Questions about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”

As I imagine most of you now have heard, Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School yesterday announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment which appears to make reference to the wife of Jesus.  I urge any who are interested to go to this page and read the report on it and the draft essay by King available in PDF format. It is worth the read.
Yesterday and today there has been an active discussion on my Facebook wall between myself, Dr. Scott Carroll, and Dr. Rebecca Lyman. Carroll was my first ancient history professor when I was a student at Gordon College and the man who taught me Coptic. Lyman was my predecessor in church history at CDSP and the GTU. Both are outstanding scholars in the field of early Christianity.

I offer below a transcription of their conversation we have had. It raises questions about the origins and purpose of this papyrus and the complexity of early Christian movements. As the conversation unfolds, you will see that question of use, readership, and the usefulness of categories like orthodoxy and heresy emerge.  The Rev. Craig Uffman posted an earlier transcript on his blog.  This transcript extends the conversation.  I hope you find it useful.



Dan JoslynSiemiatkoski  Regarding the second century fragment on the wife of Jesus, I quote Karen King, the scholar who brought this all to light: “It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.”


My first ancient history prof and the man who taught me Coptic, Scott Carroll, posts the following observations about the “Jesus’ Wife Papyrus.” I think we could debate about how to weight the various observations he makes, but they are worth putting out there: “1. It dates between 400-450 (hardly a reliable sole witness)

2. The writing and format of the text is extremely suspect and odd resembling an amulet (sorry more explanation and space is needed)

3. The Sahidic Coptic word for wife is misspelled–may be dialectical making it even more marginal or another word

4. Coincides with the earliest Mary Magdalene traditions

5. Likely Gnostic (heretical)

6. The church was heavily influenced by asceticism at this time making it highly unlikely to be an orthodox composition

7. If orthodox then the reference to wife meant the church or the biblical ‘bride of Christ'”


Scott Carroll So . . . let’s debate! I am really most concerned about the issues surrounding the paleography and textual evidence.


Dan JoslynSiemiatkoski Could you clarify point 6 and what you mean about the relationship or distinction between asceticism and orthodoxy?


Scott Carroll Yes–Peter Brown etc–the church was on an ascetic trajectory as illustrated with the popular rise of monasticism (clearly not the only impetus). The point being in that context and especially given that this was likely written in the shadow of a monastic context–such an anti-ascetic notion of Jesus would be repudiated.


Dan JoslynSiemiatkoski Ah, I see your point. So thus you argue the most likely interpretation is a spiritualized one. Yes?


Scott Carroll Unless he lived married and celibate–the ultimate test of valor–but the text does not allow such a reading.


Scott Carroll Sure, given the tensions it is either spiritual or a gnostic position (who while being superciliously ascetic you still have accounts–if trustworthy–by Epiphanius of the likes of the Phiibionites and at least one Nag Hammadi tractate The Great Thunder that elevates licentious living). Something to think about


Dan JoslynSiemiatkoski So, could you say more about the paleography and textual evidence and your questions about them?


Scott Carroll DAN: Approached by a major magazine on this and a TV producer so it may provide objectivity. While King is a competent professor she has a big axe to grind. As for the paleographical and codicological issues: 1. not much text is preserved 2. based on the orthography–shape of the letters–it clearly dates to the first half of the 5c 3. the hand is what is called sub-literary as if it was a composition not a copy–but this category can be trivialized and it is tricky 4. the composition is a small format and only written on one side–comparable to amuletic and magical texts perhaps for a woman??? 5. the nub of the stylus is blunt and the ink uneaven–it is odd no no wonder that they thought long and hard whether this is real or a forgery (my life is surrounded by such things so I am VERY familiar with such things) 6. Whille folks run around and call into question 2c papyri of the NT over issues relating to provenance–where is the complaint here?? Not satisfied that it came from a private owner not wanting to be hounded–did it come out of Egypt after 1970?? if so it is illegally on the market–and anyhow what are the specifics about its purchase and origins–I am not satisfied with promoting something like this and shrouding it in mystery–away with the facade. The point is that the text it screams private and marginal. unimportant? No. Historical significant? No.


Rebecca Lyman  Well, considering how much stuff was lost, we don’t need to rush to put it into categories, but could think what else it may tell us. I am not quite ready to move to 5-7. Spiritual exegesis and language of the soul can be creative, and not break easily into heretical or orthodox or necessarily church as bride. With the late dating I agree we are not talking about first century fact, but I am willing to let it breathe a bit.


