Is the Harvard Theological Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Something Wrong?

Publication of scholar’s article on “gospel of Jesus’ wife” postponed

Dr. Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School examines what she describes as “a new gospel,” the text of which may indicate that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. Despite meeting the highest scholarly standards, King’s publication of the text in the prestigious Harvard Theological Review has been postponed.

Poor Karen King. The prestigious Harvard Theological Review (HTR) has withdrawn her article from its publication schedule—at least temporarily. It was supposed to go into the January 2013 issue. Not anymore! What did she do so wrong?

Professor King is not some young scholar with a fresh Ph.D. At the Harvard Divinity School, she is the Hollis Professor of Divinity, the oldest endowed academic chair in the United States.

And of course everyone is talking about it. Google her name and (supposedly) more than 34 million entries are listed in less than a third of a second.

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.”)

King is an old hand at this kind of scholarly article. She has published lots of books and articles with this same scholarly heft. Her HTR article is long and heavily footnoted. It is cautious and restrained. And she has consulted a number of equally prestigious scholars to make sure her scholarship is sound. One, AnneMarie Luijendijk, a leading papyrologist from Princeton University, is listed as a contributor right under King’s name, almost as a co-author. Numerous other scholars are referred to in the article, including Roger Bagnell, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, to whom King refers as a “renowned papyrologist” and expresses her “sincere gratitude.”

So what did King do so wrong to deserve this?

This small fragment of an early Christian text, which Dr. Karen King believes dates to the fourth century, includes an early reference to Jesus’ wife. While King and others have been extremely cautious in their interpretation of the text, some are now claiming the writing may have been forged. Photograph by Karen L. King.

Of course, the first thought is that she dared to suggest that Jesus was married—shades of Dan Bown’s fictitious novel The Da Vinci Code. But this is not true. King is explicit that this papyrus text has nothing to do with whether Jesus actually had a wife. This text, she says, “provides no reliable historical information” about “whether the historical Jesus had a wife.” And again: “[This text] does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married” [emphasis in original]. King suggests the text dates from the fourth century and is a copy of a second-century document. “The importance of [this document] lies in supplying a new voice within the diverse chorus of early Christian traditions about Jesus that documents that some Christians depicted Jesus as married.” In other words, in the centuries after Jesus death, did some Christians think that Jesus had been married? That’s the thesis of King’s article.

There is no doubt that in the centuries after Jesus lived, Christians talked and wrote about the possibility that Jesus was married. This was part of Christian explorations of the meaning of sex and marriage. This discussion has been going on for a long time and numerous modern scholars have written about it. It includes the possibility, based on some apocryphal gospels, that some Christians in the centuries after Jesus lived thought that he was married to Mary Magdalene. In short, discussions like that in King’s HTR article are part of a vast scholarly literature.

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Moreover, King is cautious even in her conclusion that some later Christians believed that Jesus was married. She finds the suggestion “plausible,” but this papyrus, she tells us, is “much too fragmentary to sustain these readings with certainty.” Elsewhere she repeats this hesitant conclusion: It is only “probably” the case that in the centuries after Jesus’ death, some Christians believed that he was married. In conclusion, King assesses this papyrus within the “rich literature that illustrates the enormous diversity of early Christian perspectives regarding matters of sex, gender, reproduction, and marriage … Already in the oldest extant literature, the letters of Paul, we hear of questions about whether to marry or engage even in marital relations (1 Corinthians 6–7).”

So why shouldn’t this scholarly discussion be printed in the Harvard Theological Review? Well, because the papyrus text might be a fake. Some clever forger may have been at work.

King thoroughly discusses this issue in her article. This is nothing she has tried to brush under the rug. Two anonymous reviewers raised questions about the authenticity of the text and suggested it be reviewed by experienced Coptic papyrologists. They had seen only low resolution photographs, but more importantly they were unaware that two leading Coptic papyrologists, Luijendijk and Bagnell, had already judged the text to be authentic.

