If you are interested in the controversy over the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, the owner has been exposed by journalist Ariel Sabar in this month's Atlantic HERE. It looks like we can without reservation put this document into the forgery category now that we know about its provenance, particularly that the letter authenticating the document is itself a forgery, but also that the owner had skills, knowledge and likely even motive, to forge the document. It is a wild read all the way to the end of the article, and, Sabar is likely right to suggest that Walter Fritz may have been modeling all of this after the plot of the Da Vinci Code. Truth can sometimes be wilder than fiction.
Forbidden Gospels Blog
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I was impressed when I read Eva Mroczek's critique of the sexist rhetoric that surrounds the scholarly discussion of the fragment that mentions Jesus' wife. Very impressed.
I was also concerned because I have written on feminist issues on this blog in the past, and have endured public shaming for it. I knew there would be backlash from Eva's feminist assessment, and that it would get personal very fast. Which it has, overnight (for instance HERE).
My opinion is that we really need to slow down with this fragment. And we need to back off making the analysis of this fragment personal and gendered, whether intentional or not.
Sexism is insidious as I argued in my book Holy Misogyny. Because of this, sexism is difficult to detect, and when it is, we immediately move to proven strategies to make sexism disappear as if it were not there in the first place.
The worst part of this strategy is that we often project the sexism back on the offended party, in this case a woman, as if she were the cause of the sexism. She has either made it up, not been able to take a joke, made a mountain out of a mole hill, or just plain doesn't know what she is talking about. Shame on her. This is the oldest strategy in the book. But it is still used because it is so effective in shutting people up and making the dominant majority feel better about itself.
When a woman comes forward with the observation that something is offensive and sexist, instead of shaming her, maybe we could try to listen to her instead. It may raise our personal awareness about how we all are a part of a society built to maintain sexism. And it may prompt us to be inspired to try to do something about it.
After last week, we now know that there are more questions that need to be answered about the Jesus' Wife fragment before we can assess it fully. At least there are for me.
This is not surprising since it is a new find and it takes time to work out all the facts and details. The scientific analyses are just being made public, as are the first historical examinations of the fragment on the Harvard website HERE. We know that it is written on authentic ancient papyrus from the seventh or eighth centuries and that its ink appears to be lamp black, also ancient.
I have kept a low profile on my blog about this fragment because I do not think that the blog is the best venue to vet manuscript finds like this. Why? Because the distribution of knowledge happens too quickly on blogs, before we have had time to really sort through everything, test our hypotheses, ask more questions that our hypotheses raise, and change them as necessary. People make fast claims to be the first like a "news flash", sometimes very bold and sensational, and then, because blog posts are public, reputations end up on the line. So it becomes personal very fast. And this can crowd out the truth which most often is slow in coming after a long process of reflection and revising.
In terms of this fragment, I don't have a dog in the fight. Whether it is an authentic ancient document (or not) is not really too important to me since the fragment does not reveal anything to us that we didn't already know. We knew that Jesus and Mary were lovers and spousal partners in the minds of some people in antiquity because we find this referenced in the Gospel of Philip and Valentinian Gnostic mythology.
Recently there have been claims made that the fragment is definitively a forgery because it belongs to a cache that contains also a fragment of the Gospel of John. This Johannine fragment appears to be a modern forgery because the way its line breaks were copied reflects the line breaks in a modern critical edition by Thompson. This argument is bolstered by the claim that the inks and handwriting are the same on the Jesus' wife fragment and the John fragment, and that both are written in a Coptic dialect that ceased in the sixth century. Our fragments are written on papyrus from the seventh or eighth centuries by their carbon date.
So I have some questions.
1. The analysis I read on the Harvard website that compared the Johannine fragment with the Jesus' Wife fragment says explicitly that "the ink or inks used in GJW are similar to, but distinct from, the ink used for the Gospel of John manuscript" (HTR p. 164). So the ink is not the same on both documents as some bloggers have been claiming. So what does different inks mean?
2. As for the handwriting, I cannot find any paleographic analysis that compares the Jesus' Wife fragment with the John fragment. Because I am not a paleographic expert, I don't know if it is the same hand or not. Have I missed a published report on this? And if it were the same hand, does this have to mean that the Jesus' Wife fragment is a forgery? We have plenty of examples of archives copied by the same scribe.
3. I have questions about the Gospel of John fragment. Aren't the line breaks found in Thompson's edition also the line breaks on the actual manuscript pages? I don't know the answer to this because I haven't had time to find photos of the manuscript itself. Does anyone know? If it is, then could we have someone copying from the ancient manuscript itself? And if so, couldn't the copy have been made anytime from antiquity to the present? And which way did the copying go? Which manuscript of John was the first one? The fragment pictured above? Or the manuscript transcribed in Thompson's critical edition? Do we have any other examples of manuscript copies from antiquity that have same line breaks? I know that it is unusual, but is it unique?
