The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Revisited

Harvard Divinity School declares the papyrus ancient, but the debate rages on

The Harvard Theological Review recently published scientific testing on a papyrus including the text “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

The Harvard Theological Review recently published scientific testing on a papyrus including the text“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” Photo: B.D. Colen and Joseph M. Azzarelli, via the Harvard Divinity School.

In September 2012, Harvard’s Hollis Chair of Divinity Karen L. King announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that includes the text “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” After an extended silence while the papyrus was subjected to extensive scientific tests, Harvard’s Divinity School announced that “testing indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ papyrus fragment to be ancient,” following the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review’s (HTR) publication of carbon-14, paleographical, spectroscopy and other scientific analyses. Harvard Divinity School’s website includes updated images, Q & A and other resources on the papyrus.

However, the subject is still open for debate. In the second postscript to his forward in the same issue of HTR, Brown University’s Leo Depuydt writes, “All this still leaves me personally 100% convinced that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery.”

When King announced the discovery of the fragment in 2012, she clearly stated that the text implied that some early Christian populations believed that Jesus had a wife—not that Jesus was, in fact, married. Even still, if the papyrus is legitimate, it holds implications for the status of women in early Christianity, as well as the tradition of a celibate priesthood. As soon as the papyrus was announced, the story spread like wildfire in the popular media, and myriad scholarly responses swiftly followed soon after. While King had consulted a small cohort of eminent scholars who defended the fragment’s authenticity, others were quick to declare it a forgery.

Just when the debate regarding the authenticity of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” reached a fevered pitch, it was silenced. The Harvard Theological Review pulled King’s article, and Smithsonian suspended the airing of a documentary about the papyrus. HTR announced that the fragment would undergo testing, though the lack of specific information frustrated interested scholars and journalists.

The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is back in the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review. HTR gives the papyrus fragment considerable treatment beyond Karen L. King’s critical presentation of the papyrus; the issue includes a paleographic analysis by Malcolm Choat, a chemical ink analysis by James T. Yardley and Alexis Hagadorn, microspectroscopy results by Joseph M. Azzarelli, John B. Goods and Timothy M. Swager, spectrometry radiocarbon analyses by Gregory Hodgins and Noreen Tuross, a condemnation as a forgery by Leo Depuydt, and, finally, a response by Karen L. King.

Multispectral image aken by a team led by Michael B. Toth, President, R. B. Toth Associates, and processed by William Christens-Barry, Imaging Scientist, Equipoise Imaging, LLC, supported by Ken Boydston, via the Harvard Divinity School.

Multispectral image taken by a team led by Michael B. Toth, President, R. B. Toth Associates, and processed by William Christens-Barry, Imaging Scientist, Equipoise Imaging, LLC, supported by Ken Boydston, via the Harvard Divinity School.

While carbon-14 tests did not provide reliable dates (initial tests placed the fragment before the birth of Jesus, and secondary testing provided dates in the 8th century C.E.), King suggests that the carbon dating, in conjunction with analysis of the carbon “lamp black” pigments, “supports the conclusion that the papyrus and ink of GJW are ancient.” According to paleographer Malcolm Choat, the “handwriting and the manner in which it has been written do not provide definitive grounds for proving” that the fragment is a forgery. The only dissenting view published in the Harvard Theological Review is voiced by Leo Depuydt (though many others have been voiced in other—especially online—publications. See more below.), who sees “grammatical blunders” in the text that suggest that it is “entirely a patchwork of words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas.”

Karen L. King discussed the papyrus fragment, the recent scientific testing and the implications of such a new “gospel” with WGBH News:

 

Since the publication of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” in the latest issue of Harvard Theological Review, many scholars have published their responses online. University of Notre Dame scholar Candida Moss eloquently summarizes the debate, suggesting that while the popular media has been quick to call the papyrus authentic, the debatable date of the ink has left the “scholarly community [...] less enthusiastic about the discovery.”

New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado supplied his initial thoughts and further observations, and highlights from his commentary have been noted by Bob Cargill. Christopher Rollston has discussed the ink, forgery and epigraphy, and James Tabor has provided a series of links contextualizing the backstory. The NT Blog, written by Duke University’s Mark Goodacre, has been my primary source for finding scholarly reactions to the HTR publications, and I recommend that our readers continue to visit Goodacre’s blog for the latest updates on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Within the NT Blog, I want to point out two important dissenting papers regarding the authenticity of the fragment, posted as pdf files: Leo Depuydt’s response to Karen King’s response as well as an additional critical response by Durham’s Francis Watson.