It is no surprise that some scholars will view the papyrus and its contents differently. And this is the case here, particularly with regard to the authenticity of the text. This is certainly a legitimate question that should be discussed, along with all the other questions surrounding the text’s date and interpretation.

A number of scholars have discussed whether the text might be a forgery, but the only authority I know to declare it unqualifiedly “a fake” is Gian Maria Vian, the editor-in-chief of L’Observatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. His unqualified conclusion is stated in an editorial in the newspaper; the Vatican is clearly concerned about King’s analysis of the text. With due respect for Mr. Vian’s scholarship, however, he is not well known for his competence in Coptic.

The chief academic to question the authenticity of the text is Francis Watson of Durham University in England. He is certainly skeptical, but that’s as far as he goes. He argues that the text “may be a modern fake.” His reason is that much of the text resembles the text of an apocryphal Coptic gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. Watson emphasizes that nothing in his analysis “make[s] it in any way certain that [this text] is a modern fake” [emphasis in original]. Other scholars, moreover, point out that such amalgams from contemporaneous texts are often found in authentic ancient compositions.

The bottom line is that there are a number of uncertainties about this text—its date, the text itself, its relationship to other texts of the period, and of course its authenticity. All these issues are—and should be—a matter of debate. At least two great Coptic scholars, Luijendijk of Princeton and Bagnell of NYU, regard the text as authentic, dating to the fourth century. So there are two sides (at least) to the authenticity debate.

What is wrong, however, is for the Harvard Theological Review to suspend publication because of the dispute about authenticity. Dispute is the life of scholarship. It is to be welcomed, not fled from. When a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, backed up by two experts from Princeton and NYU who declare the text to be authentic, presents the case—and tentatively at that—that should be enough for HTR to publish King’s article, not to cowardly suspend its decision to publish. Instead, HTR has cringed because there will now be a dispute as to authenticity. This is shameful.
 


 
Read more about the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment and how the scholarly community has responded to recent tests conducted to determine its authenticity.
 

 
Hershel Shanks

Hershel Shanks is founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. He was written numerous books on the Bible and Biblical archaeology, including The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Random House, 1998), Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Continuum, 2007), Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (Random House, 1995) and The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem (Tel Aviv: Bazak, 1973).

Posted in Jesus/Historical Jesus.

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41 Responses

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  1. Todd says

    Good word Herschel. We should not shy away from controversy and investigation, especially if it represents careful and responsible scholarship. I say this as a Protestant minister with a high view of Scripture.

  2. Eldad says

    History repeats its self. This is almost identical with the Talpiot Tomb story: silencing instead of debating.

  3. Diana says

    As I understand it, the reason King’s article has been pulled from publication is because it’s almost certain that the “wife of Jesus” fragment is a fake. You see, there is an online source of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic with translation. This online source, although excellent, happens to have an interesting mistake at a certain point. The fragment is not only very, very similar to portions of Thomas, but happens to include this very mistake. That’s pretty conclusive.

  4. Joe says

    I have no idea what information HTR has that we don’t know about so I’m hesitant to criticize. If, however, they don’t have something they haven’t shared I fuly agree with Mr Shanks. Let’s publish the paper and see later what the chemical tests show.

  5. Kate says

    Perhaps HTR is trying to reverse the downward gravitiaional pull toward sensationalism, where more and more titles of academic research resemble the rags at the grocery store check-out line. If the title of Dr. King’s article reflected the careful wording and deniability contained in the article itself, that title would have been less attention grabbing but also less misleading. This may be worth a try: resubmit the article with a less controversial title, and see what happens…

  6. Rev. Nancylee R. Cater says

    Mr. Shanks, I am always grateful for your pressing the point of publication, whatever the artifact. Fresh air and sunshine are two of the healthiest, and least appreciated, elements! Light always reveald truth, and the more light the better.

  7. Kevin says

    We are writing as the editors of HTR Needless to say Professor King did nothing “wrong.” Rather, Professor King has informed us that she is making arrangements to submit the fragment for extensive testing, and the specialists she has contacted have indicated that testing, with the specific expertise needed to produce and interpret reliable results, will possibly take several weeks, if not months. Yes, HTR has postponed publication of the article, so that she will be able to incorporate results of the testing. In the interests of furthering scholarly debate, we are waiting on the testing.

