Farcical history: the 'Gospel of Jesus' wife'

Farcical history: the 'Gospel of Jesus' wife'

Frank Mobbs

With flagrant insensitivity, SBS TV presented a program entitled The Gospel of Jesus' Wife on Easter Sunday. The program set out to prove that Jesus of Nazareth had a wife. This frenzied effort stemmed from a paper of the same title published by Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School specialising in Gnostic writings. In her article she reports finding a fragment of papyrus about the size of a credit card in Egypt and written in Coptic, the ancient language of that country. In her 52-word English translation we find the words "Jesus' wife".

The TV program's narrator described this finding as a "shocking story" which threatens to rewrite history. Jesus and Mary Magdalene are several times pictured, looking lovingly at each other and kissing. The status of Jesus, we are told, presented as an unmarried man in the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is likely to be overturned by two words in a piece of papyrus dated about 400 years after His death.

Interviewed on the SBS program, Karen King repeatedly identifies the wife as Mary Magdalene – so it looks as if Dan Brown was telling the truth in The Da Vinci Code after all! But let us give King's claim some thought. Here is her translation of the fragment:

Page 1

1 ] "not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]..."
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, ".[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it* [
4 ] ......." Jesus said to them, "My wife .. [
5 ] ...she will be able to be my disciple .. [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up ... [
7 ] As for me, I dwell with her in order to. [
8 ] an image [
* Or alternatively: Mary is n[ot] worthy of it.

Page 2 (verso – back of papyrus)

1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] ... [
4 ] forth which ... [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)
6 ] (illegible ink traces)

Page 2 appears to be of no value, so we have only page 1 to consider. It contains no story, no historical context, no geographical location – all of which are found in the canonical Gospels. In them we have a biographical sketch of Jesus. There are abundant references to historical context: Palestine under Roman rule; events during the reign of King Herod and the time of the high priest Caiaphas; disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees.

There are many references to geographical locations: Jerusalem, Jordan River, Jericho, Sidon. These give us warrant for believing the Gospels, compared with a fragment which has none of the marks of history.

While the papyrus has even been condemned by some (including L'Osservatore Romano and a number of independent scholars) as a modern fraud, let us treat it as a document written about AD400, as King estimates. We must then ask: is there any reason to believe the unknown author knew anything about a marriage of Jesus? For an historically accurate document, the author must be in a position to know what happened.

That means either he must have been an eyewitness of the matters he records or had the opportunity to hear accounts of eyewitnesses – or of others with access to eyewitnesses. He could learn things from another source (e.g., archaeological evidence) but this is of little value if there are no relevant written sources. For instance, in 1961 a stone was discovered bearing the name "Pontius Pilate" but that would be insignificant if we lacked written accounts of Pilate.

Why would anyone think that he who inscribed the papyrus knew anything about Jesus? If a piece of paper is discovered 400 years from now containing the words "Julia Gillard's children" would that be sufficient to prove she was a mother? Why would anyone credit three words by an unknown author about a person who died 400 years prior to the writing?

There are further reasons for disbelieving the claims of the SBS program. We do not know the identity of the Mary named in the fragment. In the program, King repeatedly identifies her with Mary Magdalene of the canonical Gospels. But in the learned article she submitted to the Harvard Theological Review she contradicts this: "Nor do I argue that historically there is any evidence that if Jesus was married, it was to Mary Magdalene." Mary (Miriam) was a fairly common name in the period, so the Mary mentioned could be any woman.

Why call the fragment a gospel? For King to do so is deliberately misleading, especially when there is no evidence that it is such. She maintains it is one of a number of gospels circulating in the first centuries of Christianity, documents which the Catholic Church allegedly tried to destroy but which were secreted in desert sites until discovered in the past century. The defining examples of a gospel, however, are the four canonical Gospels. Readers may examine the fragment and ask: does this resemble them in any way?

So what, then, is King's justification in applying such a name? "The title, The Gospel of Jesus' Wife, was invented solely to facilitate modern reference", she writes. Really? Or was it to imply similar standing to the four canonical Gospels? Who is she kidding?

It could have simply been named Papyrus 101, avoiding the claim that a few words constitute a gospel. But it is part of a longer document, she says – a gospel. Again, look at the translation and ask: where is the evidence that it formed part of a longer work? There are thousands of ancient documents which are not parts of larger works, such as letters from sons to their fathers asking for money.

Throughout the program the claim is also made that the "gospel" is part of a Christian Gnostic work. Christian? There is no evidence of Christianity. Not even the name "Jesus" makes it a Christian document, for opponents of Christianity used that name.

As for the Gnostics, they were well-known long before this discovery. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about AD180, produced a work in five books describing and refuting their doctrines. The Nag Hammadi discovery has also added to our knowledge. While the works are almost worthless as historical sources – they lack indications of time and place and cannot be verified from other sources – they do tell us what the Gnostics believed.

Gnostic writings are nearly all later than the New Testament – some two centuries later. They are notable for their obscurity and are devoid of historical facts, except where they borrow something from the New Testament. One curious fragment is known by the title Jesus' Digestive System. To give us a better idea, here is a sample of Gnostic writing on the Incarnation:

"Once again for the third time, the luminary of acquaintance will pass by in great glory, in order to leave behind some of the posterity of Noah and the children of Kham [Ham] and Iapeth [Japeth] - to leave behind fruit-bearing trees for itself. And it [the luminary] will ransom their souls from the day of death" ( The Revelation of Adam, 76).

Hundreds of such passages exist.

Other notable features of Gnostic writings are: they posit (1) a god who is the origin of things but who is unknowable; (2) an inferior and demonic god who created the physical universe, which explains why: (3) all matter, including the body, is evil ("God is a man-eater," Gospel of Philip, 63. Gnostics detested marriage, sexual activity and differentiation of the sexes); and (4) secrets which are reserved to an elect group, those who have knowledge ( gnosis) which will save them.

Karen King thinks her interpretation of the papyrus gains support from other Gnostic writings. After all, there is the Gospel of Philip which seems to say in sections 63-64 that the Saviour used to kiss her on the mouth and loved her more than the apostles. This is the only passage in the Gnostics that might suggest an intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the original document has gaps, so it is hard to know what it means.

As for the matter of kissing, an explanation lies in the same Gospel of Philip 58-59: "For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another." Gnostic texts use kissing as a metaphor for the imparting of spiritual insight, or secret knowledge.

As with other feminists, King claims Magdalene was denigrated by the Church as a prostitute. She has been so labelled. But classifying her as a sinner does not denigrate her. She is honoured for being a repentant sinner, thus proving a model for all Christians. She belongs to an august company, for St Paul and St Peter were repentant sinners, but greater sinners than a mere prostitute for their respective persecution and betrayal of their Lord. The hundreds of churches dedicated to Mary Magdalene are proof of the Church's honouring her.

It is painful to think that so many people, ignorant of historical method, will believe the claims of this farcical TV program.

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