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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  • William says

    Jesus did not have a wife. After 2,000 years of study by some of the most intelligent men on the planet, someone “discovers” something never heard of before. the comic strips on Sunday are more truthful.


    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

    • Joe says

      These texts are references to Jerusalem being that of the “bride” to Jesus, the Lamb, etc. If there was an actual wife I’m sure it would be more noted somewhere.

  • 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.

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