Mrs. Messiah?

Mary Magdalena as Mrs Messiah

Recently I read about Jesus’ wife, not in the gossip column, and not for some extravagant vacation trip to Spain. You probably heard about it, too. Karen King, an erudite pal of mine from the Jesus Seminar days, presented a paper to some scholarly confab in Rome in which she unveiled a ripped-up Coptic text fragment she says some collector loaned to her. There isn’t much left of it, but what you can read clearly has Jesus referring to Mary (Magdalene) as “my wife.” It would have been a bit funnier had he said “the wife” (don’t you hate that expression?). Is the text authentic? That’s two questions in one. Is the scrap actually an ancient piece of writing, as opposed to a modern hoax written on genuine ancient papyrus? And, if it is ancient, does it actually report historical data on Jesus (assuming he existed in the first place)?

The age of the papyrus can be fixed somewhere in the fourth century, just like the manuscripts of the Gnostic Nag Hammadi library and, er, come to think of it, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, our earliest complete New Testament manuscripts. But when was the text composed? That’s anybody’s guess, just like with the New Testament writings. Professor King thinks the document is very likely a copy of a genuinely ancient work. Most of the relevant experts she ran it by said so, though one sneered at it as a definite modern forgery. The paper was up for publication in the prestigious Harvard Theological Review (a journal I have about as much chance of appearing in as I do in Penthouse). But veteran Harvard Professor Helmut Koester (a disciple of Rudolf Bultmann and, I am grateful to report, co-instructor, along with Harvey Cox, of a “Heresies Ancient and Modern” course I took at HDS back in the glory days of 1977), nixed the publication when other scholars weighed in, pointing out various problems with the paleography and content. A fake after all, or at least so likely a fake that no one wanted to make the Review and its editors look like fools should the hoax one day be exposed (if it hasn’t already).

I had my own doubts as soon as I read the translation, such as it is. I know as much about paleography and about the Coptic language as I do refrigerator repair, so I’ll stick to the content. From the few letters remaining on what was left of the text, one can tell the document ran parallel with one of the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas (the best known of the Nag Hammadi texts): “My natural mother gave me death, but my true mother gave me life” (saying 101). The lines in which Jesus is shown defending Mary as worthy of discipleship is another version of Thomas 114, “Simon Peter says, ‘Tell Mary to leave us, because women are unworthy of the Life.’ Jesus says, ‘Behold, I shall lead her to make her male, so that she, too, may become a living spirit, like you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” There is also an echo of the saying in another Nag Hammadi text, the Gospel of Phillip, in which Jesus again defends Mary from the male disciples’ criticisms, and the set-up to the saying says “The Savior loved Mary and used to kiss her on the lips.” The new text seems to make the relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene more explicitly marital.

Okay, in so tiny a fragment, ostensibly of a longer gospel text, what are the chances that virtually the whole thing would “happen” to parallel portions of other already-known gospels and nothing else? And the only part you can read clearly is the business about ”my wife”? I smell a rat. I smell a modern attempt to stir up the Da Vinci Code tempest in a teapot over whether Jesus was married.

Karen King argued that it would have taken greater expertise than some casual troublemaker can be pictured possessing for someone to fake this gospel text. True, but that only narrows down the pool of possible suspects, right? In the National Geographic special about the “newly discovered Gospel according to Judas” a few years ago, a reporter asked one of the “dream team” of scholars who had shepherded the Judas Gospel to press: who might theoretically have had  the skills to forge such a thing? The scholar said, “Nobody outside of this room.” But I agree with Richard J. Arthur that it was one of those men gathered in that room! I think I know which one, too. (That one also cheated by reusing a chunk of a Nag Hammadi gospel, the Apocryphon of John, even copying the exact same spelling error present in one of our three Nag Hammadi copies!)

Bible hoaxes are nothing new. Look at Bart Ehrman’s fine book Forged. He shows how quite a number of biblical writings are pious frauds. But if you want to read about modern Bible frauds, take a look at Edgar J. Goodspeed’s classic volume Famous Biblical Hoaxes (also published as Strange New Gospels and as Modern Apocrypha) or Per Beskow’s excellent Strange Tales about Jesus. Nicholas Notovich’s The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ and William Mahan’s The Archko Volume still make the rounds in reprint editions, and there are many others, less well known today.

Debate still rages over the Secret Gospel of Mark, allegedly discovered (but very likely fabricated) by Morton Smith. Again, no slob, rather an astronomically highly educated specialist who had every skill necessary to pull off such a hoax and seems to have done so. (Actually, I hope somebody eventually manages to vindicate this text fragment, since it would fit so well into some of my hare-brained theories, but so far it looks bad for Smith.)

The trade in fake archaeological relics has of late been brisk, what with the Ossuary of James and some sculpted pomegranate detail from a Davidic building proving to have been produced in a professional relic-forger’s back room workshop. But the cranking out of fake early Christian documents is even more disturbing to me. It shows a poisonous cynicism not only without the scholarly community but within it as well. Have we so completely wrung the juice out of the genuine evidence that we feel forced to fabricate new “ancient data” to supplement our theorizing? In that case, the scholarly game is just not worth playing anymore.

So says Zarathustra.

A fourth century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. (Karen L. King / Harvard


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