Rebecca Lyman  Agreed that King has an axe to grind–not clear to me yet why this a gospel. Re ascetics remember Julian of Ecalnum the Pelagian bishop arguing with Augustine c. 430 was married and accused him of importing Manichee ideas re sex. Jerome and Jovian also argued about marriage/celibacy, so it is not a done deal even in mainstream circles. I resist an orderly, binary, one way history—texts and ideas circulate, teachers and exegetes invent. Odd scraps can appear which fit no categories.


Scott Carroll DAN: Furthermore–I don’t think King at Harvard works with private collections–so who came to her and knowing what? It is a very easy text to read with conveniently Jesus (IC) and wife? (Teime–sic) right in the middle??!!! Stranger things have happened. If this is legitimate–you have a text written on one side–the scroll no longer used–so a very short text indeed and certainly, although it sounds like it, not a literary text. Other issue is thaat if this represents a tradition it shows how overwhelmingly popular the notion that Jesus had no wife was because this NEVER got traction–as for those who might say the idea was suppressed–it is preposterous because history shows suppressed texts and ideas are popularly disseminated.


Scott Carroll Thanks all–of course we know very little. I am working with colleagues at Oxford on the analysis of the chemical components in ink on papyri–a new way of verifying provenance–this would be an interesting papyrus to test. As for the scroll–more technically a sheet or leaf which had a limited height–point being we could calculate how much text was there–I suspect it could have been multiple sheets but this is an odd format for something that we might be led to believe was CANONICAL in the community’s memory. The book or codex would soon be associated with the Gospels as a visual construct of authority yet this text does not follow that tradition. I have seen similar texts, if this is authentic and the hand seems to be,incorporate snippets seemingly taken out of context–usually from the Gospels and used for amuletic or apotropaic purposes. Best to you!


Scott Carroll A bit more to think about: It is common for many scholars working with later texts, particularly in Coptic, to claim that they come from a ‘now lost 2c Greek original’ so as to convey unimpeachable historicity and significance–as if a 5c Coptic text is not important in its own right and context but to make it speak to the 2c and in Greek. Such claims must be established which is obviously complicated. The similarities with the Gospel of Thomas and Mary are interesting but not more than that at this point. It also raises questions of Coptic texts translated from Greek generally and demand for Greek literature in Coptic among others.


Rebecca Lyman  Agreed–second century original needn’t be the case for fourth century scrap nor the assumption it is for private reading–this is about “authority” and “heresy” which seem to be less skillfully applied than paleography in these discussions.


Scott Carroll You have raised the issue of the intended purpose of this–for private reading a few times. It is a valid observation. The hand would indicate such a use (and I reject King’s assertion that this indicates a lack of education, an impoverished church and Christianity subject to the harsh lash of the persecutor–after the 5c??). The format itself obviously indicates it was for private reading (or use not reading–simply to have a printed text evoked power from ancient times in Egypt–which would mean that it was produced for amuletic or apotropaic purposes–and would be interesting if the rectangular cut shape was intentional for that purpose so a once literary text was used in a 2ndary context for other purposes which I have seen many times not for what it said but that it was writing). That said, typically I would assume that literary texts that enjoyed private distribution were already popular.


Rebecca Lyman What do you make about the argument that it is not folded, so not for amulet use? I agree that the shape seems to indicate that it was for apotropaic purposes–a very interesting question about use of texts in 4/5th centuries and which texts one wanted etc as opposed to the old gender or canon arguments. The public/private thing has been overused rhetorically re “heresy”, when we know so little about ancient communities, is why I picked it up.


Scott Carroll I agree. As for the ‘not folded’ observation–papyrus is extremely resilient. It is clear to me that the scholar(s) who worked with this in the German? collection relaxed this papyrus–carefully hydrated and blotted it, flattened it under glass (the glass you see in the photo, no doubt (I would be very surprised if this was done by the present professors working with it). The fibers have been carefully straightened which can be seen. The point being–it would be difficult to know if it was rolled or folded without close inspection–some texts used for such purposes were simply cut and kept flat, too. The shape is very symmetrical.


Rebecca Lyman I finally read the full article this morning–I think one needs to take seriously how much is going on religiously beneath the textbook or ecclesiastical radar, not illegitmately, just the mess of history and forcing things into categories too soon reveals our needs rather than historical reality. As David Brakke argues in recent book “The Gnostics” the categories are blurred. So, these sorts of gender/image arguments range across the boundaries we impose–Hippolytus defending prayer after intercourse, Irenaeus on Adam/Eve typologies, or the infinite stuff about the soul and Christ in spiritual progress with sexual/marriage analogies.


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Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Early Christianity, Gospel of Jesus's Wife

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