  8. James says

    What bothered me most was that Dr. King referred to it as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” If that is not sensationalism, I don’t know what is!

  9. Mary says

    Calling it the gospel of Jesus’ wife is eminently appropriate, since this is what’s distinctive about the fragment, and there’s nothing whatsoever that’s offensive about the idea that Jesus was married by all accounts.

  10. DUANE says

    If this artifact is authentic and comes from a reliable source (which I seriously doubt), Jesus refers to the Church (His Authentic Body of Disciples) as His Bride. I guess there remains much ignorance among BAR readers or most Evangelical Christians have departed BAR. I can understand why. In Authentic Christianity, there is no need for “Socio-Political Progressives”. Obviously, too few BARITES are ?Born Again” – Jesus words.

  11. Phil says

    Prof. King might very well have done something seriously wrong.

    Why is there no mention of the object’s provenance? The central issue is not authenticity, but legality. Prof. King has studied and is attempting to publish an object with a dubious background with an anonymous ‘owner’ and there is no confirmation as to whether this is part of a legal collection. If the object was legally obtained, then verify and publicize this information. Let’s see the object’s collection history. Until the owner is acknowledged and the object’s legality established, no scholar or publisher should touch it. Kudos to HTR. Provenance is also useful for establishing the object’s authenticity, but more important is that no one should be dealing with dodgy artifacts at all. Why is this artifact surfacing now? Was it illegally excavated? Who knows? If Prof. King did not find out this information before she began work on the object, then shame on her for not practicing Due Diligence.

  12. V. George says

    Kevin (#7), on behalf for the editors of HQR, has answered Professor Shanks’ concern to my satisfaction.

  13. Krzysztof says

    1) A fake or not, let’s wait.
    2) Matt 19:12 (to be an enuch for the Kingdom of God)+ Q (in Lk 14: 27@14:20) and not in Matthew would suggest the personal experience of Jesus before his conversion (Mark 1:4,9). VAtican should know it while reading commentaries on it.

  14. Krzysztof says

    Ooops: I forgot to clarify (and check it): Jesus speaks in metnioned texts about the rejection of wifes@children;why?

  15. Nigel says

    Your statement (in the main article) that “Professor King is not some young scholar with a fresh Ph.D. At the Harvard Divinity School, she is the Hollis Professor of Divinity, the oldest endowed academic chair in the United States.” seems to suggest that Prof. King’s article ought to be published based upon her status, reputation &/or position. However, every academic work ought to be evaluated based upon its own merit (regardless of the author’s status, position, etc) Some academic journals make an effort to minimize the bias due to the author(s) position, status & reputation by eliminating the names of authors when they send them our for review & evaluation. That’s an effort to “level the playing field” & eliminate this bias.

  16. BHD says

    Brown Prof. Leo Depuydt is an example of an authority who has been quoted as calling the ms precisely “a fake.”

  17. Christopher says

    I agree that this should be discussed even if I do not agree with King’s hesitant conclusion that some Christians ‘probably’ believed that Jesus was married. That Jesus says “my wife…” does not even necessarily mean that the author of the text thought Jesus was literally referring to a woman he had taken in matrimony. The author of Matthew’s gospel has Jesus use relational terms in a spiritual, non-literal way: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (12:50). Also orthodox Christian tradition speaks of Jesus, the Lamb of God, as having a bride and a wife in the book of Revelation: “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.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (21:9-10). Orthodox Christian tradition has also given the Church the spiritual title of the bride of Christ (and as such the spouse of Christ, ie his wife) (See also Ephesians 5:31-32).

    The reason HTR is stopping her article may be that King is overreaching and not over pressure from the Vatican (as if Harvard ever listens to the Catholic Church, let alone one commentator from L’Osservatore Romano – whose opinion article is hardly an official statement from the Catholic Church’s hierarchy).

