Pardon me a moment while I channel Dan Brown…
Last night, the Smithsonian Channel aired a program about a topic which has been showing up in the news lately. “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is purported to be a newly discovered ancient papyrus manuscript written in Coptic which contains a quotation from Jesus in which he refers to “my wife” in one line and to someone named Mary in another. Since the traditional view of Jesus is that he was celibate this discovery could shake the foundations of Christianity if it were shown to be true.
I use the term “discovery” pretty loosely because of the circumstances surrounding the find. This manuscript (which is only a fragment smaller than a dollar bill) was brought to light by Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School who claimed she was first made aware of it by an anonymous collector who received it from another collector who bought it from an antiquities dealer. That this find emerged from the sketchy antiquities black market which is notorious for producing fake artifacts and forgeries instead of being recovered from an actual archaeological site doesn’t help King’s case very much.
What is more troubling is that the papyrus was accompanied by another text (a fragment of the Gospel of John) which has been shown to be a modern forgery. The papyri themselves have both been carbon dated to the 6th to 9th centuries but the problem is that the John fragment was written in Lycopolitan which was already a dead language by the 6th century. Handwriting and ink analyses have revealed that the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment and the John fragment were written by the same hand. Since ancient blank papyri can be obtained on the antiquities market the carbon dating results cannot do anything to rule out a modern forgery. Also the ink recipes which were used to write genuine ancient manuscripts are known and can be reproduced. The “Jesus’ Wife” fragment also has an idiosyncratic typographical error which is identical to one found in an online transcription of the Gospel of Thomas.
So something is clearly rotten in Denmark.
For a moment let’s forget all that and pretend that “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is an authentic manuscript which was written in the time period supported by the carbon dating evidence. Let’s put it in perspective. The slam-dunk, home-run Holy Grail of Gospel discoveries would be to find a complete copy of a manuscript that could be reliably dated to the first century where the author identifies themselves and was written in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples).
Nobody has ever found anything like that. What has been recovered is written in other languages like Greek or Coptic. Although scholars are confident that the New Testament was first written in the mid- to late first century, no original copies have been found and very little has been found dating to the 2nd century (FYI – here is the Wikipedia page listing all the known New Testament early manuscripts and the approximate date they were written). Starting in the 3rd century significant fragments (like a few chapters) of the books of the New Testament start showing up and by the 4th and 5th centuries complete copies of the NT were preserved in codices. By the 6th to 9th century when this manuscript was alleged to have been written, there must have been hundreds if not thousands of copies of various canonical texts in circulation throughout Christendom, not to mention the volumes of commentaries and treatises on Scripture which had been written by prominent bishops and church fathers, counter-arguments and the commentaries on the commentaries. One who seeks enlightenment about opinions on the person or teachings of Jesus is spoiled for choice. The anonymous 33 words found on this papyrus fragment add very little to the discussion at this point in church history, regardless of what it says. The author of this text (whoever it was) who claims that Jesus had a wife might as well have claimed he was from Mars.
My point here is not to defend the cherished beliefs held by Christianity. I personally do not care whether or not the historical Jesus had a wife. Furthermore, I am an atheist and a strict materialist and while I admire Jesus the Philosopher I doubt the supernatural elements of the Gospel accounts such as the Immaculate Conception, the alleged miracles performed during his ministry and the Resurrection. A more plausible explanation is that these were simply added into the story by his followers in the years after his death.
But whenever a bombshell like this one gets dropped, one should expect some serious scrutiny and this shoddy piece of science didn’t pass the stink test.