Seeking Mrs. Jesus

September 24th, 2012
Photo Courtesy Karen L. King/Harvard Divinity School

So. Did Jesus have a wife?

Last week Professor Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School revealed that she’d identified the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . ,’ ” written in Coptic (a language spoken in Egypt that used a version of the Greek alphabet) on a scrap of papyrus dated to the fourth century.

While questions remain about the authenticity of the fragment, the story has gone viral, thanks in no small part to headlines such as, “Mrs. Jesus, is it really you?” and “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” As of this writing, most every major news outlet has picked up the story and tens of thousands of people have shared articles about the papyrus scrap on Facebook and Twitter.

This idea that Jesus had a wife or romantic companion isn’t new. The story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiping them with her feet (John 12:1-11) and Gospel accounts of Mary Magdalene’s presence at the cross and at Jesus’ tomb have long provoked speculation about Jesus’ love life.

A Christian movement called Catharism, which had disappeared by the fourteenth century, was said to have believed that Jesus was married, or at least romantically linked, to Mary Magdalene. The idea that Jesus and Mary not only married, but also had children, was the premise of the popular 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which inspired the even more popular 2003 Dan Brown novel The DaVinci Code. Scholars have largely dismissed these books’ claims—which also involve the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and the origins of the Merovingian dynasty—as conspiracy theories without historical merit.

Assuming this new bit of papyrus dates back to the fourth century, as Dr. King suspects, does it actually tell us anything about Jesus’ marital status? Does it lend credence to speculation that Jesus and Mary (or someone else) had something going on?


King, for her part, has said that she doesn’t want people to get the impression that this discovery is evidence that Jesus was married. The text in question was written three centuries after Jesus lived and no other ancient sources say anything about Jesus having a wife.

But if Coptic scholars, historians, and scientists conclude that the papyrus is an authentic fourth century document, King’s discovery could show that at least one ancient Christian community in fourth-century Egypt believed—or was open to the possibility that—Jesus was married. And that, in and of itself, would be significant.

The Most Reliable Accounts of Jesus’ Life Are Already in the Bible

For those of us who were raised on Indiana Jones movies, discoveries of extrabiblical writings such as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” are enough to make us grab our fedoras and bullwhips and head out on adventure to uncover any other secrets Jesus has been hiding from us.

Our quests will take us from the mysterious circumstances of Mary’s birth in the Protoevangelium of James to the scandalous tales of young Jesus cursing anyone who crosses him in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to the disciples’ jealousy of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip to the Gospel of Judas’s suggestion that Judas and Jesus had a Snape-Dumbledore relationship to Jesus’ descent into hell in the Questions of Bartholomew and finally to the cross in the Gospel of Peter that follows Jesus out of the tomb and speaks the word “yes” in response to a heavenly voice.

Then we’ll take a closer look at these sources and realize that our most reliable records of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the ones already in our Bibles. Scholars generally date Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to the last few decades of the first century; and scholars see traces of even more ancient sources in the biblical Gospels. All of the extrabiblical Gospels we know of—with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas (a collection of Jesus’ teachings and sayings, not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas)—originated in the second century or later. By the time most of these books appeared, the four-Gospel canon was already in place and considered authoritative.

The Muratorian Fragment, which includes possibly the oldest New Testament table of contents (often dated to c. 170), contains only four gospels. Church father Irenaeus mentioned the four-Gospel canon as early as 160. Eusebius in his History of the Church, written c. 330, mentions the Gospels of the Hebrews, Peter, Thomas, and Matthias but dismisses them as “writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles.”

The truth is that the Gospels of Judas and Mary and Peter and anyone else not named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John are historically suspect and were never widely accepted. This doesn’t make them worthless. Even if these writings don’t tell us anything about Jesus, they can tell us a lot about the communities that created them.

If this new papyrus fragment is authentic, and it turns out that a fourth century Coptic Christian community believed that Jesus was married, then Professor King will have taught us something new about the diversity of Christian thought in antiquity. And her discovery will lead to other questions such as, “Where did the idea of Mrs. Jesus originate, and why did it fail to gain traction?” and, “Did this belief in a married Jesus have an impact on the role of women in this community?”

Even if Jesus Didn’t Have a Wife, Peter Did

Though our most reliable sources about Jesus’ life say nothing about him being married or involved in any romantic relationships, the New Testament does tell us that Jesus’ closest disciple had a wife. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all relate a story in which Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, who is suffering from a fever, in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14-17; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38). If Peter had a mother-in-law, he must have had a wife. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:5, mentions that Peter (whom he refers to as “Cephas”) travels with a wife.

Scripture is clear that Peter was married, but we never actually meet his wife. We don’t know her name, we never hear her speak, and we have no idea what she was doing while Peter was traveling with Jesus or establishing the church in Jerusalem or spending time in jail.

The quest for Jesus’ wife is probably a dead end. So if your inner Indiana Jones wants to go on an adventure, maybe you should focus on Mrs. Peter.

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