The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, a small papyrus fragment that burst onto the scene when Harvard Theological Review and Professor Karen King announced its existence in September of 2012, has been languishing silently as the world waited for news of scientific testing to determine whether there is any physical evidence that it is a forgery. After more than a year, Harvard has finally released a statement that neither the papyrus nor the ink of what is called the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment show signs of being modern.
This does not address, of course, concerns that the language and syntax have been shown to be highly unusual. Each of the phrases could have been lifted directly from the Gospel of Thomas, including one typographical error present in a modern edition of the text.
While it is understandable to me that this would make the fragment suspect, I have to wonder whether there is an expectation that all writers and scribes of the period were consistently competent. One need only take a quick look around the Internet to see that even native English speakers often have difficulty with English grammar. I understand that people who put ink to papyrus back then were likely educated, but I have also known plenty of people with bachelor’s degrees who use “their,” “there” and “they’re” more or less interchangeably. (Don’t get me started on apostrophes.)
I’m not an expert, which is why I ask this question. Perhaps there is a very good reason to assume that a writer in the second century, or a copyist in the sixth, would never use the grammar present in the fragment. My understanding is that if it is authentic, it is highly idiosyncratic.
Be that as it may, I am going to proceed as if Karen King and the other scholars associated with the fragment are competent (which they are), that the scientific testing was done according to the highest standard, and that the fragment is, indeed, authentic. So, what does it mean?
Professor King has stated more than once that just because this fragment makes a reference to Mary (presumably Magdalene) as Jesus’ wife, it doesn’t mean that they were literally married. If the original text was written sometime in the second or third century, that is a space of at least 100 years distance from the historical individuals involved. This fragment is not some kind of smoking gun that will turn modern Christianity on its side or prove any of the various bloodline theories floating around out there.
The importance of this fragment is that it tells us a little bit about what at least one community of early Christians believed. That is the beauty of all of the Gnostic manuscripts that have been discovered during the last 100 years or so; not what they mean about Jesus the historical man, but what they mean about his followers. We are learning more and more that early Christian groups were far from homogeneous.
Professor King has also stressed another thing about the fragment’s importance, and that is what it says about how early Christians may have viewed the role of women in the movement. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that it makes a reference to Mary as his wife, Jesus also mentions that she can be his disciple. The only thing that would have made it better (in my opinion) is if he had used the word “apostle.” That is probably unrealistic, but hey, a reference to a wife has always seemed unrealistic too.
Finally, I have to hand it to Harvard. Making this announcement less than two weeks before Easter is pretty savvy.