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