    It is not certain from the fragmentary text what the context is.

    The question still to be answered and which has not been settled is whether the author of the text meant Jesus to be speaking literally about a woman he had taken in matrimony or spiritually and figuratively about a relationship that gets established with him via faith in him (much like the Church-bride of Christ language of modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

  18. Velynda says

    Too many times journals jump the gun on archaeological artifacts. Then they get so much criticism in the press that it it is not worth taking the risk again. I do not blame HTR for going slowly on this particular issue

  19. Leland says

    Perfect Shanks article…controversy. Shanks is irreligious and has no respect for followers of Jesus. Karen King is not a Christian Scholar, period. Atheist is better term.

  20. DUANE says

    Dear Hershel, Please change the name from Biblical Archaeology Review to” Bad Academic Rag”. For a group of people to treat the Bible as a collection of academic or folklore writings (which it is not) is blasphemous! The Bible is God’s Inspired Word to mankind. Believe it or get over it! Without a relationship with and the guidance of God, through Jesus Christ, your scholarship, research and findings are going to be flawed. Shalom.

  21. Wardell says

    Jesus was married to Mary Magadalene. Denial is just a river in Egypt !

    Jesus and Mary Magdalene are buried in the Talpiot Tomb in Jerusalem.

    Biblical “Scholars” should study the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes.

  22. Rob says

    Tradition; tradition. A married Christ must be upsetting someone’s marketing efforts. That’s business!

  23. Diana says

    For details of why some scholars are so sure this gospel fragment is a fake, see the Guardian article of Oct. 16 by Andrew Brown at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/oct/16/gospel-jesus-wife-modern-fake-typo

  24. luther says

    the BRIDE OF JESUS IS THE HOLY SPIRIT

  25. The says

    The Almighty’s Holy Spirit has both a collective and personal relationship with those who accept the redeeming and restoring love of their Creator. The Almighty, while remaining fully divine, became fully human through the work and power of His Holy Spirit and the submitting spirit of ONE OF US. Jesus, Mary’s son, made it clear when at His first miracle, the wedding feast, as he referred to her as ‘woman’ ; and, from the cross, he concluded His life by leaving her in the care of His Apostles. Raising The Blessed Virgin, Mary, above the status of human is cultic, To Christianity’s misfortune it is precisely what the vatican has done ! And, effectually, lowered The Divinity of God Incarnate. All this dispute amongst people who are called biblical scholars on the questionas to whether or not Our Lord wanted or needed genital satisfaction is an indication of the vatican’s negative pre-occupation and control of human sexuality. SEX IS NOT SINFUL. The Almighty, in creating a means of pro-creation, made it what it is. Under the blanket of legitimate Christianity, those who live in the ‘business of religion’, have attempted to bring The Almighty Creator’s wisdom and power under their control: such as a man, the bishop of Rome (called the pope) being the chief representative of God’s Son; and, the same system making sex a tempting evil when it is a vital factor in humanity that may or may not lead to pro-creation. Did The Incarnate Almighty want or need a sexual partner ? As a means of avoiding His purpose of coming to our planet (St. John 3:16-17) we can follow any diversion – BUT He’s still waiting for our personal response to the call of His Holy Spirit. L+

  26. DUANE says

    Hershel, How about this – Why have millions of gentiles accepted “a nice Jewish Rabbi as their Savior and God;s Messiah? Haven’t you ever wondered what we an a number of Completed Jews know and you do not? How can you deal in Biblical Archaeology and not know the God, Messiah and Holy Spirit of the Bible?
    Pretty serious stuff!! I could not sleep if I were in your situation.

