An Interview with the Discoverer of ‘Jesus’ Wife’

The Harvard scholar is keen to have the authenticity and context of the intriguing papyrus explored and debated. But she remains excited by the find

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Rose Lincoln / Harvard University / Reuters

Karen King, professor at Harvard University, holds the papyrus fragment that contains the writing, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

When Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, unveiled last week a fragment of papyrus, on which Jesus says the words my wife, she was greeted with a mix of excitement and dismay. Could a tiny strip of barely legible papyrus call into question some of the church’s most well-known teachings? King spoke to TIME about the controversial fragment’s authenticity, its relation to the New Testament and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

How would you sum up the significance of what you’ve found on this papyrus fragment?
Assuming, of course, that it’s authentic, it gives us a portrait of discussions that were happening at the end of the 2nd century, about 150 years after the death of Jesus, concerning marriage, sexuality, reproduction, family and discipleship. Those issues are still obviously of considerable contemporary concern.

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Experts you consulted, in New York and in Israel, found no evidence of forgery. And yet since then, many, including a lot of the experts at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, where you presented it, have been quick to challenge the fragment’s authenticity. What do you make of that discrepancy?
Part of the reason for making it public at the Coptic conference in Rome was to engender a discussion about the fragment, about its authenticity, about its meaning, and to raise questions before we went to publication with it. So I actually welcome a lot of the comments that have been made. I’ve had great discussions with colleagues about what kind of fragment this might be, questions about handwriting, about the meaning of the text, its place in Christianity.

What’s been the most thought-provoking reaction you’ve received?
The fragment has writing on both sides. I’m not a papyrologist, but I thought it was a codex. Other persons who are papyrologists have suggested that perhaps it was some kind of private communication or perhaps a reused piece of papyrus. They weren’t questioning the authenticity, but they were asking what kind of fragment it is.

Do you have doubts on the authenticity of the fragment?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I think something like this needs to be questioned further. We are going ahead with tests about the chemical composition of the ink that won’t absolutely resolve the issue but will certainly give us one more piece of evidence.

You chose the phrase the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” to refer to this. What does gospel mean in this context?
There has been considerable misunderstanding about this, partly because people think of a gospel as a genre of the New Testament canon. But for those of us who work in the literature of the 2nd century, we have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and many, many other early Christian gospels. My suggestion in calling it a gospel is that it fits into this kind of genre. It’s not a claim for authority or canonicity at all.

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Doesn’t its length disqualify it from being called a gospel?
With regard to the New Testament, for example, from this period we have tiny fragments of the New Testament gospels, John and Matthew, dating from the 2nd and 3rd century. These are actually the earliest physical existing pieces of these gospels that still remain, and they are tiny fragments like this one. The size of the fragment doesn’t actually indicate the size of the work it comes from.

Much has been made of the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” Some have offered alternative explanations, pointing out that in other writings the term my wife could have referred to the church or that Jesus could have been speaking in parables. What made you conclude that the author of the text was referring to Jesus’ real wife?
Of course, one needs to consider all the possibilities. The notion of the church or a sister-wife [a female Platonic companion] or the bride in the Book of Revelations, these are all possibilities. But the next extant line says: “She will be able to be my disciple.” That doesn’t strike me as something one would say, for example, about the church. But, of course, we can’t exclude any of those possibilities, precisely because the fragment itself is so tiny.

Do you see this as a challenge to Vatican policies, specifically to the celibacy of priests in imitation of the unmarried Christ of tradition?
My position is that of a historian, so I don’t certainly intend to raise a challenge. It’s up to them to see if this is a challenge and how to deal with it.

What’s next? What are the unanswered questions about this fragment that you find most exciting?
Well, it would be great to have more discussions about what this fragment means, what its significance is. It would be lovely if we could find more of the text to which it belongs.

What did Dan Brown get right?
Well, there’s so much that Dan Brown got wrong. Jesus and Mary Magdalene married — there’s no evidence that they were. There’s no evidence that they had a child. There’s no evidence of a Catholic conspiracy. What Dan Brown did for us as scholars was to provide a teaching moment, an opportunity when the public was actually interested in these questions.

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19 comments
udom7a
udom7a

The investigation I am asking scientists for is, one into the boat trip made by the uncle of Jesus, at the time that Jesus vanished .  If there is no body there is no death, just a missing person, which is what took place in Jesus' case . An investigation into the trip that Jesus' uncle made with an empty boat to England at the time that Jesus vanished would be the most important made into the life and death of the, "Saviour of mankind". That boat trip puts in question the principal teaching of Christianity .

udom7a
udom7a

A lot of things said about Jesus are just not true, he had a mortal father just like the rest of us, did not die on the cross but was taken to England in his metal trading uncle's boat as historic evidence indicate .

Brian Durocher
Brian Durocher

I think it's funny that they say:  "The Harvard scholar is keen to have the authenticity and context of the

intriguing papyrus explored and debated. But she remains excited by the

find." She wanted to have her research published before they did any scientific research on it! Also, most reputable scholars believe it to be a modern forgery.

