A tiny fragment of papyrus may upend centuries of Christian dogma. Dr. Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard's Divinity School has in her possession the first documentary proof that Jesus may have had a wife -- or at least, that an early Christian sect believed he did. Thus far, the scrap has withstood multiple authentication tests and appears to be genuine.
The discovery reopens ancient debates about marriage and sexuality in a Christian context. It also calls into question much about the role and rights of women in the church.
Dr. King is a fairly impressive woman, herself. She's the first woman to hold the oldest endowed chair in the United States. She is an expert on early Coptic texts and Gnosticism and has written a number of books on newly discovered Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Mary Magdala and Reading Judas.
A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”
The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
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But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
Dr. King argues that none of this should be taken as evidence that the historical Jesus was married pointing to the total absence of any discussion of the topic in first century texts. There is no known documentary proof of either his being married or unmarried from his own era. Rather, discussion and speculation about his marital status began to emerge during the second century as early Christians struggled to reconcile their spiritual calling and their sexuality. So the only valid discussion is over whether or not there was a religious tradition in which he was seen as married and this scrap, if authentic, is the first piece of empirical evidence of such a tradition.
Dr. King speculates that the text from which the fragment was taken was likely translated from a Greek original, like many Coptic texts. She also sees a strong basis of comparison with The Gospels of Mary, Thomas, and the Egyptians and posits that the original from which this was copied also dates to the latter second century. This, historically, was when there was a great deal of speculation about Jesus's marital status.
In her paper, which can be downloaded here, Dr. King places the remnant in context with other writings of early Christianity. She categorizes this fragment as a piece of a gospel because it shows a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. It is also reminiscent of a number of gospels, both Biblical and Gnostic, in its discussion of discipleship. She assigns it the working title of The Gospel of Jesus's Wife.
While Dr. King disavows any connection to the theories put forth in The Da Vinci Code, saying, “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right,” she also comes to the conclusion that the wife referred to is most likely Mary Magdalene. To do so, she attempts to discern whether the Mary named in the fragmentary text is his mother or the mysterious wife. She also dispenses, once again, with the canard that Magdalene was a prostitute.
The second issue is to identify Mary: Is she Jesus’s mother (→1) or his wife (→3)? Scholars have long noted “the confusion of Marys” in early Christianity, due not least to the ubiquity of this name (Maria, Mariam, Mariamme59) for Jewish women in the period.60 One of the most influential confusions has been the identification of Mary of Magdala with three other figures: Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-2; 12:1-3), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), and the sinner woman (Luke 7:37-38), resulting in the erroneous portrait of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.61 Another is the confusion of Jesus’s mother with Mary of Magdala, and even the substitution of the mother for her, for example as the first witness to the resurrected Jesus in John 20:11- 17.62 These confusions make one cautious in identifying to whom “Mary” refers here.
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The tradition of Mary of Magdala as an honored disciple of Jesus is well attested from the first century gospels, and is emphasized even more strongly in a variety of literature from the second and third centuries, notably The Gospel of Mary, The Dialogue of the Savior, The Gospel of Philip, and Pistis Sophia.64 It was not until relatively late that Mary of Magdala was misidentified as a (repentant) prostitute, most clearly by Pope Gregory in the late sixth century.65 Prior to the fourth century, she appears as a follower of Jesus during his ministry, was present at his crucifixion and burial, and, in the Gospel of John, is the first witness to the resurrection.66 Yet in a number of these texts Mary’s status as a leader or disciple is directly challenged, notably by Peter.67 GosThom 114, for example,states:... (“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us for women are not worthy of life’.”)68 Here Peter’s rejection of Mary provides the opportunity for Jesus to refute the radical exclusion of all women from salvation (a position otherwise completely unattested in Christian literature).
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These two cases from the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary identify Mary as the disciple whose status was being challenged, and in both cases her worthiness is defended by appeal to Jesus, the Savior. So, too, in GosJesWife →5, Jesus declares that “she is able to be/come my disciple”. This statement immediately follows Jesus’s reference to “my wife” in →4, indicating his affirmation that the ability to become his disciple concerns his wife, not his mother. This line of interpretation, then, suggests that it is the worthiness of Jesus’s wife, not his mother, which is being discussed. If so, then Jesus’s wife is named “Mary” here and can presumably be identified with Mary Magdalene. It is she who he declares is able to be his disciple.
Almost more interesting than the tantalizing notion that Jesus was married, or thought to be married, is Dr. King's discussion of marriage as an expression of a mystery tradition. Here she turns to The Gospel of Philip.
“The Lord did everything in a mysterious mode: a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber” 67:27-30
She considers it likely that this was all part of a single ritual of unification.
According to the Gospel of Philip, death came into existence because Eve separated from Adam (GosPhil 68:22-26; 70:9-17101). The ritual of the bridal chamber effects the spiritual transformation of the initiand [sic] by uniting male and female (GosPhil 70:17-20), represented as the (present attainment of the) eschatological union of the redeemed person’s true light-self with his or her heavenly twin (σύζυγος) or angel (GosPhil 58:10- 14; 67:26-27). The ritual of the bridal chamber is thus necessary for salvation (GosPhil 86:4-8).102
So Philip's gospel would seem to equate separation from God with the division into polarity and implies that this was the fall that cast us out of the Garden of Eden. What remains somewhat unclear is whether this marriage ritual is entirely metaphorical or if it depicts marriage in the earthly realm as a symbolic expression of reunification with God.
What comes to mind is The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, as discussed here. This is especially interesting if we consider Hancock and Bauval's proposition that the ideas in Western Alchemy can be traced to early Gnostic teachings.
Dr. King concludes, though, that what is suggested by this piece of text is a literal marriage between Jesus and, most likely, Mary Magdalene. This marriage may or may not have been actual and historical, and there is no evidence either way. But it was a very real part of a larger Gnostic narrative that has been hinted at in other extant writings of the time. It also speaks to Jesus's revolutionary teachings about women as, at least, near equals in the early church. It is unlikely that the Vatican will take this any more seriously than it has other Gnostic texts which stand so completely at odds with its rigidly patriarchal doctrines. Michael D'Antonio in the Huffington Post explains:
The implications of professor King's discovery are profound. If Jesus was married, the main spiritual argument for male-only clergy and the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests falls into question. (Priests wouldn't need to abandon sex in order to imitate him.) But more importantly, if Jesus was a family man, then the claim to special status made by Catholic clergy, who regard themselves as supernaturally closer to God, loses much of its power.
Beyond internal Catholic Church politics, a married Jesus invites a reconsideration of orthodox teachings about gender and sex. If Jesus had a wife, then there is nothing extra Christian about male privilege, nothing spiritually dangerous about the sexuality of women, and no reason for anyone to deny himself or herself a sexual identity. In fact, one could argue that in their obsessive self denial -- of sexual pleasure, intimate relationships, and family - celibates reject the fullness of Jesus' example.
What this discovery could prove is that there was, in antiquity, a Christian tradition that didn't vilify women or their sexuality, or consider it a mark of piety to eschew them as ungodly temptresses. It might even make us get honest about the thinly veiled preoccupation with Jesus as a sex symbol. Because, you know, he was hot.