Inventing Jesus’ Wife
Revised, 27 September 20121
For Christian traditions that place a high value on celibacy, Jesus is the supreme celibate; and he retains this status even when, in Protestantism, celibacy is no longer seen as a mark of the truly holy life. The Christ who offers salvation to all, the incarnate divine Son, can, surely, never have uttered the words, “My wife”? Yet it is just these words that some scribe, ancient or modern, has put into his mouth. That scribe knew exactly what he or she was doing: subverting deep-seated assumptions about Jesus in the most effective way possible, by challenging them out of Jesus’ own lips. The Jesus of this text renounces not only his celibacy but also the community for which that celibacy is integral to who he is. No Christian institution – not the Vatican itself – could withstand such a challenge, if it really is Jesus who speaks here.
By Francis Watson
Department of Theology and Religion
Durham University, U.K.
Rarely can such a very small object have become so instantly famous. The object is a rectangular scrap of papyrus, 8 x 4 cms., on which are found eight incomplete lines written in Coptic – the Egyptian vernacular of the Roman imperial era. In these lines a dialogue is taking place, and the characters who speak or who are mentioned are mostly familiar. The speaking characters are male, Jesus and his disciples. The non-speaking characters are female. Jesus refers to “my mother”, who “gave me life”. His disciples speak of “Mary”, though it’s not quite clear from the damaged text whether they approve or disapprove of her. Probably they disapprove. This Mary is no doubt supposed to be Mary Magdalene, the most prominent of Jesus’ women disciples in all four New Testament gospels. We also read of an unnamed “wicked man”, who “brings forth...”, although we are not told what he brings forth.
So far this is fairly routine stuff. Over the past century and more, large numbers of ancient gospel or gospel-related papyri have been recovered from the sands of Egypt, some as more or less complete books, others as barely legible fragments. (Of the more complete texts, the best known is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic translation of a Greek original.) Among much else, we learn from these papyri that people continued to write, read, and value other gospel-like texts long after four ancient gospels had been officially installed among the church’s normative scriptures.
The new gospel fragment would have attracted little attention if it had not been for two words (just one in Coptic) in its fourth line: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’” These two words are enough to give this fragment the title by which it will always be known: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW).2
The New Testament is silent on Jesus’ marital status. Two evangelists – Matthew and Luke – tell of his miraculous conception, without sexual intercourse, and this asexual origin sets the tone for his entire life. That Jesus did in fact practise an ascetic renunciation of sexuality is entirely plausible, in a historical context that did not share the modern conviction that a life without sex is a life unfulfilled. For Christian traditions that place a high value on celibacy, Jesus is the supreme celibate; and he retains this status even when, in Protestantism, celibacy is no longer seen as a mark of the truly holy life. The Christ who offers salvation to all, the incarnate divine Son, can, surely, never have uttered the words, “My wife”? Yet it is just these words that some scribe, ancient or modern, has put into his mouth. That scribe knew exactly what he or she was doing: subverting deep-seated assumptions about Jesus in the most effective way possible, by challenging them out of Jesus’ own lips. The Jesus of this text renounces not only his celibacy but also the community for which that celibacy is integral to who he is. No Christian institution – not the Vatican itself – could withstand such a challenge, if it really is Jesus who speaks here.
Is it Jesus himself who speaks here? If not, whose is this Jesus? Is he the creation of a would-be evangelist of the 2nd century, whose Greek text was translated into Coptic a couple of centuries later? Or does its origin lie closer to home? The fragment might conceivably preserve a suppressed item of information about the historical Jesus. Or it might reflect the views of Christians two or more centuries later, far removed from Jesus himself. Or it might be a modern creation – a forgery, a hoax.
Given the information currently available, the third option seems to me the most credible: the text is probably a modern forgery, composed at some point after 1956, the year in which the Coptic Gospel of Thomas was first published.
The new text, GJW, is heavily dependent on Thomas’s accounts of dialogues between Jesus and his disciples. In it we overhear snatches of one such dialogue. In the translation below,3 underlined words or phrases show that almost everything is this text is extracted from GThos, especially from Sayings 30, 45, 101, 114. Italics indicate the substitution of a synonym. The beginnings and endings of all lines have been lost.
- “... [can]not be my [disciple]. My mother gave me life...”
- ... The disciples said to Jesus, “...
- ... deny. Mary is not worthy of it...
- ...” Jesus said to them, “My wife [or woman]...
- ... she can be my disciple ...
- ... Let [the] wicked man bring [forth ...
- ... I am with her, so as to...
- ... an image ...”