4. The John fragment is not an exact copy of the manuscript found in Thompson's critical edition. The preposition EBOL is found instead of ABAL. What does this difference mean?
5. The blogs also make reference to the dialect, arguing that since the dialect died out by the fifth or sixth century, it shouldn't be found on seventh or eighth century papyrus. Thus it is a modern forgery. Let's think about this. Here we are talking subakhmimic which is quite common, especially in fourth and fifth century Coptic materials. How might subakhimimic text end up on seventh or eighth century papyri? It got copied from a fourth or fifth century document in the seventh or eighth century. This says nothing about it being a modern forgery. It just says it probably wasn't originally composed in the seventh or eighth centuries, but may reflect a copy of something earlier.
6. Have all the documents in the collection (I keep seeing references to six) been analyzed? Are they related in any ways other than the fact that they were collected or sold together? How are the hands related? The ink? The papyrus? Where exactly did this collection come from? I am still very unclear about its history, so I would like to be enlightened with some facts about the collection itself.
I sincerely apologize if I have gotten the facts wrong here, but because there is so much information distributed via blogs and web, I am having a difficult time sorting out fact from fiction.
Thus is the title (
) of Becky Bratu's just-published piece (NBC News) on public reactions to the idea of "Jesus' wife". She too sees how communally we are struggling with the problem of a sexual Jesus and how this transgresses our commonly (and cherished) Christian view of the Holy as male and celibate.
Whether authentic or not (yet to be determined), our discussion of the Jesus' Wife papyrus is fascinating. It shows us the faultlines, the borders, the limits of our theological views. It shows how they were constructed hundreds of years ago, and have become "natural" for us. They are part of our internal selves. God is male and celibate. Sexual desire is sin.
Even after the counter-cultural sexual revolution of the 1960s, these parameters still grip our religious views.
The recent announcement of a papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to his wife has brought us face to face with the sexual Jesus again. And there are many people who do not like this image. Something sacred feels threatened. Corrupted. The married Jesus is inconceivable. It is impossible. Maybe the text is a fake? Or heresy. Yes, that is it. We dismiss it as heresy and feel relieved.
Why is the idea of a married and sexual Jesus so inconceivable to us? Why do we see it as a corruption of the sacred?
If it is authenticated, then we have a second piece of evidence from an ancient Christian gospel that someone in the ancient world didn't have a problem with the married Jesus. The first piece of evidence comes from the Gospel of Philip where Mary Magdalene is identified as Jesus' spouse. The word used in that context has definitive sexual connotations (
). It means his consort, the woman he is yoked to sexually, his spousal partner. Thus he kisses Mary in the Gospel of Philip, and is said to have three Marys in his life: his mother, his sister, and his spouse. In the new fragment, the generic word (
) is used. It means "woman, wife".
So no doubt about it. There is a solid tradition in the ancient world that Jesus was married. The tradition appears to come from the Valentinian Gnostics who envisioned marriage and sex as the greatest of sacred mysteries. Their view of God reflected this. The Godhead consisted of aspects of God like Truth, Life, Church, etc. These aspects existed as married partners, and it was their sexual activities that generate the divine world and life. Human marriages were believed to reflect the pattern of the divine marriages. In the afterlife, one's spiritual self or angelic twin would continue to live as an married entity in a blissful state of eros. So the Valentinians remembered Jesus as a married man with a sexual life.
Now it is true that this early Christian tradition did not survive. It was identified as heresy by the Christians who did become dominant and eventually created the orthodox catholic view of Jesus. We wouldn't even know about it had it not been for these accidental discoveries of old papyrus that survived buried in Egyptian graves.
My question is why did the sexual Jesus become the heretical Jesus while the glorification of the celibate male become the dominant orthodox view?
We can't seem to get away from it. We are back to sex and gender, and the distorted picture of the female body that Christianity has maintained.
We are confronting holy misogyny.
We are looking directly through the eyes of the ancient male who valorized the male body while vulgarizing the female.
We are facing the fact that our Christian tradition made this ancient male hatred of women and their bodies sacred. This hatred is embedded in biblical texts starting with the Genesis story. It continued to be the foundation for all theology built by the catholic Christians, including Augustine's ideas. The worldview of Christianity sees the female body and sex through Augustine's distorted lens and his doctrine of original sin.
As long as the female body is viewed as substandard, subhuman, and naturally deficient as stories like Genesis reflect, as long as sexual desire is perceived to be the penalty for sin as Augustine taught, there is no way we can conceive of Jesus as married or partaking in the pleasures of sex. Our distorted views of human sexuality and the female body will not give us permission to consider the possibility.
The truth is that the sources we have do not permit us to know whether Jesus of Nazareth was a married or celibate man. Both views of Jesus were constructed by different groups of ancient people to reflect their understanding of God and the human condition. It just so happens that the Christian tradition that we have inherited as our own is the one that created the glorified male celibate as its view of the ideal human and god.
