Karen King recently discovered a 4th century Coptic papyrus that appears to record Jesus speaking about his wife. King is calling the document The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which is quite a grand name for a fragment about the size of a business card. In fact, the lack of extant text not only makes genre determinations impossible but also makes King’s interpretation a highly speculative and prejudicial endeavor.
King does not claim this document as proof that Jesus had a wife but rather as proof that Christians as early as the second century believed Jesus to be married. This qualification (almost certainly to be ignored in the popular sphere) asks only that the document be treated as an indirect proof of Jesus’ marital status. Let’s take a look at the fragment.
Assuming the document is neither a forgery nor deliberately cut down to imply Jesus had a wife, five problems still surround King’s claims about the document. First, King argues that the Mary mentioned is Mary Magdalene, who thanks to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is popularly believed by some to be Jesus’ wife. However, considering that two lines previously the phrase “my mother gave me life” appears, King must do quite a lot of academic gymnastics to find a reference to to Mary Magdalene rather than Jesus’ Mother.
Second, if we accept the more probable identification of Mary as the mother of Jesus, the reference to “my wife” comes under suspicion as a mistranslation. If this fragment is a Coptic translation of an earlier Greek text as King claims and was written by an untrained and hurried hand as King admits, the possibility of mistranslation must be considered. Since it appears that the fragment is talking about Mary the mother of Jesus, one might suspect that it would continue with a reference one of the few recorded dialogues between Jesus and his mother. John 2:4 says, “And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come.” The Greek word for “woman” here can also be translated as “wife.” Perhaps the scribe simply mistranslated.
Third, even if this fragment does depict Jesus speaking of his bride, there is a well-established figurative reference of the Church as the bride of Christ. Since we don’t even have enough of the text to know for sure what was being said, we hardly have enough context to know in what sense it was being said.
Fourth, much of King’s argument depends on the possibility of a female disciple drawn from line five: “she will be able to be my disciple.” This reading hangs on the possibility that the first legible letter of this line functions as a third person feminine singular personal prefix. However, since we do not know what comes before (remember there are no spaces between words), we cannot discount the possibility that the first legible letter is the final letter of another word.
Fifth, at the end of the day, this is at best a fourth century fragment. Much of the significance attached to it relies on the assumption that it is a translation of a much earlier second century document. There is simply no evidence to support this claim.
In summary, the reference to Mary Magdalene is anything but clear. The reference to Jesus’ wife could be a translation error or a figurative expression. Due to the condition of the document, we cannot be sure of the reference to a female disciple, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest this text was composed any earlier than the fourth century. However, all facts to the contrary, this fragment will doubtlessly be cited endlessly in the popular arena as proof Jesus was married.
[King has posted draft of her article to appear in the forthcoming Harvard Theological Review, January 2013]
HT: Bill Combs, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” Theologically Driven