Given a minimal familiarity with the Coptic language and a printed edition of the Gospel of Thomas, it would be quite a simple matter to cobble this text together. Far from being a work of revolutionary genius, it is little more than a collage or patchwork of words and phrases culled from existing gospel literature in Coptic translation. The key passages from Thomas are as follows, with superscript numbers indicating equivalent lines in GJW:
Jesus said: “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother in my way 1(5)cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not love his father and his mother in my way 1(5)cannot be my disciple. For 1my mother... [text missing]... but my true [mother] 1gave me life.” (GThos 101; compare Lk.14.26)
2The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” (GThos 18, compare GThos 12, 20)
Simon Peter said to them, “Let 3Mary leave us, for 4women are 3not worthy of life.” 4Jesus said, “Behold, I shall lead her so as to make her male...” (GThos 114)
6 “A b[ad] man brings forth evil things” (GThos 45)
7 ”Where there are two or one, I am with him.” (GTh 30)
In line 8, “image” is a term typical of GThos, where it occurs seven times. In spite of this wholesale dependence on Thomas, however, the compiler deviates sharply from his or her source in creating the now famous reference to “my wife” (= “my woman”) out of Thomas’s concluding saying – a passage understandably distressing to that gospel’s modern admirers. Far from leading Mary and making her male, Jesus here bestows the ultimate accolade on her feminity – by marrying her. It is at this point alone, at the very heart of the new text, that the compiler suddenly emerges as an individual with an agenda. It hardly matters that the saying, “My wife..., she can be my disciple” is incomplete. “Jesus said, ‘My wife...’”, and that is all that this text intends to say.
For three main reasons, I think it likely that the Jesus’ Wife text is a modern forgery.4 The first follows from what has already been said:
(1) The text is a collage or patchwork of phrases and words mostly drawn from easily identifiable passages from the Gospel of Thomas. It is unlikely that a native Coptic speaker of the 4th century would be so slavishly dependent on existing Coptic texts in constructing a radical new text of his own. Where one gospel rewrites another – as Matthew rewrites Mark – the same story, dialogue, or saying is usually recast in significantly different words. In the Jesus’ Wife fragment, the relationship of sameness and difference is reversed: the same words and phrases are used to construct a quite different dialogue. Of course, it’s not impossible that the new text is the work of an eccentric 4th century Copt, one perhaps with a grudge against the burgeoning Egyptian monastic tradition. But it would be hard to find another example of an ancient text composed in this way. It’s much easier to see how a modern compiler with limited ability in Coptic might gratefully avail him- or herself of material extracted from existing Coptic texts.
(2) No one ancient manuscript is exactly like another, and one point at which they tend to differ is in the number of letters per line. As a result, the same words will normally be distributed differently even where one manuscript is copied directly from another. Strangely, though, line 1 of GJW is an exception. We have already seen that it corresponds closely to a passage from GThos 101. What we must now add is that GJW 1 begins at exactly the same place as the corresponding line in the sole surviving manuscript of Coptic Thomas, whose line-division is reproduced in modern printed editions. In both cases the lines begin with the letters equivalent to our E I A N, and the Thomas passage shows that E I is the second half of the word N A E I, meaning “to me” or “my”. A N is a negative: hence, “cannot be a disciple to me”. It looks as if our scribe here is dependent on Coptic Thomas in a modern printed edition, beginning his or her first line at a point identical to page 97 line 36 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, the ancient volume containing the one surviving copy of Coptic Thomas. If so, the new text is indeed new, dating from sometime between 1956 and the present.
(3) The GJW text is highly disjointed, as any reader will immediately note. If it is genuinely ancient, then it must originally have given a reasonably coherent account of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples; the text is full of gaps because of damage to the manuscript, which has lost the beginning and end of each line. If it is modern, most if not all the gaps have been there from the start; it was designed to resemble and impersonate a damaged ancient manuscript. The question is how these pieces of text could ever have been connected up.
In the second half of the fragment, Jesus defends his wife’s discipleship (line 5) and begins to speak of the purpose of his “being with her” (lines 7-8), yet he interrupts this reassuring discourse so as to express a wish that seems wholly out of place here: “Let the wicked man bring forth...” (line 6). To have any chance of integrating this into the context, quite a lot of space would have to be available at the lost beginnings and endings of lines. The question is: how much space was there, for how many letters? We can find a probable answer by looking at some representative 4th century Coptic manuscripts to see how long their lines are. In these manuscripts, a line of text typically contains an average of between 19 and 26 letters. Most of the damaged lines of GJW already contain 19 letters; the addition of an extra 3-4 letters at either end would hardly be enough to make the text coherent.
It seems that GJW has been fragmentary and disjointed from the start. It wants to look like an old damaged text and to be taken for one, but that is not what it actually is.
These are the three main points that persuade me that GJW is most likely a modern forgery. It’s a collage drawn entirely from the exact wording of the Gospel of Thomas, but with the pieces shifted around to create new meanings. It seems dependent on a modern printed text of Thomas. And it could never have made coherent sense.