  27. Dennis says

    Comments by Diane #3 about Bernard’s discovery of the typo and Phil #11 about Provenance make me wonder about “peer” review. I would think scholars qualified to review HTR articles could have easily noted this? What am I missing? I also agree about BAR’s anti-biblical authenticity view. It is clear that many of the writers and the publishers are not believers in Christ based on how they treat Biblical text. However I think this is great that they constantly challenge the Inspirational Authenticity of the Biblical text and the Divinity of Jesus. I have no doubt in the end truth will prevail if not with further investigation but when Christ returns. All I can offer in this arena being a non-scholar is my prayers for their eyes to be open.
    Isaiah 6:9-10
    9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
    “ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
    be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
    10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
    make their ears dull
    and close their eyes.a
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”

  28. Wayne says

    I have no idea if this document is a fake. I can’t read Coptic, nor do I have the skills to date ink and document.

    I can however refer you to John 1:38

    Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou

    If the Bible is correct in that Jesus was a Rabbi, he had to be married. That was the Law then, and it is still the law for Jews today. The Bible has been proven right so many times by Archaeology for me to doubt it.

    Does his marital status have any impact on his teachings?

    None at all. It might have an impact of celibacy rules, but it doesn’t have any effect of the message the Bible brings us.

    Wayne

  29. Hank says

    My question is this: Even if the writing is authentic, is that statement that Jesus had a wife factual? Where did the writer get his information? Was is indeed fact or rumor? So we have 2 questions:
    is the writing real and is the information the truth? They are 2 different aspects of the statement, where one part might be real and the other part unreal.

  30. Jeanie says

    Hershel Shanks is right to say that “Dispute is the life of scholarship.” I find all too often that scholarship, like theology, seems to belong to the orthodox.

  31. Some says

    Why is so little or no consideration given to the fact that there was more than one man named “Jesus” in those times? (even in the Old Testament times it was a common name)

  32. 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

  33. Bret says

    I read the article in haste but it appears that Karen King has discovered a new gospel to reveal to the world. The Gospel of Jesus’ wife. This woman is amazing. She finds a papyrus fragment with no author, no date, no proven authenticity and she is declaring it to be a gospel. I guess she will demand that it be inserted somewhere between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. After all, it needs to be up front in the New Testament so all will know from the git-go that Jesus was an ordinary man who slept and had sex with his wife. It seems to be important to Karen King to bring Jesus down to our level and destroy His divinity. What is really amazing is how God is exposing her twisted knowledge of the truth.

  34. Bret says

    One last point. A quick search reveals that the name “Jesus” was and is a very common name. So, unless Karen King can prove that the papryus fragment is referring to the one and only “Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God” then this so called educated woman is making a fool of herself. She is obviously hell bent on destroying the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Really shocking that she is a Harvard professor.

  35. mike says

    Paul was a rabbi and he was not married either.

  36. pfitzner says

    The name of the papyrologist is Roger Bagnall, not Bagnell.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Kein wissenschaftlicher Artikel um das “Evangelium von der Frau Jesu” mehr? | Der Almane vom Stamm der Sachsen linked to this post on October 16, 2012

    [...] Text), dann poste ich sie mal zum Ver­gleich mit dem “Evan­ge­lium von der Frau Jesu”.Quelle:Bible History Daily: Is the Har­vard Theo­lo­gi­cal Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Som…Share this:ShareEmailPrintStum­bleU­ponFace­bookTwit­terDiggLin­ke­dInRed­dit Posted under [...]

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

    [...] can read the rest of his article on-line here. I have to agree with Shanks on this issue. I was just re-reading the pre-publication PDF of the [...]

  3. What has Jesus’ Wife to do with Christopher Rollston? linked to this post on October 18, 2012

    [...] Wife are Mark Goodacre, Bob Cargill, and Tommy Wasserman. Loren Rosson has responded to Hershel Shanks’ piece, while James Tabor agrees with Shanks.On a related note, Alin Suciu reblogged a post at Faces and [...]

  4. Falso papiro retoma ofensiva contra Jesus Cristo linked to this post on April 15, 2014

    […] de publicações é “vergonhosa”.   Hershel Shanks é fundador e editor da conceituada “Biblical Archaeology Review” e escreveu vários livros sobre “Arqueologia Bíblica”, comoMistério e significado dos rolos […]

  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

    […] 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. […]


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