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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

Mr. Peppard, thank you for this very good post. Two questions: Is it clear to you that the answer to the Was-Jesus-married question quoted above is actually the work of Karen King? She is referred to in the third person in a subsequent answer on the Harvard Divinity School page that is linked.The text quoted asserts that there is no reliable historical evidence to support the claim that Jesus was not married and points to the silence of the oldest evidence. Wouldn't the absence of any indication of a wife tend to suggest that there was no wife, given that the gospels and epistles are interested in questions about marriage, and more generally, that these earliest accounts present Jesus' life as a model. Why omit something so fundamental?

Hi Mr. Englert- I was actually wondering the opposite; if marriage is so fundamental, isn't it odd they don't address why Jesus was NOT married? Does the silence itself say anything?

If he had been married, our savior was one terrible spouse. He's never home, never talks about his day, never helps around the house, always out with the guys, puts his career first. "Jesus said to them, 'Take my wife . . . Please!'" I think I prefer the bride of Christ to be the people of God.

Michael,Good post. As in most things the follow-up is the key. If this item is dated in the fourth century, how does it indicate in any way that Jesus had a wife? Why only this piece. Why do we have so little data from this time whereas we have more from the time of Caesar and Cicero? Can you fill in the gaps or are we left with merely the fascination of this papyrus?

Good article on the front page of the NYT this morning with a good photograph by Karen King, who "is the first woman to hold the nation's oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity."

There are translations of words and phrases from the fragment by the picture. (I wonder what he meant by "an image".)------------not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]The disciples said to Jesusdeny. Mary is worthy of itJesus said to them, My wife she will be able to be my discipleLet wicked people swell upAs for me, I dwell with her in order to an image

All this scholarship is fascinating, but i must admit my mind went to some of tghe same classsic references as James Englert's, troping Rodney Dangerfield... I think some cartoons in the edudite Biblical bulletins -- or at lest the New Yorker -- will fill the rest of the reference. "My wife...oy vey..."

As some have noted above, the Jewish culture valued marriage and children. Celibacy was very uncommon. It was one of the tasks of every Jewish family to find a wife for their son when he was between the ages of 17-20. Why would anybody even believe that Jesus was NOT married.Secondly, during his ministry, Jesus was referred to as "Rabbi". A Rabbi was married---not a celibate. St. Paul, in cautioning the early Christians about the End Times (which Paul believed would occur soon), tells them that they, yes can marry---but should prefer to be like him---Paul---unmarried. Paul used himself as the model---not Jesus.Jesus could very well have been a widower at the time he began his ministry, too.

As a frustrated paleographer, I found this post as interesting as anything can get in this life! If I had the money, Michael, you'd be on the first night plane to Cairo so you could could write back and tell us more. I hope Commonweal will continue to cover this interesting find.

Lots of interesting discussion offline this morning already, which I can report on later. But now I'll say that one of the pingbacks for this post contained an utterly shocking line: a blogger for the National Catholic Register concluded his post with:

But if you are looking for definitive proof that Jesus did not have a wife, I think I have it. Jesus is God, so he couldn't possibly have been that stupid.

Some family values! What a bizarre, misogynistic attempt at humor.

Agree, Michael.Reminds me of the little "jokes" that used to appear at the bottom of columns in newspapers. As a child I wondered why some men felt the need to mock women -- as gossips, as wasters of money (on hats, etc.). Trivializing, marginalizing, debasing women is important to weak and lazy men.(I was fortunate to have a dad who was half Quaker. Not afraid of women. He stood up at a PTA meeting in the early 50s to ask why our parochial school offered no sports for the girls. Got nowhere with that, of course.) If Jesus wasn't married, why would the neighbors in Mark 6 have been astonished at him?

David P -- as long as we're being erudite, I think the source attribution is Henny Youngman rather than Rodney Dangerfield. I remember as a kid, who loved jokes and joke books, I saw the cover of a Henny Youngman book with the famous line and a picture of the comedian with his violin. The joke completely escaped me, for many years. The complexities of a text!

I'm really not seeing the news value here. Jesus calls himself a bridegroom in every single Gospel.

"I was fortunate to have a dad who was half Quaker."I take it this means that one of his parents was Quaker? :-)

thank ylou, James...Henny Youngman it is! You are right, of course! "I don't get no respect..."

"I have the hat already. And I can get the whip on the way to the airport."Ooh! I want to be the fellow in Cairo with all the children who sings the snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan! I can grow a beard, and my physique seems to be "rounding" into form. Although, inasmuch as that actor also played Gimli the Dwarf, I may be too tall ...

