Image: The Jesus’ Wife Papyrus
For several months now, scholars have been debating whether the so-called “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was genuine or a forgery. Now we know.
Scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done extensive radiocarbon testing on the chemical composition of the papyrus and have concluded that the date for the papyrus should be dated between 659-859 AD. This conclusion was published in an article by Karen L. King, ““Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” The article was published in the Harvard Theological Review 107 (2014): 131-159 (the article is available in PDF format online. To download the article click here).
“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” gained fame among scholars because this fragment is said to contain Jesus’ words to his disciples, but these words have produced much literature and sparked a heated debate among scholars and theologians about its origin, its authenticity, and the meaning of these words.
The papyrus contains only 33 words. Among these words, are the following words of Jesus: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” and “she will be able to be my disciple.”
According to King, the fragment does not say that Jesus was married. Rather, she believes that the fragment probably deals with a debate within the church on whether women, mothers and wives, can become disciples of Jesus and whether they can serve in the church.
Some Christians are disturbed by the words of Jesus found in this document. However, believing Christians should not be disturbed by this discovery. There are several reasons why this papyrus is not a threat to what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
First, as the author of the article has said, the papyrus does not prove that Jesus was married. It is possible that many people in the early church wondered whether or not Jesus was married (just as many people still do today). It is possible that whoever wrote this document thought that he was, even though the Bible does not say anything about Jesus’ marital status.
Second, according to the radiocarbon tests, the composition of the document should be dated between the seventh and the ninth centuries after Christ. This means that whoever wrote this document, wrote it at least six hundred years after Christ.
The writer was not an eyewitness of the life and works of Christ. Thus, if he wrote that Jesus was married, then he was creating a narrative about Jesus’ marriage in order to prove his argument, whatever his argument was.
Third, it is also possible that the document is the result of a polemic against asceticism. Ancient Christians had much discussion on issues related to marriage, celibacy, and children. Those who opposed celibacy would claim that Jesus was married and would use this document to prove that Jesus did not promote celibacy.
According to King, “The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued.”
Not all scholars believe that the “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is authentic. Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University wrote an article, “The Alleged Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity,” in which he offers a rebuttal on the authenticity of the fragment (the article is also available online. Click here to download the article).
According to the article, Depuydt “has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that” (p. 172. The reference is to Depuydt’s article).
The following are some of the statements made by Depuydt:
“I personally—and I am not sure whether I share this feeling with anyone—experience a certain incredulity pertaining to how something that is at first sight so patently fake could be so totally blown out of proportion,” Depuydt writes.
Depuydt’s criticism centers on the fact that the papyrus scrap contains a grammatical error in Coptic–an error that mirrors a similar miscue in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. The chances that two ancient works would have the same mistake are minuscule, the scholar said.
“As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish,” Depuydt told the Boston Globe. “I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”
As one can see, even after some scientists have supposedly demonstrated the authenticity of the papyrus fragment, other reputable scholars still insist that the papyrus fragment is a fake.
Here is my advice to anyone who may be questioning whether or not Jesus was married: do not believe what a document written in the seventh or eighth century says about Jesus (“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”). Rather, believe what a document written in the first century says about Jesus (the New Testament).
For further reading, visit “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” webpage. The video below is a report presented by the Boston Globe.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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