A “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” on a Coptic Papyrus

Bible and archaeology news

An Early Reference to Jesus’ Wife

Christian tradition holds that Jesus was not married. While the New Testament never mentions Jesus’ wife, it never explicitly states that he is not married. On Tuesday, September 18th, 2012, early Christianity scholar Karen L. King of the Harvard Divinity School announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that includes the text “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

This early Christian Coptic papyrus includes an early reference to Jesus' wife, whose existence is never explicitly stated or denied in the New Testament. Photo: Karen L. King.

King has made it clear that this fourth-century “previously unknown gospel” does not imply that Jesus had a wife; instead, if authentic, the text reveals that an early Christian population believed that Jesus was married. King posits that the Coptic fragment is a translation of a late second-century Greek gospel. Interestingly, the earliest extant claim that Jesus was not married was recorded by Clement of Alexandra around 200 C.E.. These nearly contemporaneous yet divergent early Christian texts reveal that the extended debate on Jesus’ wife, his celibacy and Christian behavior dates back to an earlier period than previously believed.

Understanding the Coptic Papyrus

The 1.5 x 3-inch Coptic papyrus fragment contains 8 lines on the front and six on the back. While the newly announced text is shrouded by a sea of unanswered questions—the original provenience is unknown and the owner of the collection has asked to remain anonymous—King consulted scholars from esteemed institutions including the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, Princeton University, the Harvard Theological Review and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who verify the text’s authenticity.

King unveiled the discovery at Tuesday’s 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome and the announcement immediately attracted the media’s attention, which will undoubtedly lead to further testing. While the faded ink, the grammar and handwriting appear authentic, King plans to conduct spectrometry and further analysis on the papyrus’ date and authenticity.

Update: Read new developments in this case in “Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?,” “Owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Unmasked” and “Timeline of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Saga.”


Mary Magdalene as a Disciple

The passage “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” is not the only revealing text in this Coptic papyrus fragment. Another clause says “she will be able to be my disciple.” Other phrases include “My mother gave to me life” and “Mary is worthy of it.”

Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School examines what she describes as "a new gospel." The text does not prove the existence of Jesus’ wife; instead, it shows that an early Christian population believed that he was married.

Dan Brown caught the public’s attention with sensational stories of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife. What was her role in the New Testament? Three of the four canonical gospels only mention her in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only Luke mentions Mary Magdalene in connection with Jesus’ life, where she follows Jesus, spreading word of his deeds from town to town.

King dated the original composition of this “new gospel” by a comparison with similarly phrased Gnostic gospels including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. The Gospel of Philip provides some insightful clues into the relationship of Mary and Jesus. In the article “Did Jesus Marry?,”* Birger A. Pearson analyzes Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip. While Dan Brown used the restored text, “And the companion of the Savior was Mary Magdalene. The Savior loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth” to suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, Pearson points out that:

More importantly, immediately following the first passage quoted above, Jesus goes on to explain Mary’s special role in terms of her capacity to receive his instruction—and not her sex appeal. When, in the Gospel of Philip, the disciples ask Jesus why he loves Mary more than them, Jesus responds, “Why do I not love you like her?” He then answers his own question: “When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”1 Jesus is suggesting that he favors Mary because she is like a sighted person compared with the dullard male disciples, who are like blind men. Thus, Mary’s “companionship” is spiritual rather than physical.

King’s “new gospel” may provide a more explicit indication that some early Christian communities believed that Jesus was married, and moreover, that Mary Magdalene was his wife. While the fragment’s date several centuries after the life of Jesus precludes contemporaneous evidence of the historical Jesus, the discovery may greatly further our understanding of early Christian perception of marriage and the New Testament.

King describes the find in a video originally posted on Harvard’s YouTube page:

Read more in The New York Times.

Read more from the Harvard Divinity School.



* Pearson, Birger A. “Did Jesus Marry?Bible Review, Spring 2005, 32-39, 47.

