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“Jesus’ Wife” Fragment: Further Thoughts

September 21, 2012

The discussion of the Coptic fragment continues rapidly on various blog/internet sites.  Here’s one of many from a fellow scholar in early Christian texts: Simon Gathercole.

Having just finished reading Prof. Karen King’s lengthy and admirably documented essay on the fragment, a few immediate thoughts for now.

Assuming that the fragment is genuine, and is from a larger text, I reiterate that it is injudicious to refer to that putative text as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.  Prof. King says in her essay that this is simply for convenience.  But it would actually be better simply to refer to what we have, which, for convenience, we could call “The Jesus’ Wife Fragment”.  That’s actually all we have.  

That the fragment may derive from a larger text is a reasonable possibility, but an inference, not a datum.   That this larger text might have been some sort of “Jesus book” (my term, which I really do commend over “gospel”, which is used so widely that it has no generic content other than a book about Jesus, so why not “Jesus book”?) is also plausible, though again an inference, and not the only plausible one.  (It could derive, e.g., from a sermon, a treatise of some sort, or something else.)

Whatever that larger text, it’s unlikely that it was wholly given over to Jesus’ marital status.  So, it’s a bit misleading to refer to a supposed “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.  It’s just not helpful.  It plays to the news media, but it’s close to being chaff.

I do recommend that all seriously interested in the fragment read carefully Prof. King’s paper, which is available online and will be forthcoming in Harvard Theological Review.


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  1. On the use of the term ‘Gospel’, it’s not modern scholars who’ve applied the term to a wide range of second- and third-century Gnostic and other texts. This is what they were called in their own time. The term became generically a very broad one, meaning nothing much more specific than ‘a writing about Jesus.’ The Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of the Egyptians are not in the least like those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or even Thomas generically, but those are their ancient titles. I think the new fragment is probably a fake, but if it is authentic I’d say calling it a Gospel is very plausible guess, i.e. it most likely comes from a work broadly similar to such writings as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas. Where else would one get a conversation between Jesus and his disciples? Perhaps as a quotation from an apocryphal Gospel in a sermon or a treatise. But what are the other possibilities?

    • Yes, Richard, what you say is correct, of course. But in modern discussion, as you’ll know, scholars have given the term “gospel” to some works that don’t appear to have had that title in antiquity (or didn’t clearly), and whole discussions have been had on when the term “gospel” arose as a generic label and whether there are features that make something a “gospel”. So, simply to avoid this fruitless discussion, I’ve proposed referring to “Jesus books”, writings of whatever genre in which Jesus is either the central figure of a narrative or the central teacher/speaker (as in Gospel of Thomas).
      As for the new fragment, if genuine, it could derive from the other types of works that you mention.

  2. John: Your grumpiness aside, your ascription of motive exceeds fair discourse (yes, a chiding from an old fart, I know). Let’s distinguish between the level of detailed and comparatively cautious and methodical discussion reflected in King’s essay on the one hand, and the sensationalizing stories in the news media. King has an investment in probing the diversity of early Christianity, but that diversity is undeniable.

    • I appreciate the concern to keep the discussion scholarly, Larry–you know I do. So I’m calling a spade a spade: King’s reference to this tiny bit of writing hardly merits titling it “a gospel,” as you yourself have said. I’m offering an informed–grumpy, but informed–guess as to why someone would call it that, particularly as you quote Simon Gathercole asking exactly that question.

      So, you see? I am being scholarly–I’m just not as sweet as you are. But that’s hardly news… 😉

  3. There’s a great PDF from Francis Watson over at Mark Goodacre’s website, in which he shows how the ‘Jesus wife’ fragment is a mixture of lines lifted primarily from the Gospel of Thomas.

    Click to access Watson.pdf

  4. M.Gould permalink

    Dr Hurtado

    Have you seen the comments of Professor Watson?:

    Click to access Watson.pdf

  5. John Moles permalink

    Difficult questions here. It’s obvious that this material is tosh, that is, even if it’s genuine in its own context, it has nothing useful to say about the actual history of Jesus. On the other hand, to ignore it is to play into the hands of those who claim that Christianity is some sort of giant conspiracy. On both sides (a certain sort of Christianity, a certain brand of anti-Christianity), there is enormous anxiety. On the whole, I think it would be better to ignore it, but, as I say, it’s a close call.

  6. Simon Gathercole is, I suspect, rather missing the point about the parlance of “Gospel of X,” which is clearly to undermine the authority of the Biblical Gospels and to posit a plethora of alternative gospels and therefore of alternative Christianities. Elaine Pagels’s bestselling “The Gnostic Gospels” is only the best-known writing in this genre.

    As for whether Professor King is cynically winking at us by saying this parlance is “just for convenience,” each reader can decide for himself or herself. Professor King has never lacked the ability, however, to garner her share of attention, whatever her actual contribution to scholarship.

    (And, yes, I’m in a bad mood about yet another round of this preposterous inflation of tiny bits of ECL flotsam into international conversations about whether Jesus in fact had a wife, etc., etc. It takes up the time of real scholars like LWH in swatting them back into place, and annoys even the likes of me.

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