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“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” . . . Maybe . . . Maybe not

September 20, 2012

The news media today are rife with reports about a recent paper given by Professor Karen King (Harvard Divinity School) on a fragment of a Coptic text (at this point, taken as a genuine ancient text, perhaps from the 4th-5th century CE), in which Jesus might be taken as referring to “my wife”.  Even serious historians have opined on the item, such as Professor Kate Cooper (Manchester) for the BBC here.  

It would be helpful to other scholars to have Prof. King’s full paper, but in the meantime, the Harvard Divinity School page on the item gives a proposed transcription, translation, and a “Q&A” section as well here.

For her own personal, initial “take” on the item by a respected scholar in ancient “gnostic” texts, see April DeConick’s blog posting here.

Aside from the need to have further analysis of the likely date and authenticitity of the fragment, there are also a few other matters that make some of the news claims . . . exaggerated, or at least premature.

  • The Coptic of line 4 of the text appears to have Jesus referring to “my wife/woman”, but it is actually not explicit that this refers to the “Mary” mentioned in the preceding line as “worthy”.  The two phrases might refer to the same person, or might not.  Confident claims that Mary is the “wife/woman” in line 4 are inferences.
  • Calling the putative larger writing from which this fragment may derive “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a bit over the top.  If all we had were a fragment of the Gospel of John where Jesus heals the blind man, would we refer to “The Gospel of the Blind Man”?  Probably not.  It’s a fascinating fragment and we should all be grateful for Prof. King making it so public.  But it’s a huge leap to take two Coptic words in line 4 (“my wife/woman”) as indicative of the focus and larger contents of whatever writing from which the fragment derives.
  • It’s also a bit of a leap to propose that the text reflects some supposed larger sexual-political standpoint in early Christianity.  We simply don’t know this.  Prof. King has a strong scholarly investment in the idea, and I respect that.  But let’s avoid suspending moutains from this thread.
  • There is nothing particularly shocking about saying that Jesus has a wife.  In fact there are several references in the New Testament that come to mind:   In Ephesians 5:22-33, the relationship and duties of husbands to their wives are likened to the relationship of Jesus and the church, and the author here takes the Genesis 2:24 phrasing about “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh,” as “a great mystery” which he applies “to Christ and the church”.  Still more explicitly, in Revelation 21:9-14, the seer is shown a vision of “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (“the Lamb” in Revelation a recurrent image for Jesus).  
  • These are obviously metaphorical, you will say, and rightly so.  But the point is that the fragment doesn’t actually say clearly either who the “wife/woman” is or the nature of the marriage relationship in question.  It’s going waaay beyond the text to read into it uncritically some sort of romantic relationship between Jesus and a “wife/woman” in any real sense.  Maybe . . . maybe not.   It is entirely possible that the fragment is part of a writing of a more esoteric nature (other examples include texts often referred to as “gnostic”, such as Gospel of Philip), and in these texts words often don’t carry their usual meaning.  That’s a large part of being esoteric!
  • So, let’s (1) be grateful for what looks like a fragment of some hitherto unknown early Christian text, and (2) hope that scholarly analysis will continue on all relevant questions, and (3) take along generous quantities of salt as we read the over-excited (and somewhat tendentious) reporting about the fragment in the news media.
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12 Comments
  1. Judy Diehl permalink

    Thanks, Larry, for your insights and your views just when I needed it. I am teaching two sections of hermeneutics this semester, and this whole discovery/event is a wonderful teaching tool with respect to the canon, the extra-canonical writings, Gnosticism and our views of the NT. I appreciate your words and your expertise — Blessings, Judy

  2. My sense of the text is that this fragment is probably from a gnostic gospel. The esoteric nature of these writings should be taken under consideration when looking for them to impart a credible historical reality, or even having a parallel integrity with other literature of a similar nature. Then again, we are all aware of this, even professor Karen King.

  3. James permalink

    Larry,

    I saw a piece on CNN World Report last night where a priest responded to King’s claim by arguing that since “Jesus” was a common name back then we should not therefore conclude this fragment is talking about the Jesus of the NT and that it might refer to another Jesus. I’ve noted that of the experts I’ve seen comment on this issue on the net none have offered that same argument as the priest offered so I presume he’s using a poor argument there (the cynical side of me wonders why they didn’t intervew an expert in textual criticism). That said, could you maybe explain for the layman amongst us why this fragment – if authentic – is definitely referring to Jesus, the Christian God, as opposed to some other Jesus?

    • Well, I need to untangle some things first. The name we render “Jesus” is an Anglicized form of the Greek “Iesous”, which was the Graecized form of the Aramaic “Yeshua” and/or Hebrew “Yehoshuah”. “Iesous” is not an indiginous Greek name, and not used in the Roman period except among Greek-speaking Jews and then Christians. “Yeshua/Yehoshua” also was frequently used among Aramaic-speaking Jews, and derives influentially from the OT character whose Anglicized name is “Joshua”. In the Greek OT (LXX), “Yehoshua” is rendered “Iesous”. So, Jesus of Nazareth was named (as were many boys of his time) after this OT hero.
      Now, the reasons for thinking that the “Jesus” of the fragment refers to Jesus of Nazareth are basically these: (1) by the 4th century CE, “Iesous” had pretty much dropped out of usage as a name among Greek-speaking Jews, (2) it was not a name used outside of Christian circles and those influenced by Christianity, (3) the figure in the fragment seems to speak also of “disciples” and among them is a “Mary”. The most likely conclusion is that the text (whether authentic or not) purports to speak of the Jesus of Nazareth.

  4. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Dr. Hurtado:

    It seems to me that it would be altogether out of place, if Jesus had had a literal wife, to call Jesus the bridegroom and his covenant people, the bride. (Paul extends the metaphor by telling the Corinthian believers that he, their spiritual father, had betrothed them to Christ; and the Revelation anticipates a final eschatalogical wedding and wedding feast.)

    Wouldn’t it have been morally and aesthetically repugnant to utilize such metaphors — in either a Jewish or Hellenistic setting — if, in fact, Jesus had been literally married?

    • Bobby,
      Please note that Prof King hasn’t said that Jesus had a wife, only that she thinks the newly published fragment shows that some Christians in the ancient centuries may have thought so.

      • Bobby Garringer permalink

        Based on what Prof. King is saying to the media, she seems to be sending mixed signals about the implications of the fragment.

        On the one hand, she states that the interesting term may not mean “wife.” On the other hand, she is excited that, according to her, a group of early believers have written about Jesus’ wife — without the qualification that this “may” be the case.

        And she tells the New York Times that the document was written centuries after Jesus lived; but then she reports to Fox News and other television news outlets that the fragment dates to within 150 years of Jesus — again without qualification.

      • Part of the “problem” is to keep track of the several things King proposes. E.g., she proposes that the fourth-century Coptic text from which the fragment may derive was a translation of a text that may have originated in Greek and perhaps as early as the second century. Scholars tend to (or should) state things as complex as the data. News media don’t like complexity.

  5. Thanks so very much for this call to objectivity, Dr. Hurtado. I continue to be amazed by the media’s bent toward objectivizing so much from so little whenever it may discredit Christianity; and in the name of “journalism.” As always, when you speak, I listen (though with a wee bit of sodium applied here and there just to ensure we’re all eating our own dog food).

  6. carl sweatman permalink

    Have you see the draft version of Prof King’s paper? If not, let me know and I’ll send it to you.

    • Dear Carl,
      No, I haven’t seen King’s paper. If you can send it, I’d be grateful. If hardcopy, to me at New College, Mound Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2LX, United Kingdom. If e-version, email = l.hurtado@ed.ac.uk

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