or John or both to look after her..

Martin E Marty's take on the Coptic papyrus (I thought it was insightful and lighthearted--refreshing):"We can put this kind of media event into perspective by noting that each such unearthing of non-canonical ancient Christian texts receives publicity in direct proportion to attention being given to particular controversial issues in the contemporary world. In the long perspective of Christian history of twenty centuries, my generation and I are virtual kids, with only a half-century of observation behind us. But we can see ancient textual interests and contemporary itches matching almost decade by decade."