Jesus' Marital Status

I can't resist coming back to the subject of reliability of ancient documents, given all the interest at the moment about an ancient scrap of papyrus that mentions Jesus having a better half.  The story goes that Harvard has translated a genuine fragment of 4th century Coptic that says, amongst other things, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...she will be able to be my disciple...'"

The excitement is something of a media beat up, because that scrap was first translated by a German scholar about thirty years ago.  Nobody got too upset back then.  In fact, he was totally ignored.  I guess Harvard has a better PR department.  Be that as it may, I thought it might be fun to look at this as if it were a bit of book research for one of my ancient murder mysteries...could I use this in an historically accurate novel?

First off, just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn't mean it's true!  A lot of people assume that ancient writings are inherently credible.

The ancient world was as well stocked for crazies as the modern.  If you were to collect random scraps of paper from our modern age, and accepted all of them as true, you would certainly come to the conclusion that people in the 21st century were regularly kidnapped by space aliens, that men never walked on the moon, and that 911 was a CIA plot.  Imagine if someone in the future discovered a scientology text.  How embarrassing would that be?  So one possibility is we're looking at the 4th century equivalent of scientologists.

The provenance is unknown.  The papyrus might be from a coffin (they often used old papers to build cheap sarcophagi), or maybe a rubbish tip.  The papyrus appears to be a copy of an older text.  The original could have been written any time in the previous three hundred years.  How close the original dates to 30AD is rather important.  (I once wrote an article about the degree to which I trust historical sources.)  On the evidence, we just don't know.   But the closer it is to the real event, the happier I'd be.

So the next question is, is there any cross-reference to corroborate?  (I use this test all the time for book research.)  The answer is no, not really.  Plenty of speculation about that Magdalene girl, but nothing concrete.

How about archaeological evidence?  No, zero.

Does the information look credible?  Sure it does.  The fact that it's written in Coptic gives it street cred.  There were a lot of Bibles being written in Egypt at at that time in Coptic.  We might be looking at something that got chopped in final revisions.  You know how editors can be.  Also, the original Bible was compiled in Koine Greek by scholars in Egypt who were probably the great great grand dads of the guys doing the Coptic versions.

The ultimate test for any historical novel is, does the idea break history?  This idea doesn't, so it's fair game.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

You make me laugh and think--what a combo! I love the way you evaluate the evidence. :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

That article popped up on CNN as I was researching 4th/5th century Gnostic hymns in Coptic and wishing I could read Coptic. Too bad I didn't go for that Egyptology degree at Brown a decade ago--then I could have!

And I was holding my breath reading your post--I thought the article would make an interesting twist in a historical novel. Glad you thought it was fair game too!

Gary Corby said...

I'm not sure Jesus and Mary Magdalene make a detective pair that I'd want to touch with a barge pole, but writing the dialogue would be fun.

That is indeed a fair example of evaluating strange-but-possible inspirational ideas.

The one that I find really interesting is that it's theoretically possible for one person to have met Confucius, Socrates and Buddha. There must have been something in the water in that period.

Unknown said...

There's reason to believe the text is a modern fake. Your comment on editing is very significant, because this looks it has similar edits to the modern publications of the Gospel of Thomas even with a line break in the same place.

If you want to make the case it's a modern fake, then the German reference is a puzzle, but the German professor is dead. It is possible that this too has been faked

The problem is the trade in unprovenanced antiquities. You can't trade material that you know has been illegally excavated or exported. You can however trade unprovenanced material. There's a lot of research in to how organised crime works with that. A difficulty is that if you don't know where something came from, then sometimes you don't know when it came from either. In this kind of market there's room for forgeries. There's a lot of suspicion about Cycladic figurines for example. Easy to copy and near impossible to date and there's a market for them with no questions asked.

In this kind of market publication by a scholar can give an item credibility and marketable value. A quiet publication would reassure a potential buyer and dissuade them from the expense and damage to the papyrus of carbon-dating. (Me, I'd also soak the papyrus in water rich in limestone to age the carbon date, but I'm untrustworthy like that)

The question now is "Where did this scrap come from?"

Jane Lebak said...

Gary, there was a really neat discussion along with a breakdown of what the actual line says over here:

The thing is, the "she will be my disciple" really isn't connected to the "my wife" part. Moreover, since the Church has always been referred to as the Bride of Christ, we don't know when this dialogue fragment would have taken place. It could be from the Revelation Of Peter And Paul, and Jesus could be speaking from well after the final resurrection. Or he could be speaking about the future Bride as his Wife.

Or, it could be a total forgery because really, what are the odds that a fragment would break off just after something incendiary? :-)

Thanks for posting this! :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jane, it's amazing how many ancient texts break off at the most annoying places, or are scrambled, or lost and possibly misquoted by surviving authors.

As Alun says, an awful lot depends on the provenance. I foresee some interesting developments.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Alun, thanks very much indeed for all that. I wasn't aware of the fascinating line-break issue. I'm sure you're dead right that provenance is the all-important point.

I'm rather assuming Harvard at least dated the papyrus as best they could. I confess I think the dead German letter is a case for authenticity. If the whole thing's a forgery, then the forger's at least doubled his chances of being caught out by supplying the letter and the note. He'd have to be both clever and then naive or incredibly confident to think this won't be tested to extremes.