Kilmore Church, Isle of Mull, Scotland, 1906
So many of you have been e-mailing me, wondering about the significance of the new gospel fragment recently published on the internet by Karen King of Harvard University. Many are expressing amazement that there is a text that mentions Jesus' wife. It is exciting to see the words "My wife" in bold Coptic scrawl.
But let's keep in mind that we actually already have a text that mentions Jesus' wife. It is the
Gospel of Philip
. We already know that there were some early Christians, in particular the Valentinian Gnostics, who taught that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' consort or wife. They wrote about it in the
Gospel of Philip
The reason that their tradition remembered Mary in this way is because they believed that marriage was the sacred creative activity of God and God's manifestations or Aeons. They also believed that their own human marriages were reflections - what they called "an image" - of the eternal marriages of the Aeons. Jesus' human marriage to Mary Magdalene was believed to reflect the sacred marriage of the Aeons Jesus and Sophia. Furthermore, the Aeons Jesus and Sophia were the spiritual twins or angelic dopplegangers of the human Jesus and Mary. If you are interested in learning more about this practice and its sexual implications, I have written a chapter about it in
, called "Is Marriage Salvation?" along with a chapter on Mary, called "How do we solve a problem like Maria?"
The new gospel fragment supports this Valentinian picture. If it turns out to be an authentic gospel fragment from antiquity, it likely came from a page of yet another Valentinian gospel that contained sayings of Jesus. Valentinian Christians were very prolific and they preserved an entire sayings tradition of counter-memories that supported their creative metaphysical outlook and Gnostic spirituality.
But does this mean that Jesus had a wife? It depends on who you ask. If you asked a Valentinian Christian, the answer would have been a definitive "yes". If you asked an early Catholic Christian, the answer would have been "no". If you ask a scholar today, depending on the methods they use to reconstruct the historical Jesus, you will get "yeses" and "noes'.
What do I think? I think that it is next to impossible to reconstruct the historical Jesus from the theological portraits of him in any of the gospels, the New Testament included. Aside from a few broad strokes, the historical Jesus remains shrouded in theology, including his sex life and marital status. I continue to emphasize how necessary it is for us to think critically about these old texts and not take their statements as simple statements of historical facts, at least without first reasoning carefully through them.
Was Jesus married? I like to think so. But this has more to do with my own view of the blessedness of marriage than it does with any historical argument I might make.
Intriguing name that Karen King has given this fragment. My initial read of the fragment is thus:
The fragment reads very much like a paraphrase of sayings of Jesus found in the
Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Philip
. In the
Gospel of Thomas
101, Jesus says that his true mother (probably a reference to the Spirit) gave him life, while his birth mother gave him death. At the end of the
Gospel of Thomas
114, there is a saying that indicates conflict between Jesus and Peter over Mary, whether women are worth to have life. Jesus says yes that he will guide Mary so that she can become a living spirit. In the
Gospel of Philip
, Mary Magdalene is referenced as Jesus' wife in the context of a discussion about discipleship which is what we seem to have here too in this gospel fragment. But here marriage is referenced rather than singlehood or maleness.
So what is the fragment about? Jesus is talking to his disciples about discipleship and life. Jesus connects life with his mother, who he says gave it to him. If other texts can help us, the disciples are probably responding, how can this be? Women don't have life or aren't worthy of life. Then Jesus tells them that Mary is worthy, and that his wife (probably Mary) will be able to be his disciple. He says that he is with her because of something (text is fragmented). If the reference in the next line (8) to "an image" is connected to the "because of" clause in line 7 (which I think is highly likely), then we might have evidence of a Valentinian Gnostic worldview where Jesus and Mary's earthly marriage is an image of their future aeonic marriage.
I would translate line 7 thusly: "I am with her because..." and the because has something to do with an "image".
I am thinking that the fragment is from a Valentinian text, like the
Gospel of Philip
, whose author is aware of the alternative sayings traditions that we find also embedded in
Gospel of Thomas
. It makes perfect sense in this context and is consistent with what we already know about ideology in early Valentinian Gnostic Christianity.
My initial translation based on the photograph published on
is: "...my mother gave me li[fe...] The disciples said to Jesus [...] deny. Mary is worthy of it [...] Jesus said to them, "My wife [and...] Let men who are wicked [...] I am with her because [...] an image [...]"
PHOTO CREDIT: Boston Globe
Karen King, professor at Harvard University, has announced today that she has been working on a new Coptic fragment from an unknown gospel which she is calling the
Gospel of Jesus' Wife
, because Jesus makes reference to having a wife. While this reference may have nothing to do with the historical Jesus, she says, it certainly tells us that issues of celibacy and marriage of clergy were being debated among the Christians. This should remind us that the
Gospel of Philip
has a similar reference, there to Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife.
The reference to "my wife" occurs in line 4 on the right hand side.