Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife

Lab tests have suggested that a papyrus scrap mentioning Jesus's wife is authentic. Why do most scholars believe it's fake?

Jesus’s bachelorhood is almost taken for granted today. In the Catholic tradition, his single status forms the basis for the theological argument that priests cannot marry. Those making this argument point to a simple, undeniable fact: the New Testament contains no mention at all of Jesus’s having been married... That’s true as far as it goes. But as the Gospels present it, the biography of Jesus contains a gaping hole. None of the stories produced about him in the first century A.D.—stories with at least some potential to be accurate—tells us anything at all about his adolescence or 20s.

For six days in September 2012, some 300 participants came together at Sapienza University, in Rome, for the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies. Among those presenting was Karen L. King. The author of five books, King is a highly respected specialist in early Christianity whose work focuses on a group of Christians commonly known as the Gnostics. Her 2003 volume, What Is Gnosticism?, is already a standard in the field. She currently teaches at Harvard Divinity School, where she is the first woman to hold the Hollis Professorship—the oldest endowed chair in the country. She is, and has long been, considered to be one of the best religion scholars in the world.

King began her lecture at 7 o’clock in the evening, during the last session on the second day, a time when most participants had moved on to dinner, at least mentally. King’s talk followed others with titles such as “A New Branch: Judas Scholarship in Gnostic Studies” and “Wisdom’s Sadness in Valentinian Cosmogony,” and hers promised to be similarly staid. Its title, “A New Coptic Gospel Fragment,” might have suggested she would be describing a newly discovered fragment of a previously known Christian text—nothing more, that is, than a minor addition to the corpus of old Christian texts, of the type that appear on the scene with some regularity. 

But once King began her lecture, those in the audience quickly realized that she would not be talking about a new fragment of a familiar Gospel. Instead, she would be presenting something extraordinary: a fragment of a previously unknown Gospel.

King believed that the fragment dated from about the fourth century A.D. (later testing would show that it likely dated from about the eighth century) and that it may have been a translation of a Greek text originally written in the second century A.D. The fragment was small, about the size of a credit card, and contained eight incomplete lines of text that read as follows:
1. not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]
2. The disciples said to Jesus
3. deny. Mary is n[ot] worthy of it
4. Jesus said to them, My wife
5. she is able to be my disciple
6. Let wicked people swell up
7. As for me, I am with her in order to
8. an image
Many aspects of the text and the papyrus were unusual. Some were not so obvious at first glance, though they would turn out to be of great significance later on. But one was momentous, and became the focus of attention: the fourth line, in which Jesus makes reference to having a wife. This was a bombshell. No such direct reference, in Jesus’s own words, had ever been discovered before in any early Christian text.

Even though the dialogue recorded in the fragment is only partial, almost anyone can understand the gist. The first line has Jesus recognizing his mother’s importance. The second and third lines have the disciples seemingly debating the worthiness of Mary—a probable reference, given the words my wife in the fourth line, not to the Virgin Mary but to Mary Magdalene, the oft-maligned patron of the Jesus movement. This Mary, Jesus says in line five, can be his disciple, and in lines six and seven he castigates those who would oppose such discipleship as “wicked,” drawing the contrast with himself, who is “with her.”

As King discussed her interpretation of the text and its importance to the history of Christian thought, those in the audience asked whether they could see a picture of the fragment. King’s computer wasn’t working, so they passed around an iPad with a photo of it. Almost immediately upon seeing the fragment, some of the scholars in the room began to openly question its authenticity. 

The next day, writing on his blog, Christian Askeland, a Coptic scholar currently affiliated with Indiana Wesleyan University, summed up the general feeling about the fragment. The specialists at the conference who had seen the photo were “split,” he wrote, “with almost two-thirds … being extremely skeptical about the manuscript’s authenticity and one-third … essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.”

While the experts were airing their doubts, a very different story was being broadcast to the wider public. At about the time King was presenting her talk in Rome, the Harvard Divinity School put photos and an early draft of her commentary about the fragment online. 

Even before she left Cambridge for the conference, King had shown the fragment to The New York TimesThe Boston Globe, and Harvard Magazine, which had taken photos of her in her office holding the framed text up for the camera. Just after King gave her talk, therefore, The Times was able to publish news of the fragment’s discovery online, in a story titled “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” That article, accompanied by a photo of King and the fragment, appeared in the print edition of The Times the next morning. The Boston Globe ran a similar story, misleadingly titled “Historian’s Finding Hints That Jesus Was Married.”

In fact, exercising good historical judgment, King had gone out of her way to stress that the fragment provided no evidence whatsoever about Jesus’s marital status. The text, she had pointed out, dated from too long after Jesus’s death to be considered a reliable historical source. Such nuance, however, quickly got lost in the excitement—in part, no doubt, because King had given the fragment a sensational title: the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. As it turned out, she had also already talked to the Smithsonian Channel, which planned to produce a television special titled The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The network declared it would be a blockbuster “of biblical proportions.”.. read more:

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