The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is back in the news and back in public conversation. The story first broke in a flurry of sensationalism back in September of 2012 whenSmithsonian magazine declared that a papyrus fragment had been found which would “send jolts through the world of biblical scholarship.” Well, it didn’t jolt much of anything.
In 2012 Professor Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced that a papyrus fragment that had come into her supervision made reference to Jesus having a wife. Professor King announced that the papyrus fragment included the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” Smithsonian, which also produced a major television program on the finding, promised that the fragment would “send shock waves through the Christian world.”
As might be expected, numerous major media outlets jumped on the story. The Telegraph [London] ran a headline that stated: “Ancient Papyrus Could Be Evidence that Jesus Had a Wife.” In reality, even if the fragment is authentic in terms of dating to ancient times, the fragment revealed nothing that would have jolted anyone familiar with the early centuries of Christianity. The fragment of papyrus contained only about 30 Coptic words in eight fragmentary lines of writing.
Almost immediately, there were credible concerns that the papyrus fragment was a forgery or a fake. Professor King promised a thorough investigation and the Harvard Divinity School arranged for a panel of experts to review the document, conducting tests that might indicate its authenticity. Of course, the sensational coverage in the global media, driven in large part by the nature of Professor King’s announcement, came before the investigations had been done.
Last week, the Harvard Theological Review released a much-delayed series of articles on the fragment. After a series of investigations undertaken by diverse scholars, the general judgment claimed by Professor King is that the fragment probably is not a forgery — or at least that it dates back to ancient times. The analysis suggested that the fragment dated from about four centuries later than Professor King had first suggested. This would place the fragment, if authentic, in the context of eighth-century Egypt — hundreds of years after the New Testament was written and completed.
The language used by the national media in reporting the story this time reveals the lack of confidence now placed in the fragment. TheBoston Globe reported that the tests “have turned up no evidence of modern forgery,” but the reporter had to acknowledge that at least one of the scholars writing in the Harvard Theological Review insisted that the fragment is not only a forgery, but an amateurish effort. The New York Times ran a story that featured a headline announcing that the fragment “is more likely ancient than fake.” Note the uncertainty evident even in the headline.
In her major article released last week, Professor King defended the fragment’s authenticity, but acknowledged that — all previous sensationalism aside — “It is not entirely clear, however, how many women are referred to [in the fragment], who they are, precisely what is being said about them, or what larger issues are under consideration.”
This is a very different message than was sent back in 2012. Professor King now acknowledges that all the references to females in the fragment might be “deployed metaphorically as figures of the Church, or heavenly Wisdom, or symbolically/typologically as brides of Christ or even mothers.” In other words, the fragment might not even conflict with Christian orthodoxy.
The most declarative article in the Harvard Theological Review, however, dismisses the entire fragment as a modern forgery. Professor Leo Depuydt of Brown University argues that the fragment’s authenticity is “out of the question.” He points to several factors, including the fact that a set of typographical errors in the fragment matches a set of errors in an online edition of the “Gospel of Thomas,” and ancient Gnostic text. Depuydt put the chances of coincidence with respect to these errors as one in a trillion. Depuydt states that he “has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”
Taken as a whole, the issue of the Harvard Theological Reviewreleased last week includes some scholars who stalwartly defend the fragment as authentic, some who argue that there is no convincing proof that it is a forgery, and at least one who argues that the case for authenticity is laughable.
But the most important line in the entire issue is offered by Professor King herself: “In my reading, however, the main point of [the fragment] is simply to affirm that women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.”
That is astounding, not because it is not clearly plausible, but because that is not what Professor King suggested was the importance of the fragment when she made her announcement back in 2012 — and when she called the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” While it is true that Professor King never stated that the fragment proved that Jesus was married, she certainly cooperated with media sensationalism that made those claims with abandon.
The larger background includes the fact that Professor King has devoted much of her scholarly career to making a case that the early church falsely constructed an orthodox understanding of Jesus that minimized the role of women. Back in 2003 she released The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, in which she argued that at least some ancient texts pointed to Mary Magdalene as an apostle. In 2012 she told the writer for Smithsonian: “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.”
Professor King, along with others such as Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, reject traditional Christianity and have turned time and again to ancient Gnostic documents, such as were found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt, to argue that early Christianity marginalized some theological voices and standardized doctrinal orthodoxy in order to maintain doctrinal purity.
Well, they are exactly right. As a matter of fact, the pattern of marginalizing false renderings of Jesus is found even in the New Testament, where the apostles are continuously defending one understanding of Christ and rejecting all others. The apostles unapologetically rejected false teachings about Christ and argued for what the Apostle Paul called the “pattern of sound words.” To the Galatians Paul wrote: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:8-9]
Professor Karen King rejects Christian orthodoxy and hopes to eliminate the words “heresy” from the Christian vocabulary. But there is no Christianity if there is no defense against heresy. Heresy is not an abstract issue — it is a denial of the truth that leads to salvation.
That’s why Christians can never respond to heresy with indifference. As the late Harold O. J. Brown observed, “the important thing about heresies is the fact that they are not just permissible variations, options, or choices, but by their very nature so undermine Christian faith that they may well render salvation unattainable for the one who makes the mistake of embracing them.”
So much of what is presented as modern biblical and theological scholarship is an effort to destroy the very idea of orthodox Christianity and to erase all distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy. That is why so much attention is devoted to marginal issues of scholarship like this tiny fragment of papyrus. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” tells us nothing about Jesus and very little, if anything, about early Christianity. It tells us a great deal about modern scholarship, however — and that is the real message of this controversy.