An approximately 4cm by 8cm fragment, which reads “Jesus said to them, my wife” in line four of eight was unveiled by Harvard Professor Karen King at a congress of Coptic Studies in Rome on September 18, 2012. The language of the fragment is Sahidic and the text is thought to be from the 4th century.
Dr. King’s actual research paper is scheduled to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January 2013. At the congress, King only made an official announcement, gave a brief overview of the document and explained that the official research will be published in January. However, the rhetoric and, in some cases, panic has already started. On the basis of this fragment, some are already claiming that Jesus did indeed have a wife. Others are claiming that this is more evidence that the early church Father’s suppressed other early legitimate Christian beliefs in favor of what we today call “orthodox belief”. Others are claiming the fragment is a forgery. My purpose here is to add my thoughts in an attempt to minimize the propagation of extreme claims. The fact is that all the evidence is not in. Professor King has clearly stated that she thinks the fragment is authentic but even she says that more testing is necessary. Even if it is authentic, she also clearly states that “this new discovery does not prove that the historical Jesus was married...But the fragment does suggest that 150 years or so after Jesus’ birth, Christians were already taking positions on such questions.” In my view, this is a fair analysis.
Nobody has made the claim yet, but I have a suspicion that as time goes on, this fragment, in the eyes of some, will be given the same authority as the four canonical evangelists. I base this suspicion on two things. First on the scholarly perspective of Dr. King and second on the name she gave the fragment. She calls it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.
In an interview, King emphasized that this new discovery does prove that the historical Jesus was married and at the same time gives her opinion about the canonical Gospels. She says, “This gospel, like others dated to the second century which make opposing claims—that Jesus was celibate, for example—are too late, historically speaking, to provide evidence as to whether the historical Jesus was married or not...”
This quote tells us at least two things about King’s presuppositions. First, she does not think the canonical gospels have much historical value. She says that they (both the canonical gospels and the fragment) are too late to provide, “historically speaking, any evidence as to whether the historical Jesus was married or not.” Second, she seems to give this fragment the same authority or even historical value as the canonical gospels. She calls the fragment “this gospel” and, historically speaking, puts it on the level of the four New Testament gospels. This suggests that in her eyes, they have the same historical and documentary value.
Even though I don’t agree with King’s first presupposition that the gospels have no real historical value, I can concede that she probably has some well thought through reasons for her position. However, calling this new fragment a gospel on the level of the other Gospel’s seems like a bit of an overstatement.
We have many full copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that date back to the fourth century and fragments that arguably date back to the late first or at least the early second century. That is a significant amount of manuscript evidence. By calling this credit card size fragment of a document a “Gospel”, on the level of Gospels that are preserved in whole or in part over a widespread geographical area and even in several different translations, King is making “category” mistake. We have many ancient full copies of the New Testament Gospels. We can read a passage of these documents in the context of the author’s intent by also reading the entire document. We cannot do that with “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment. This is a fragment of a document we know nothing about. We must admit that without knowing the context of the document from which this fragment comes, it is nearly impossible to assign any real meaning to the content of this short passage.
To illustrate this point, I have decided to try an experiment. Thanks to the Sinaiticus Project we have access to the ancient Greek manuscript – Sinaiticus through the internet. The Manuscript is just as old as the “Jesus Wife fragment” but in much better shape. It includes the entire Bible and additional material. I decided to use the Gospel of John in my experiment. John himself clearly tells us the reason he wrote his Gospel, “But these have been recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so that through believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31 (ISV). I decided to pretend that the world knows nothing about the Gospel of John and one day a fragment of an unknown Gospel (The Gospel of John) was found. This fragment happened to be from a manuscript like Sinaiticus – good text in four columns. I chose a page of Sinaiticus that included Mary and Martha. I measured an approximately 8cm by 4cm rectangle (same size as the Jesus’ wife fragment), imposed the rectangle on the page in Sinaiticus and pretended that the fragment inside the square was all we had of John (see illustration below). The fragment included part of column 3 and a section of column 4. This preserves part of John 11:52 and 53 and almost all of John 12:2. Like the “Jesus’ wife fragment” it includes about 8 lines of text as follows:
1. ν υπερ ΙC εκ νεκρων ε 1. n for Jesus from the dead.
2. ους και ου ποιησαν ουν αυ 2. ous and Therefore [they] made him
3. ου εθνου τω δπενον εκει 3. ou nation dinner there.
4. αλλ ινα και η μαρθα διη 4. but so that and Martha
5. κνα του κονι ο δε λαζαρος 5. kna the served but Lazarus
6. σκοπις εις ην εκ τωνα 6. scattered(?) was one of the people
7. ν αγαγη νακειμενων συ 7. gathered reclining with
8. εκεινης ν αυτω: 8. of that woman/one him.
Now if this fragment was all we knew about the Gospel of John, what could we concluded? Line one seems to have something to do with Jesus raising from the dead or being raised from the dead. So perhaps this is an event that took place after Jesus’ resurrection. From the right column I might conclude that after Jesus had just risen from the dead and Mary and Martha prepared him dinner. At the dinner Martha served while Lazarus reclined with him. From the left column I might guess that they were possibly discussing something about the role of women in gathering the scattered nation of Israel. I could call this fragment, “The Gospel of Jesus’ dinner party”. Of course, when we compare these conclusions with the actual Gospel of John, I would be completely wrong. This is a far cry from, “But these have been recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so that through believing you may have life in his name.” I would also be wrong to call this “The Gospel…..”. It is a fragment and nothing more.
We must employ the Joe Friday principle…Just the facts. The facts are that we might have a fragment of a larger document that includes the name Jesus (a very common name by the way), some disciples, a woman named Mary and probably a reference to the afore mentioned Jesus’ wife. We don’t know with reasonable certainty if the text is even talking about the Jesus of Nazareth or some other Jesus who had disciples. We don’t know which Mary. We don’t know who wrote the document, to whom he or she wrote or for what reason. My primary point is this. In my opinion, Dr. King is jumping the gun a little and possible stacking the deck by calling this fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ wife”. In my view, the most optimistic statement that can be made, while being faithful to the facts, is that we possibly (all the testing is not complete) have a fragment (not a Gospel) of an ancient document that may have a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and a woman named Mary who could possibly be his wife. That is about as much certainty and clarity as we can expect from a credit card fragment of an unknown document.
My suggestion is to be patient and to wait for all the evidence to be in. When more evidence is uncovered, if the fragment is authentic, it should be given proper weight. I suggest that the proper weight now is not the weight of the canonical evangelists but the weight of a fragment of an unknown document.
Source of “Jesus wife fragment” photo: http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/09/new-gospelSource of Sinaiticus illustration: http://codexsinaiticus.org