The world of ancient papyrology—the study of tiny scraps of manuscripts unearthed in archeological digs across the Mediterranean—is not, in general, a font of juicy media stories. That is, unless the papyrus in question seems to suggest that Jesus, long understood to have been celibate, was married. Last September, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King presented her initial findings about a business-card-sized fragment of papyrus, believed to be the work of early followers of Jesus. The 33 words on the fragment included:
Jesus said to them, “My wife …"
"she will be able to be my disciple"
King’s discovery—which she dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—immediately made headlines across the world, and sent shockwaves through academic and religious communities. The Vatican dismissed the fragment, saying it was a clear fake. Scholars of antiquity lined up on either side, some declaring it a historic find, while others decried it as an inept forgery designed to undermine Christian teachings about celibacy and women’s leadership.
Now, more than a year later, scientific analysis of the papyrus and the ink reveals that the fragment is likely ancient. A chemistry professor at MIT told the New York Times that doctoring the scrap of paper would have been “extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Not everyone is convinced. Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown, says the fragment is so obviously fake it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”
The fracas over whether the papyrus was forged has, so far, overshadowed questions about its historical meaning—and what ramifications it might have for contemporary Christianity. The American Prospect spoke with Karen King about the media firestorm around the papyrus, and what the early Christians might have meant when they wrote about Jesus’s wife.
Were you anticipating such a widespread backlash to the fragment?
The story was much bigger than I thought, and much more global. Usually, there’s a lot of time for other scholars to take a look at your data, to carefully consider something new, but because of the public interest and the media storm, scholars were asked immediately to respond. As a result, what got circulated in the press and on the Internet were immediate impressions—what people thought when they first looked at the fragment or heard there was a fragment that said, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” In that sense, it was kind of a Rorschach test. Typically, in scholarship, the wheels grind slowly and we work collaboratively at a more careful pace, taking in all the criticisms and doing more research. That’s what happened and why it has taken another year and a half to publish the fragment.
Why do you think people were so fascinated by this finding, and so quick to draw dramatic conclusions from it?
Some of the passion of the responses came from the perception that it might change people’s understanding of Jesus. Some people wrote me and said, Jesus was without sin, therefore he could not be married. The implication is that sexuality has some taint of sin. Other people would say, if Jesus were married, that would undermine the Catholic teaching about a celibate priesthood. That fed into notions about whether the fragment was forged. There’s this notion that if the papyrus truly is an ancient document, then what it says is true, and if it’s a forgery, what it says is false. People who embraced the usual conviction that Jesus wasn’t married therefore tended to assume it was forgery. On the other hand, those who already thought he must have been married—after all, he was Jewish and a rabbi so that would be expected—tended to think the fragment was authentic. But the fragment can be—I think it is—ancient and authentic, and yet what it says about Jesus was written too long after his life to be historically reliable.
Does the fragment prove that Jesus was married?
No. The fragment is not reliable evidence of whether Jesus was married. Both people who responded very favorably to me and people who responded very negatively believed I had said something that I didn’t say. People quite understandably want a clear answer to this question, but we—historians—don’t actually know for sure.
But some early Christians believed that Jesus might not have been celibate?
Sometime in the late second and early third century the question of Jesus being married comes up as part of an active debate in which the main interest was sexual ethics for Christians. Should Christians marry, or should they be celibate? Is celibacy better than marriage? The first people to talk about Jesus’s marital status really weren’t talking about him as a historical person. They used a metaphor: that Christ was married to the church, or the bride of Christ was New Jerusalem. As far as I’ve been able to discover, the first people to say that the historical Jesus was not married were a group of Christians who were condemned as heretics. They said that marriage is fornication and Christians should imitate the Lord who never married. They regarded themselves as superior because they were following the gospel. The only text I’ve found that said that the historical Jesus was married—to Mary Magdalene—was the Gospel of Philip, which was found in Egypt in 1945. It sees his marriage as part of his incarnate life, like his birth and teaching mission. It has symbolic meaning for the soul’s union with the divine spirit in baptism.
Does the fragment suggest that women might have been leaders in the early Christian church?
When some people were looking for a motive for forgery, some suggested that it would promote women’s priesthood. But I don’t think the fragment is interested in that issue. I think the main assertion here is that wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus. Some people may think that that’s obvious and doesn’t need to be said. But if you look at early Christianity, this was a really hot topic. There’s a saying where Peter says to Jesus, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Some Christians were clearly arguing that women couldn’t be disciples of Jesus. But then you see something like 1 Timothy in the New Testament, where the author of that letter writes that women will be saved through bearing children and bishops should be the husband of one wife. It condemns people who reject marriage, in the strongest terms, calling them liars inspired by demons. So early Christians were taking some very strong positions with regard to women’s discipleship. They were especially focused on sexually active women, wives and mothers. In my view, the fragment fits into that discussion and comes down on the side of 1 Timothy: Yes, women who are wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus.
Do we know anything else about when the fragment was written, or who might have written it?
The radiocarbon dating Noreen Tuross did at Harvard just came back and puts this fragment somewhere between the 7th and the 9th centuries. That’s the actual date of the material piece of surviving papyrus. But that doesn’t mean that’s when the text was composed. For example, generally we think the gospels of the New Testament were all composed in the 1st century, even though we don’t have any existing pieces of 1st century copies of New Testament gospels. That doesn’t make anybody think they weren’t composed in the 1st century, but it does show that “When was something composed?” is a different question from “How old is the existing material copy?” Mostly for this fragment, we have more questions than answers. When was it composed? When was it copied? Who was reading it in the 8th century? Why did somebody copy it then? I’ve been dating the original composition to the late second or early third century because I think it fits into this time when Christians were asking a lot of questions about marriage and celibacy. But that’s more speculative than asking why Christians were reading it in the 8th century.
Why might people in the 8th century have wanted to copy it?
Since we got that radiocarbon dating so recently, I have not had a chance to explore that. And obviously no one else has either. Particularly fascinating to me, though, is the notion of Christianity in Egypt in the early Islamic period. We know that Muhammad was married. Islam understands that the prophets were married, and they considered Jesus a prophet. So even though the Qur’an did not say Jesus was married, it’s interesting to ask the question about what Christians were thinking about Jesus’s marital status in a milieu where Muhammad and other prophets were married.
Does the papyrus have anything to say about Christian life and practice today?
It does ask Christians to think about whether all intimate sexual relations—even sex in marriage, even sex that gives us our children, that fits in relationships of mutuality, commitment, and affection—is tainted by sin. And it asks Christians to think about whether sexuality is part of being fully human. Because Christianity has this theological notion that in the incarnation, God became fully human—Jesus was not only fully God, he was fully human—if he did not engage in any form of intimate sexual relations, does that mean that sexuality is not part of being fully human? Those questions are very, very important for any kind of contemporary Christian sexual ethics.