An isolated image of a few dozen whole and partial old words and the absence of a "FACT:" page like Dan Brown's makes me wonder if the Copts might have had their Aristophanes.

I take it this means that one of his parents was Quaker? :-)Yes, although now that I think of it, he was actually three-fourths Quaker. (Three of his four grandparents were Quakers.) ----I was surprised that Karen King mentioned Dan Brown. (For those who wonder if he plagiarized the book, read the chapter in Wordcrime. See what you think.)

I've always found it odd that the Gospels never mention Jesus' marital status. It would have been unusual for a man of Jesus' age during that time to be unmarried, and both sides of the spectrum--whether he was or wasn't married--are rather important details, both of which are left out. You'd have to think there would have been some buzz about why this Jesus of Nazareth was flying solo, and as Karen King says, it's about "150 years after Jesus died before the question is raised if Jesus had a wife or not" (youtube video released by HDS). Makes me wonder...maybe silence is the loudest kind of noise.

BTW, Bill Donohue weighs in (it's what he does) and berates Karen King a bit too much (it's what he does): Bill said this as a point against King:

"King is known for her fertile imagination. For example, she previously claimed that Mary Magdalene was one of the apostles."

But isn't the Magdalene by tradition known as the Apostle to the Apostles since she brought news of the Resurrection to the others? It has always seemed to me a problematic formulation since it opens a door that officialdom wants to keep close, even if the title were intended in a more ceremonial rather than literal way.

John D'Olimpio: On the point of it being unusual that Jesus was not married -- well, that's not the case. Plenty of Jewish men were not married, and especially devout men like those associated with the Essenes were not married. Jewish scholars like Amy-Jill Levine make this point well. The presumption that he would have been married is again largely about bringing our modern days perspectives to an ancient culture. Again, this isn't proof that he wasn't married. But it's not surpassingly strange at all if he wasn't.

(David, there's a misspelled word in the headline of your new thread.)There were not plenty of Jewish men who were not married, and Jesus was not associated with or interested in the Essenes. (As Amy-Jill Levine makes clear.)Paul's inability to find a wife may have been due to a physical issue, the thorn in the flesh thing he mentioned. (Maybe some male bit was missing, or ambiguous.)

Gerelyn, I saw your reference in another thread to my comment as being misogynistic and coarse. What I thought I was doing was offering a caricature of the picture of Jesus that would emerge from the NT accounts if he had been married. Its a picture that to me doesnt make sense, and I hoped the language I used would indicate the anachronistic note in the endeavor to remake the Jesus of the NT. So Ill give you the coarse though I think broad or sophomoric might be closer. Have to reject the charge of misogyny, at least as betrayed in the comment, but will continue to evaluate the state of my psyche.

For all his orthodoxy, Bill Donohue should look to the "" website and discover that its article on "Mary Magdalene, Saint" describes her as "the Apostle to the Apostles". The original entry appeared in a volume with Imprimatur of October 1, 1910!Well before Vatican II :-)

...and well before baby Donohue arrived on the scene?

Thank you, Joseph! And I do believe that Pope John Paul II also approved and stressed the idea that Mary Magdalene was the "Apostle to the Apostles".As far as Bill Donohue is concerned---he probably learned his religion from a catechism that Pope Pio Nono wrote.

I think that calling Mary Magdalene the apostola apostolorum goes back a long way, but have no idea how far back.As for unmarried Jewish men, how many of the prophets, major and minor, were married? (Amos and Hosea; are there others? and isn't there a theory that Hosea's wife is more metaphorical than flesh and blood? (and, of course, there were some Jewish men who rather overdid marriage, at least from the one-man-and-one-woman point of view). I thought NPR this morning did a pretty good unsensational job on the story, rather better than the BBC America morning news. Neither of them seemed to mention that priestly celibacy for all doesn't go back to Christianity's first millenium (I think I've got that right); and none of them mentioned Peter's mother-in-law, or speculated about his wife. I wonder if the BBC knows that the first pope was a married man.

Gerelyn, I saw your reference in another thread to my comment as being misogynistic and coarse. What I thought I was doing was offering a caricature of the picture of Jesus that would emerge from the NT accounts if he had been married. Its a picture that to me doesnt make sense, and I hoped the language I used would indicate the anachronistic note in the endeavor to remake the Jesus of the NT. So Ill give you the coarse though I think broad or sophomoric might be closer. Have to reject the charge of misogyny, at least as betrayed in the comment, but will continue to evaluate the state of my psyche.>---------Hi, James! (Your comments seemed dated -- geezerish -- to me. I was surprised to see your picture at your firm's web site. You're not a geezer at all.)