The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook, The Galilee Jesus Knew, focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.


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  1. Ian says

    Totally unstable implications BAR. Do not entertain my liberalism and assume I am incline to accept liberal worldview of Christ and questioning Scripture. You have forgotten archeology does not prove the Bible or Holy Write. The opposite is always in order, mind you. You are an embarassment to think I had recommend this to Bible believing friends. Continue down this wayward path and we will encourage friends and family to unfriend!!!!!

  2. Varghese says

    Weather Christians should be celibate was not something that came up after 100 year (as proposed in the video) 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 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

  3. dr howard says

    When Jesus in John 4:1-42 was seen speaking to the now famous ‘woman at the well’ John who was one who also witnessed this’ event’ at the well writes: “..they began to wonder as He was talking to a woman…John further says ..”.Of course none of them said, “What are you seeking” or “Why are you talking to her?” (Gk.) . This seems to strongly indicate Jesus never was seen alone conversing with a female. These young men were with Him daily and if He spent time alone with Mary or any female they would not have been as the Greek word says ‘marveled -astonished -amazed as a spectacle’ (v.27)’or seeing Jesus alone talking with a female.

  4. Kurt says

    Was Jesus Married? Did Jesus Have Siblings?

    The Bible’s answer:
    The Bible makes clear that Jesus was not married, even though it does not specifically comment on his marital status. Consider the following.

    The Bible frequently refers to Jesus’ family as well as to women who accompanied him during his ministry and who stood by when he was executed, yet it never mentions his having a wife. (Matthew 12:46, 47; Mark 3:31, 32; 15:40; Luke 8:2, 3, 19, 20; John 19:25) The most plausible reason why the Bible is silent on this matter is that he was never married.

    Concerning those who remain unmarried so that they can do more in God’s service, Jesus told his disciples: “Let the one who can make room for it [singleness] make room for it.” (Matthew 19:10-12) He set the pattern for those who choose not to marry in order to devote themselves more fully to God.—John 13:15; 1 Corinthians 7:32-38.

    Just before he died, Jesus arranged for the care of his mother. (John 19:25-27) If Jesus had been married or had fathered children, he would have made sure that such close family members were provided for as well.

    The Bible uses Jesus as an example for husbands, but it does not refer to the way he treated a human wife. Instead, it says: “Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and gave himself up for it.” (Ephesians 5:25) If Jesus had actually been married while on earth, would not his perfect example as a literal husband have been used in that verse?Read more:

  5. Turner says

    Ephesians 5:24-25 contain a deep insight about marriage; one that Christ would have known well had he been married himself. It’s not over when she dies. It’s over when you die.

  6. Karen says

    I found this interesting reading, but I believe that our for fathers in the Christian faith put the bible together the way God wanted them to do so. DR. Harward, Kurt and Turner have said it so well.


    REVELATION 21:9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” YES JESUS IS MARRIED . In Matthew 9:15, Christ calls Himself the “bridegroom”; John the Baptist

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Continuing the Discussion

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  3. » Hershel Shanks Weighs in on the “Jesus Wife” Fragment TaborBlog linked to this post on October 17, 2012

    […] The article, as almost all of you know, is about an ancient Coptic papyrus text the size of a business card in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” (See “A ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ on a Coptic Papyrus.”) […]

  4. The Jesus Wife Papyrus: A reasoned argument from Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review | Simcha Jacobovici TV linked to this post on October 17, 2012

    […] The article, as almost all of you know, is about an ancient Coptic papyrus text the size of a business card in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” (See “A ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ on a Coptic Papyrus.”) […]

  5. The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Revisited Harvard Divinity School declares the papyrus ancient, but the debate rages on | linked to this post on April 29, 2014

    […] September 2012, Harvard’s Hollis Chair of DivinityKaren L. King announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that includes the text “Jesus s… After an extended silence while the papyrus was subjected to extensive scientific […]

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