One thing at least has been proven “beyond reasonable doubt”. Karen King argues that her Jesus’ Wife fragment is a 4th century Coptic translation of a 2nd century Greek original. This cannot now be true. If the Jesus’ Wife fragment is slavishly dependent on Thomas in Coptic translation, it cannot itself be a translation of an earlier Greek text. Thomas did originally exist in Greek, as surviving fragments show, but the GJW fragment cannot have done. Dr King’s reconstructed 2nd century context becomes an irrelevance.
To summarize the argument, then. The controversial fragment can’t be 2nd century, because it's utterly dependent on a 4th century translation, Coptic Thomas. It’s most unlikely to be 4th century, because no-one with the facility to write Coptic would compose a text in this way, using the exact words of an earlier text but shifting them around to change the meaning: what I’m calling the “collage” or “patchwork” effect. It’s highly likely to be modern, as a modern forger with limited Coptic might very well cobble together a text in this way. It has to be post-1956, the date when Coptic Thomas first became available. I have a suspicion it’s post-2003 as well. That was the year the Da Vinci Code was published, and this could have provided the inspiration for this piece.
Well, those are my main reasons for believing the Jesus’ Wife fragment to be a forgery. I rest my case. Are there any questions?
Q1. Don’t we have to wait for thorough scientific testing before we can reach any conclusions about this text?
A. No we do not. Of course, any conclusion we draw will be provisional. New factors may come to light that cause us to revise our earlier views; having to change our mind about things is just part of life. On the evidence available so far, though, scepticism about this text seems justified. Various ways of testing its claims may be attempted, including material analysis of the papyrus and the ink, but it’s a mistake to think that scientific procedures always lead to unambiguous conclusions, or that rigorous testing from other perspectives is redundant.
Actually I anticipated that the question of scientific testing would come up today, so I consulted New Testament scholarship’s resident expert on forgery, Stephen Carlson. Stephen disclaims detailed knowledge of scientific procedures for testing ink, but he did make some important points. Let me read you part of what he had to say.
Carbon-gum ink... was probably the kind of ink used for the fragment. It is a combination of carbon soot and some kind of a binder, such as gum arabic. Experts can examine the ink under a microscope and see if it is consistent with ancient practice, but the recipe is fairly simple. It may be possible to carbon-date the soot in this kind of ink, but one should be aware that obtaining ancient carbon to make the soot for the ink is not difficult. For example, one can obtain some (blank) ancient papyrus on the antiquities market and then cut and burn part of it to make the soot for the ink.5
So there you have it. If you’re wanting to forge an old text, don’t just use ordinary commercially available ink. Start by getting hold of an old piece of papyrus, burn it – and proceed from there
Q2. Surely what matters is whether this text gives us significant new information about Jesus? If it doesn’t, why worry whether it’s second, fourth, or twenty-first century century?
A. For most of those who are interested in GJW, the fundamental question is whether it shows that Jesus really was married. For many scholars, the priority is to insist that we learn nothing here about Jesus’ actual marital status but only what some later group thought about it. So, saying, “It’s just a 4th century Coptic text” is a way of saying, “Don’t worry, someone made it up, it doesn’t tell us anything new about Jesus!” I think that’s the wrong approach. It matters to get Jesus right, but it also matters to get early Christian history right. If we get the history wrong (inventing a 4th century Copt who hated monks but loved Thomas), we’ll end up getting Jesus wrong too. Bad history produces more bad history.
Q3. What possible motive could anyone have for forging this text?
A. We’re not in a position to be specific about this, but we can think in general terms about how forgery happens. The first point is that there’s long been a flourishing market in material objects with religious connections. Centuries ago, people went to the Middle East in search of relics: a fragment of the true cross, perhaps, a finger of John the Baptist, some hairs from Abraham’s beard. As usual, supply followed demand. Then, when demand began to shift from piety to archaeology, so too did supply. Genuinely significant objects were discovered, including important texts; but, with knowledge, care, and practice, these could be convincingly imitated.
That’s part of the answer; but, again speaking generally, there’s also the case of the scholarly fraud. Most informed opinion is now coming round to the view that the excerpts of the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark” discovered in 1958, in a monastery near Jerusalem, were actually composed by the supposed discoverer, the American scholar Morton Smith. There’s also the famous case of the “Piltdown skull”, the missing-link between humans and apes. Presumably the motivation is mostly competitive: you play a private game against the rest of your scholarly or scientific community, introducing an alien entity into its discourse, relying on your skill and scholarly reputation to protect you from exposure, taking pleasure in outwitting your colleagues when they come to believe that your forgery is genuine.