So I guess the real question isn't whether or not Jesus was married, but why are the Gospels completely silent on the subject. From what others say here it seems like the existence of a wife would have been mentioned and the lack of one would have been explained. Would those kind of references have once been in the Gospels and maybe edited along the way?

"Pauls inability to find a wife may have been due to a physical issue, the thorn in the flesh thing he mentioned. (Maybe some male bit was missing, or ambiguous.)"Gerelyn!!Now this is nasty. Or do you know something that we don't?

Hi, Bill:Why is it nasty? In a culture where all men married, the one who did not marry mentioned a thorn in his flesh.I think it's strange NOT to wonder if there was some connection. (Maybe an accident at his circumcision.)I've heard some speculate that he was epileptic, that the vision on the road to Damascus was typical of epileptic seizures. What I think is nasty is the surge of woman-hate that this little bit of papyrus has unleashed. I would think women and men would prefer a married Jesus. No one has a problem with his other human activities: being circumcized, being redeemed, studying Torah, learning a trade, learning to swim, wine bibbing, sleeping, eating with sinners, dancing at his siblings' weddings, etc., etc., etc.

Gerelyn, how embar(r)assing! Thanks. Re Mary mags, I know there was a medieval tradition (she was big, as we say, back then, well before Dan Brown) that Jesus appeared to the Magdalene, the women, first, because women would of course blab to everyone so the word would get out that way. Yes, I know...But nice that women were considered the best evangelists. Then again, their testimony would not have been allowed in a law court.

If Jesus were married, I do hope it wasn't to Mary Magdalene. I like to think of her as a religious leader in her own right, not one by marriage. (Like Hillary the US Senator and Secy of State has more cred than did Hillary the wife of Bill)

Jesus must have been married.I mean, Look at all his progeny!All our baby bishops doing Papa's bidding :-)

Michael P. -- Cairo of all places is not a recommended destination this week on a matter of fundamental religious importance and sensitivity, given the way the winds are blowing there. Living Copts are already deeply entangled in lethal conflict over absolute certitudes and are unlikely to have much time to help with paleospeculation on another one.

My favorite snippet of the NY Times article:"The owner took the fragment to the Divinity School in December 2011 and left it with Dr. King. In March, she carried the fragment in her red handbag to New York to show it to two papyrologists: Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University."That she carried it in her handbag injects the human interest element. That the bag was red is the sort of detail that discriminating and fashion-forward NY Times subscribers need to know.

There are some who are questioning the authenticity of the papyrus following the disclosure that the symbols immediately following "my wife" are the Coptic equivalent of a parenthetical statement that may be rendered in English something along the lines of "see photo, top right."

David Gibson: Thanks for the response. There seems to be conflicting opinions in this thread regarding the frequency of Jewish marriages--I'll have to look this up more, and give a close read through of Amy-Jill Levine's piece. I was always of the mindset that marriage was common in antiquity, and was not uncommon for rabbis.Still, the fact that Jesus' marital status was never mentioned in scripture presents an interesting omission More to come later...

Gerelyn, I am with you on the misogyny problem in the church. But does it have to extend to everything? Celibacy is not evil in itself and the misplaced value on it has more to do with the stoic influence brought into the church by the Gregory, Basil, Ambrose , Augustine etc. Paul had no problem with marriage. He just recommended the practical solution to an intense life of preaching. And no one had as many women friends as Paul. To question the marriage of Jesus does not make one anti-woman. Your voice is needed because accepting women as being as valuable as men is still not accepted. But to be as inflexible as you seem to be is just as bad as those who see all morality through the prism of abortion.

Will Rogers once said: "All I know is what I read in the papers." I can't remember when I read something in the NY Times that made me smile as much as I did this morning.With all the careful caveats that Karen King rightly injects into this story, I am elated at the prospects of rescuing the discussion of the role of women and marriage in Christianity away from sole purview of Catholic celibate hierarchs.As King indicates, just like there was a strong debate about women's roles and marriage in the primitive Christian church, that debate should be renewed for 21st century Christians. Perhaps, on careful examination, Christians will conclude that looking back, orthodoxy got it wrong.This debate has the potential for a great renewal of faith and practice for the church going forward. If Christians can begin to re-image God for a new millennium consistent with their primitive origins, the Catholic Church may find a way out of the abyss into which it has of late fallen.Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that the great task or quest for post-modern humans is to re-image God in such a way as to unify the feminine and masculine. Campbell believed that the photograph of "Earthrise" over the lunar landscape by Apollo astronauts was the first meaningful re-imaging of God in centuries. Within the frame of the astronaut's camera, all of humanity was captured [save the photographer] clinging to our MOTHER EARTH.Perhaps, Karen King with this papyrus fragment is just beginning to open a window into new Christian mythology.

