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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9 Responses to Mrs. Messiah?

  1. What is the big fuss? I could care less if Jesus had a wife. He left us his WORD, not his ancestry.

  2. cj henderson says:

    Oh well …
    Two things … hadn’t heard about this at all, so thanks for the update. It just strikes me as odd that anyone would care. What’s the big deal? Jesus was (let’s go the whole route here) God as man. Man. That implies he did what men do. If he had a last supper, he probably had breakfasts and lunches, too. And went to ye olde outhouse after. He wore clothes, combed his hair, et cetera. He did what guys do. He was God as man. Or, god as Man. He was here, and in Rome (or well, nearby), so he did what Romans do. No pun intended but, Christ, guys, find something real to get upset about.
    Second … I don’t think Penthouse is still around, but trust me, I worked there. They would have printed you in a heartbeat.

  3. Gordon Clason says:

    If we grant that Jesus never actually existed, or at least that at this late date it is impossible to uncover that historical character, then his wife doubtless has the same mythological existence, and, after all, most of the other Jesii did have wives. Hercules had Deianeira, Dionysus had Ariadne, Osiris had Isis, Tammuz had Ishtar, Adonis had Astarte, Attis had Cybele… However, the text did not actually name Mary Magdalene, but only Mary. I find that particularly interesting in the light of Robert Graves’ assertion in King Jesus that Jesus married Mary of Bethany. If “Mary” was the mythological wife, she could well be a trinity of Marys: mother, wife, annointer for death, for example. Isis is the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, who is Osiris resurrected. In Hyslop’s The Two Babylons, he theorizes that Semiramis is the wife of one god-king and mother/wife of the second which she claims is the first husband resurrected. And of course we have the case of Oedepus and Jocasta. For the goddess to be both mother and wife to the dying/rising savior is not all that far fetched. And trinitarian goddesses are also very common. Brigit is a triple goddess. Isis, Hathor and Nephthys have the moon in common, one being crescent, one full and one new. In Greece there is also a trinity of moon goddesses: Hecate in Tartarus, Artemis in earth and Olympus, Selene in the heavens. And Graves claiming that the Llew Llaw Gyffes story is the closest to the original of any dying/rising fertility hero story that survives, (in White Goddess) claims that the story reveals a trinity of goddesses where one person is Arianrhod is the mother, Blodeuwedd is the wife and Ceredwin is the crone who represents death. In fact both Graves and Evengeline Walton claim that Ceredwin is the sow who eats Llew’s body.

    Now, if the fragment had specified Mary Magdalene, I would have had more doubts, but there are examples of early texts which name her as a very important person to Jesus, so it wouldn’t be impossible on historical grounds. Graves evidence for Jesus’ marriage in King Jesus was theological as well as cherry-picking the gospels, so Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh aren’t the first ones to claim a wedding in the Jesus story. Actually, I guess Plantard was the claimant, wasn’t he?

  4. John Green says:

    I’m glad you commented on that. I was wondering if you would. There was a feature on NPR regarding it but I have heard nothing of the latest developments suggesting fraud. Perhaps such things are not newsworthy. Alas, it seems we will never know the facts regarding Jesus’ marital status. Too bad journalism as we know it today didn’t exist then. Or, maybe it is a good thing. Just what would we believe about Jesus today if there had been modern style journalists back then?

  5. Art Cominio says:

    cj, it strikes me as odd that anyone would *NOT* care. The reason is simple. Pious fraud was not inveted in the 21st century, so we have much reason to doubt just how accurate our “orthodox” scriptures really are as we have received them. In a Religion based on divine revelation, the things divinely revealed are of paramount importance. Toss in a heaping measure of tradition not even based in scripture, and we can be certain of very little.
    Not that the single issue of Christ’s marital status is of paramount importance. But the manner in which the scriptures have come down to us *IS*.

  6. Aidan Kelly says:

    I bet the Richard J. Arthur you mention is my old buddy from the GTU ca 1980. I was just quoting him the other day, and wondering what had become of him. I’ll search again, but could you maybe pass my email address on to him? I’d love it.

  7. Tony Romero says:

    but what’s the motive, Poirot?
    Why would someone with such esteemed credentials take such a risk?

  8. Jocta Anoraacle says:

    WHAT YOU WRITE HERE is too too too long! A waste of time and effort!

    You need to learn to GET TO THE POINT BY THE SHORTEST ROUTE!

    All any rational person needs to say is:


  9. dashulamite says:

    Unfortunately, this story is back in the limelight. The Smithsonian Channel has strangely decided to air a documentary about this “text.” What kills me about all this is that it makes the motives of everyone involved as transparent as air. For those who ask, “why would Karen King put her reputation on the line?” I think the an$wer is pretty obviou$. Sure, she may be a Harvard Professor, but c’mon, she’s still a nobody. This is her opportunity to join the ranks of the best-selling “popularizers” Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. That is, if she really feels justified that she can write anything substantial about a scrap of parchment the size of a business card, with little more than the words “my wife” and some content ripped off from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Now aside from what some “experts” may say to vindicate this “document,” let me urge the credulous to keep a couple things in mind as they decide the authenticity for themselves:
    1. There is some obvious obfuscation regarding the origin and ownership of this document. The documentary is very misleading on this point.
    2. You do not have to be a textual critic, a Coptologist, a papyrologist, or possess any other credential to make a judgment of the authenticity of this thing. If you have seen the real thing (i.e. the Nag Hammadi codices) you will KNOW that this is a fake. Notice if you will, how unbelievably dark the ink is on the papyrus that is so damaged that the reverse shows a complete separation of fibers and loss of ink. I won’t get into the carbon dating or the ink analysis because the forgers obviously reused authentic materials, but consider this: If the paper dates, as tests show, from the 7th century, what scribe (in what monastery?) would be wasting his time copying this drivel for, and how would it happen to be kicking around when all of the other heretical scriptures were buried in the sand? Notice also that the letters are not uniform as in most Coptic script, and show the tell-tale, quivering “drawn” look of a forger. Again, compare the work of other scribes and consider the uniformity and beauty of the text. There’s a reason they were scribes.
    3. There is an obvious agenda. This is such a no-brainer I think I hardly need to point it out, but consider the “da Vinci Code.” The fact that Karen King has the audacity to call something the size of a business card with less information than a telegram on it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” underscores the fact that she’s got a quasi-feminist axe to grind, and obviously couldn’t get anyone’s interest without her Coptic fortune cookie.
    What is really pathetic about this stunt is that it really does not make any difference. What if Jesus did have a wife? Would that make Jesus more or less of a God or a Man to those who believe he was both? Of course not. As for the early church, there is already ample evidence that women like Junia and Thecla were accorded the status of apostles, that the “pastoral” epistles were forgeries, and Mary Magdalene herself was officially rehabilitated by the Catholic Church in the 1960s and is honored as a saint in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.
    To sum up, this is really just a pathetic and disgraceful media sham.
    I wish forgers could get over their vanity-driven insecurities and their puny political agendas and get a bit more daring, though A “Gospel of a Cross-Dressing Alien Shaman Jesus and the Apostleroids from Mars” would make much more exciting news.

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