Bobinator
Bobinator

Not to be picky, but did Karen King say "The book of Revelations" or did the writer interpret it this way?  The last book of the bible is called Revelation. No plural. 

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

Some things are crazy some absurd and some straw headed as much as the dating of the Shroud was messed up

udom7a
udom7a

@Vijay Banga Only fools believe in the shroud .

SimeonMagus
SimeonMagus

Dismaying to hear a respected Harvard professor of early Christian history referring to the Book of Revelations (plural). Is this just a typo in the transcription of this Qamp;A?

Bobinator
Bobinator

 ah, Simeon, I see you also picked that up. Couldn't have been the Harvard professor, surely. Probably just transcription error.

danlunche
danlunche

The bible says there is no marriage in Heaven. So Jesus up and marries a wife, leaves her behind and when she gets to Heaven He will say, "Uh Mary, this is somewhat of an uncomfortable situation here but you are just going to have to settle for being a saint."

Nah, it is just to inconsistent for Jesus to have a wife. He's not a deadbeat husband.

Now if you assume Jesus was just a man like King does then it seems a viable theory.

Dan Gethers
Dan Gethers

Jesus was (IS) married. His bride was (IS) the Church. The bible tells us so.

 

http://www.veritasbible.com/re...

 

Jesus, always faithful of course, loves her to this day.

Therefore, Jesus did not cheat on her by marrying another woman.

LeonelAdam
LeonelAdam

Tony responded I'm startled that someone can earn $8620 in one month on the network. have you seen this(Click on menu Home)

nelson_1972
nelson_1972

Seems to me that the issue was settled long ago ... in the bible.

Jesus had a bride ... namely, the Church.

 

http://www.veritasbible.com/re...

 

Jesus is ALWAYS faithful, of course. So he loves her still.

Another woman in the picture? Ridiculous.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Let's be accurate here. Jesus himself never said anything about having a wife. A 4th-century papyrus fragment has a character named Jesus saying the word "wife". There is no context, no provenance, not even accurate dating and authentication of the fragment yet. So, to write that "Jesus said ..." based on this papyrus fragment is simply not correct. This is all much ado about nothing, and tells us nothing about what the real Jesus said. For that, we have the Gospels. 

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

Dan, you don't know what was originally written about the Jesus myth in the first several centuries between the time said the crucifixion happened and when the various writings about the myth were chosen by Church leaders to bring the multiple sects of Christ followers under one "roof".

If one is looking for evidence that doesn't exist, there is no SECULAR evidence that the Biblical Jesus ever existed.  So finding a reference by a mythological figure of his mythological wife is rather a reach, but much was written about this myth in the early years before the first "Bible" was put together.

And if one considers what evolution does to the Jesus myth in particular (the completely non-existent need for a "redeemer" for a "sin" that never happened) and the creationist views of the big three religions in general, then it's doubly doubtful that any secular evidence of the biblical Jesus will ever be found.

Unlike lost writings on a myth that was increasingly popular over the course of centuries, you can't find what doesn't exist.

Also, the fragment DOES say "Jesus said unto them, "My wife...""  That's the translation on line 4.  Beyond that, it's subject to interpretation.

JP Boldt
JP Boldt

 This is actually not true. The Roman historians Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius all mention the fact that Jesus existed and was crucified by the Romans. There are also death records for his crucifixion. Jesus was not a mythical person but a Palestinian Jew that existed in history. Now all the stories we find about him in the NT are not all based on historical fact but to say that he did not exist is false

tedbern2012
tedbern2012

http://www.gospels.net/gjw/   An new analysis of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife from an Oxford Scholar

SimeonMagus
SimeonMagus

Fascinating read. Much thanks for the URL reference, Ted, and for pointing the path to Francis Watson as well.

Souheil Bayoud
Souheil Bayoud

What the Gnostic writings has to do with the true gospel of Salvation?Anything based on a lie is a lie.The Holy blood Holy grail pretend that Jesus escaped death on the cross and married Mary Magdalene.Then Da Vinci Code pretend a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the real blood of the grail is inside Mary based on the painting of the last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci.After that some people pretend finding Jesus tomb and bones and carried DNA tests! and statistics on names! Now a scholar has a writing words on a papyrus about Jesus wife and titled that papyrus in the shape of a credit card a gospel!!! Through history many people had and still tried to strip Jesus of His deity.They believe in a Jesus who was a mere man,a great teacher with spiritual insight but otherwise ordinary.The marriage of Jesus is taken to be proof that He was not God in the flesh,but only a mortal man.Actually in the above fake stories there is a very dangerous and deceiving lie about the real blood and the wife.The truth is that real and Holy blood is on Jesus' forehead and not in the womb of Mary Magdalene or any other woman.This is revealed by Souheil Bayoud in the true story THE COIN OF THE TEMPLE.As for the wife ,the impossibility of the marriage of Jesus is not and will not be revealed to disbelievers and opponents to Orthodox Christianity and the Church.