While this find is far from a smoking gun in the case of a possible Mrs. Jesus, I think one of the most important effects of this discovery are the debates, and dialogues evident in this thread and others, about the role of women and marriage in early Christianity. Also, it has sparked discussion not only between academics, but between friends and family of mine, broadening the context of their arguments beyond a certain Dan Brown novel. That's always good!Karen King is very careful not to look too much into what this fragment means, but at the very least it shows there were Christian communities in the 2nd C. who believed Jesus had a wife, which would correspond to followers of Clement of Alexandria, who during the same period, believed Jesus did NOT have a wife--a stance which would later adhere to the traditional Christian narrative. As Prof King says in her HDS writeup: "This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family." If this find will help us re-evaluate, and expand on our knowledge of early Christian views of the family and marriage, I believe that is more significant than theorizing if Jesus had a wife--a question I feel cannot be answered adequately just yet (if ever).

Jim Jenkins, I applaud your impulse to read this as a constructive way to open debates about the role of women, and to reimagine some accepted views. But as with the Da Vinci Code saga, I am not sure how far this gets us. The woman in this case, as Mary Magdalene in the DVC, is only important insofar as she is Jesus' wife -- the traditional First Lady role, at best. That doesn't seem to reenvision as much as reiterate traditional gender roles, and solidify the value of a woman as contingent upon the man she is with. I'm with Jean Raber, who commented on another thread that she hopes Mary Mags wasn't married, and not to Jesus. She's pretty cool on her own.

If Jesus were married and had children, might this have other implications? If one holds that he was both human and divine, did he pass some of his divinity on to his children? I don't think that is a completely silly question. I have to say I am amazed how excited people get over something as novel as this. I think this discovery has a lot more to say about marriage and celibacy in the early years of the Church which of course has implications even today.

David, I don't know where you and Jean (?) get the idea that the papyrus is about Mary Magdalene. As we know, there were MANY women named Mary around Jesus. I've seen a good case made that Jesus was not married, but was betrothed to Mary of Bethany. There were various Marys at the foot of the cross. And some make the weird claim that Mary his mother had a sister named Mary. Etc. ----------- Bill M.: So what if I'm inflexible? (An unattractive trait for a woman?) My comments about Jesus and his wife will not change anyone's mind. To pretend to believe what I don't believe would be disrespectful to Jesus and his wife, to their parents, and to all the professors, scholars, authors, etc. who have influenced/formed my thinking. No comparison to abortion. Real people (women) are affected by the abortion battles. No one is affected by the word "wife" on a scrap of papyrus. What if it said Zeus didn't really cheat on Hera? Would anyone care?

That the Magdalene was "an apostle to the apostles" is found in Aquinas's commentary oln John. It surely is older than that.

In logical language the problem is one of reference. Does "My wife" refer to a li534ql wife or the Church? And what are the referents of the other nouns and pronouns in the rest of the text? Because the text in between is missing, there is simply no way of being at all sure.It is obvious that the little piece of papyrus was very carefully removed from a larger piece. It was not roughly torn out. It seems to me that if the larger text from which the little one was taken was clearly about a literal wife, then it would have been much, much more valuable, and the person selling the text would have included those parts. Since he cut out what would settle the matter, I'm inclned to think that the original did not include parts referring to an actual wife of JEsus.Then there is the whole question of why nobody else includes such a reference. That to me is against all the odds if He really had a wife.

I wouldn't fault the BBC for not knowing that Peter was married. Even the Vatican seems unaware of the fact.

"That the Magdalene was an apostle to the apostles is found in Aquinass commentary oln John. It surely is older than that."True. This clearly shows how the forces of patriarchy were so strong that strong truths about women were just shelved into oblivion.

Benedict XVI in a talk on "Women at the service of the Gospel" named and praised many "female figures who played an effective and precious role in spreading the Gospel". He noted the Aquinas-Magdalene link without explaining what made Aquinas's comment beautiful to him: "It was precisely to Mary Magdalene that St Thomas Aquinas reserved the special title, 'Apostle of the Apostles' (apostolorum apostola), dedicating to her this beautiful comment: 'Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life' (Super Ioannem, ed. Cai, 2519)." His talk strikes me as an exceptionally earnest effort to persuade some invisible critic(s) that women really have been valued and important in Christianity in spite of what some may claim or suspect.