I guess someone's going through the prof's old correspondence now in search of a match. If they find one, then the forgery theory is dead. If they don't, then it remains unproven.

I suppose the owner's identity will eventually be declared, and then there's going to be a cold, hard light shone on how the fragment surfaced. That should be interesting.

This puts me in mind that I should do a post about Piltdown some time. If I had to guess right now, I'd say the fragment's genuine. Not that there's sufficient evidence and I'm happy for it to go either way; but it just feels that way to me.

I love the limestone water idea!

Amalia T said...

I would guess that the reason this is getting so much more press is because of all the drama in the Catholic church right now, with the drastic shortfall of priests and the people fleeing from Catholicism Ship like its the Titanic. One of the big issues has always been "let married men be priests and then we'll have more to serve the communities!" and this piece of text, to the general public, would appear as back-up to that argument because "Look, Jesus had a wife!"

Except that whether Jesus had a wife or not, that had no bearing on the decision of the church to make priests celibate to begin with, so there's no reason the discovery of a wife should undo that change in policy (dating to the middle ages, which is, all things considered, quite late in church history.) So, the church is getting all huffy at a perceived threat to its authority in the face of this translation, and arguing back in the press, which only fuels the fire, and makes more people interested in the "text," such as it is.

But I'm with you, I'd say its fair game. It doesn't break any history, and it wouldn't even change Rome's decision regarding priestly celibacy if it had existed prior, so why not? The amount of information we have, really, on Jesus' early life, is so slim, that you NEED every scrap to even make him into any kind of compelling character up until his 30s.

Christina Auret said...

It really is funny how we all tend to think written in a book = true. Especially, but not exclusively, if the book is billed as non fiction.

I blame it on the conditioning we get through formal schooling - if it is in the text book we tend to learn it by rote and believe it blindly. This is especially true of schooling systems that emphasizes the retention of large amounts of information. When you have 300 pages worth of data to memorize and the test is next week, you simply do no have the time to question the validity of what you are learning. For sure, this was never the intention, but I do believe it is often the outcome.

Gary Corby said...

For those interested, Rogue Classicist has posted a (very long) summary of the state of play at

Sorry about URLs not rendering to links in comments, by the way. It's part of my anti-spammer defense, which unfortunately I need. I still get hit regularly.

Christina, I like your theory.

Amalia, yes, I seem to recall the celibacy rule was introduced because of out-of-control nepotism.

deelightfulady said...

I, too, loved your analysis of this text. Yes, I shudder to think of 400 years from now what will be considered factual information or not. IMHO, not much of it is at all. I do have one beef with the article. I'm reading Eat Shoots and Leaves, which is about the sticklers to grammar and punctuation. In a humorous way, it teach the correct way as it points out some humilating gaffs. You have one in your piece. The article an is used only with vowel SOUNDS...such as "an honorable man." The article "a" is used with consonant SOUNDS. A one and only...because one has the w sound to it and honorable has the o sound to it. But historical has the h sound, which is a consonant sound. So it is incorrect to say "an historical" anything. Now, if you are a Brit and pronounce it like this: "an'istorical"..then that would be correct.

Michael Seese said...

"The excitement is something of a media beat up, because that scrap was first translated by a German scholar about thirty years ago. Nobody got too upset back then."

That's one of the things I found amusing about the "Da Vinci Code." The idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had children had been around since...well, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Why was Langdon's mission seen as a potentially Church-shaking revelation? It had been revealed, and ignored / discredited for centuries.

Gary Corby said...

Michael, you're right of course. The da Vinci Code's premise is taken wholesale from a much older book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Brown even names the book in his own! Which I actually thought was quite a fair thing because he was acknowledging his source. The authors sued Brown but inevitably lost because, though he'd used their ideas mercilessly, he hadn't used any of their text.

Gary Corby said...

Deelightful, your comment caused quite a fun discussion with my daughters. I say 'an historical' all the time in real life. My daughters inform me that I'm wrong. (We do have a copy of Eats Shoots Leaves here...)

I'm afraid it's not going to change my habit. 'A historical' just sounds wrong to me. Weirdly, I can't recall any instance of a copy editor ever correcting me on it. Maybe I never put it in a book?

Colin Smith said...

You might be interested in Dr. Daniel B. Wallace's recent blog articles about this:

Dr. Wallace is a Professor of New Testament, and well studied in the whole area of ancient manuscripts.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Colin, that was interesting.

It's going to be vowel declensions at twenty paces among scholars for some time to come.

This won't get settled by text analysis, because if it's a fake, then the forger seriously knows his linguistics. A similarity to Thomas is believable even if it changes existing views.

The only way this'll be resolved is by a physical examination demonstrating that it's definitely a modern fake; or else a physical examination showing that it can't be proven to be a fake, in which case it's probably for-real.

I'm amazed the owner hasn't been revealed yet.

The owner may have dug themselves a hole here. If it's a fake then they've passed a forgery. If it's for-real, then sharp questions will be asked about how it came into their hands.

I should imagine someone at the ministry of antiquities in Egypt has their finger poised over the send button of an email to demand the return of their (almost certainly looted) property.

ThereseTaylor said...

This controversy is similar to the long-running drama over the inscription on the ossuary of St James. Is it a unique archaeological find of the New Testament era? Or a cynical and recent fraud? Every expert in the world has laid into it, without a conclusion being reached.