We can only guess at the circumstances which led someone to forge the Jesus’ Wife text (if it is indeed a forgery). For what it’s worth, my guess runs like this. What are the ingredients here? A Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, a controversial Coptic gospel text deemed heretical by the faithful: does that sound familiar? I suspect that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was composed later than 2003, the year when Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. The forger was motivated perhaps by a desire to trade on the novel’s extraordinary success.
Q4. Talking of motives, don’t we have to recognize that everyone is motivated? What about the motives of those who’ve been so quick to dismiss the Jesus’ wife fragment? Why are they so worried about a married, sexually-active Jesus? What’s at stake for them in all this?
A. For some people it’s a problem that a text from outside the New Testament should fundamentally alter their view of Jesus. They identify Jesus with the protagonist of the four canonical gospel narratives, and they’re reluctant to let go of that link. It’s a view that’s often expressed naively and uncritically. (“Every word of the four gospels must be literally and historically true, and to question this even at a single point is to deny the authority of the whole!”) But this bias towards the canonical four can also be presented at a more sophisticated level. Someone might say (I would say): “The Christian church acknowledges just four gospels. I am a member of the Christian church. Therefore I acknowledge just four gospels.” You can’t fault the logic.6
If that’s right, it means that hostility towards GJW’s sexually-active Jesus doesn’t usually reflect unacknowledged anxieties about sexuality in general or one’s own in particular. Projecting sexual or ideological inadequacies onto people one disagrees with is easy enough to do, but it undermines the possibility of any real dialogue about differences.
One final point, following on from that. In spite of the chorus of criticism now directed against the idea of scholarly “objectivity” or “neutrality” (much of it justified), there’s still merit in the old ideal – especially in its appeal to evidence and to informed, rational, and respectful debate about the interpretation of evidence. If such a debate can occur, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife will either establish itself as an ancient text that needs to be taken seriously, or as a failed attempt to introduce a foreign body into ecclesial and societal discourses. I consider the second possibility to be much the more likely, although I’m prepared to be proved wrong.
1 I have revised the earlier version of this article to highlight three main points: (1) the discovery that the whole of the Jesus’ Wife fragment is derived from the Gospel of Thomas, not just the first five lines; (2) the impossibility of Karen King’s proposed 2nd century Greek original; (3) Stephen Carlson’s remarks on the prospects for successful testing of the ink.
2 Dr King’s thorough and helpful introduction to the new text is indispensable for anyone wishing to engage with it seriously, and is available at http://www.hds.harvard.edu
3 My translation differs significantly from the one offered by Dr King.
4 For further discussion of these points, see the three short interlinked papers available at Mark Goodacre’s NT Blog, and follow the links there.
6 A wide-ranging account of the development and significance of the four gospel collection will shortly be available in my Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, scheduled for publication in April 2013 (brief particulars at eerdmans.com/Products/4054/gospel-writing.aspx).
With his permission, I’m pleased to cite here Stephen Carlson’s email response to my question about what the chances are of reliable results if and when scientific tests are carried out on the ink used in the Jesus’ Wife text.
“As for your query on testing the ink, I have to say at the outset that I am in no way an expert on ink but I have done some research on it when investigating Secret Mark and the Letter to Theodore. Here is my understanding of the basic issues, though, of course, an expert should be consulted.
“Laymen seems to assume that it is an easy task to test the ink, as by carbon dating, and that it is more conclusive than testing the document material. Actually, it is not so simple. Obviously, it is difficult to get good-sized samples of the ink, especially without contamination from the substrate material, but the problems go beyond that.
“Basically, there were two kinds of ink in use in antiquity and the Middle Ages: iron-gall ink and carbon-gum ink. Iron-gall ink has no carbon in it and so cannot be carbon-dated. (I also understand that it is a rather later kind of ink, more in use during the Middle Ages.) If the iron-gall ink is formulated poorly, it can become corrosive and degrade the substrate in characteristic ways that are difficult to fake. Usually, it takes centuries to do its corrosive activity, but depending on the formulation it can corrode its paper or parchment much more quickly, in decades.
“Carbon-gum ink was more common in antiquity and was probably the kind of ink used for the fragment. It is a combination of carbon soot and some kind of a binder, such as gum arabic. Experts can examine the ink under a microscope and see if it is consistent with ancient practice, but the recipe is fairly simple. It may be possible to carbon-date the soot in this kind of ink, but one should be aware that obtaining ancient carbon to make the soot for the ink is not difficult. For example, one can obtain some (blank) ancient papyrus on the antiquities market and then cut and burn part of it to make the soot for the ink.
“So, my sense is that testing the ink is not likely to be conclusive, unless the forger made a mistake. The most conclusive case would be of iron-gall inks that have burned holes in the parchment, but that's not what we have here. By all means let the ink be tested, but also let the results be evaluated by experts familiar with common techniques of forging inks.”