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The Gospel of Jesus's Wife

September 20, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Did the historical Jesus have a wife?

That's the spin that various media sources seem to have placed upon reports this week of an ancient fourth-century Coptic fragment in which Jesus refers to "my wife." The highly fragmented text also apparently identifies her as "Mary" and has Jesus telling someone "she can be my disciple." Harvard scholar Karen King said that the fragment does not necessarily mean that Jesus was or was not married and that the fragment could have many meanings. Nonetheless, she is calling it "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" and says it is valuable for presenting another view on how early Christians viewed marriage and relationships between men and women.

CNN reported that an anonymous dealer brought the fragment to King for examination in 2011. According to reports, various scholars agree that the words used in the fragment and the ink and parchment are all consistent with it being ancient writing. The fragment may date to the fourth century but could have been translated from a second century Greek text.

There's a lot of speculation about who wrote the text and what group it might have originated with. There were a number of Christian or Christian-affiliated sects, some with different beliefs, during this time period. Some of the scholars think this particular fragment may have come from a sect with a Gnostic belief system. It's the same sort of thing that was much discussed a few years ago when "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown was big.

I've read translations of some of the published Gnostic texts, including portions of "The Gospel of Mary," "The Gospel of Thomas," and "Pistis Sophia." Some of those texts put Saint Mary Magdalene, Jesus's friend and follower and the woman whom Christians have traditionally believed was the first to see the Risen Christ, in a new light. In those texts she is presented as an apostle and leader in her own right and so close to Jesus that the apostles are jealous of her and one of them protests that Jesus could not possibly have given her instruction that he didn't give to the rest of them.

I'm no expert, but the translated ancient text of "The Gospel of Mary" sounded to me like infighting between people struggling for primacy in the organization. It was interesting to read it as a woman and to sympathize with a woman alone in a crowd of angry, on edge men who had just lost their leader and were wondering what to do next. Mary Magdalene held her own pretty well. She sounded like a woman I would have liked.

"The Gospel of Mary" may have been written and used by her followers to prove that Mary was the apostle who was closest to God and closest to the truth. That particular gospel – and many others – never made it into the Bible we know today. The new fragment King has found sounds like it might have originated with one of these Gnostic sects, but it's far too fragmented to provide much new information. The questions it raises, though, are provocative. If only someone could find a more complete version of the text.


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