In addition to the wide range of responses by Biblical scholars, I also want to direct readers to an interesting piece of investigative journalism by LiveScience’s Owen Jarus, who delves into the matter of King’s source for the papyrus, raising questions about the fragment’s purchase in East German Potsdam over fifty years ago.

The rapid-fire web publications on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” range from resourceful to fingerpointing, and Paleojudaica’s Jim Davila reminds readers that while he is “still quite skeptical that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is an ancient artifact, King has made a real effort to keep the tone high and the skeptics should do the same.”

There have surely been other online articles written about the papyrus not mentioned in this article. I apologize to any esteemed commentators that I missed in this post, but it is hard to keep up with such a large discussion. In fact, the blog-based scholarly reactions to the HTR publication have been so varied and complex that they themselves have been analyzed as a prime example of new media in academic discussion (see Norwegian School of Theology’s Liv Ingeborg Lied’s post here).

We at Bible History Daily look forward to the continuing discussion online, as well as Hershel Shanks’s First Person in an upcoming issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

For more in Bible History Daily, see A “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” on a Coptic Papyrus and Hershel Shanks’s Is the Harvard Theological Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Something Wrong?

We recommend readers examine Harvard’s Gospel of Jesus’ Wife website and the April 2014 issue of Harvard Theological Review.

Posted in Inscriptions, New Testament.

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  1. Varghese says

    Weather Christians should be celibate was not something that came up after 100 year (as proposed in a YouTube video by Karen King) because Paul has addressed the problem in detail in the epistles. Personally; I don’t think is possible to assert Jesus was married without denying His Deity / He is Israel’s Messiah for being God He could do only what He needed to do to accomplish His mission like a married Christian man knows it is his “mission” not to have to sleep with a woman who is not his wife Jesus knew being married would not be compatible / consistent with His special “mission” to die on the Cross. Jesus would have read what was written by prophet Isaiah about Jesus’s death with out having had any children: “From detention and judgment he was taken away—and who can even think about his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living, he was stricken for the transgression of my people.” Isaiah 53:8

  2. jacquelene says

    Karen L. King was crucified for her announcements and has been forced to go against her findings, most likely. Unfortunately, I wish the educated community would bring out the truth regarding their discoveries but they would rather leave us believing false teachings than shed light on facts and truth. I believe King. I believe there are many more facts that are hidden from us and fear dominates, as, money dominates. Not much has changed over time.

  3. larry d gurthet says

    let’s remember Israel’s messiah was never a deity, but a human only. further it was Paul who mentioned celibacy not Jesus

  4. Wanda says

    Antiquity does not imply true or accurate. Ancient writers (and modern ones as well) liked a good story and would tell one to make a point regardless of whether it was true or made up. This question must be looked at in the light of the time it was written in and also of the writer’s understanding of the time he is writing about. Marriage was a norm. Not being married was different. If the point is to illustrate that Jesus was a ‘normal every day’ sort of person, fully human, being married would have made a great deal of sense as a way to point out that Jesus was, in fact, human. And since this papyrus was written after the fact, the writer was free to embellish the facts to make a point. History as we know it, strives for accuracy, for ‘truthfulness in reporting facts. In Biblical times being memorable was just as important.

    Whether Jesus was actually married or not is a question to be answered in another place and time, by the One who knows.

  5. GIDION says

    short and clear there is no relationship between Jesus and woman in terms of marriage or love affair, how can God have a wife, for what purpose? There must be seriousness when it come a matter of our God.

  6. ronald says

    Jesus Christ came to fulfill alllll rightousness. Including Baptism though He was perfect and Marriage though He was God the Messiah.

  7. Shannon says

    The Bible tells us that the Church is Jesus wife. Why is this Biblical fact never brought up? Here’s Wiki’s entry on the subject and you can look it up in the Bible as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bride_of_Christ
    Everytime I read something relating to this fragment, no one, and I mean NO ONE, mentions this as the reasoning behind the term “Jesus wife”. Shame

  8. Izamar says

    Jesus was sent to Earth to live the human experience and save man. It makes no logical sense that he would come here and live like a man, only to refuse to participate in the two most intense aspects of the human experience, fatherhood and sex. Whether he had a wife and children could possibly never be proven and scholars may argue forever, without either party being wrong or right.

    One thing that truly bothers me is the Christian response to the idea of him being a father or husband. The idea of that is almost always met with outrage. Family is possibly one of the most precious things we have. Whats so wrong in Jesus being a father or husband?

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. May 2014 Apologetic Potpourri | benpreachin.com linked to this post on May 30, 2014

    […] Noah Weiner, “The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Revisited” […]


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