The Lessons of Jesus’ Wife

Karen King


In the past two weeks, thousands of words have been published about these six: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …”

That bit of dialogue comes from a papyrus fragment written in Coptic and thought to date from the fourth century. Its existence was revealed by Karen L. King, a professor of divinity at Harvard, at the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, in Rome. Even though King cautioned early and repeatedly that the fragment did not prove that Jesus had a wife, that immediately became the focus of popular discussion. BuzzFeed featured a video in which people were asked what they would get Jesus and his wife for a wedding gift (a blender was nixed since everyone already has one).

Among scholars, the discussion has focused on its authenticity. Francis Watson of Durham University, in Britain, has written that it’s probably a fake, arguing that it was pieced together from the Gospel of Thomas. A few days ago, the Vatican deemed it a clumsy fake, printing an analysis and an editorial in its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The Smithsonian Channel, which had been working on a special about the discovery for months, scheduled to air this past Sunday, decided to postpone the broadcast “until the document undergoes additional tests,” according to a statement from the channel.

I talked to King recently about the reaction to the fragment. She said that while she was braced for some vigorous discussion, the avalanche of attention and criticism was much more than she expected. It has included angry, hateful e-mails (“pretty ugly and unprintable,” she says). The reaction from scholars has influenced her thinking, and she plans to incorporate some of their analyses into her paper on the fragment, which is slated to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January, assuming that the ink test now being performed doesn’t reveal the fragment to be a modern forgery.

Speaking of the ink test, one of the questions that’s been asked is why King didn’t have that completed before she made any announcement. As the blogger Thomas L. McDonald put it: “Why on earth didn’t they wait for spectrometry?

It’s a reasonable question. King said she didn’t want to delay the revelation of the finding any longer; she wanted to allow other scholars to weigh in as quickly as possible. One of the criticisms made when the Gospel of Judas was unveiled, in 2006, was that it was kept under wraps for too long by the National Geographic Society, and that scholars who worked on it had to sign nondisclosure agreements. That was very much on King’s mind. “I wanted to get this into scholars’ hands,” she said.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

Not that she didn’t do some due diligence. She had the fragment examined by Roger Bagnall, a papyrologist and director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University. It looked authentic to him. He told Smithsonian magazine that a forger would “have to be really kind of perversely skilled to produce something like this as a fake.”

King told the magazine that, while there was a chance that ink testing might prove that the fragment was a forgery, she thought it was more likely to be “cherry on the cake.”

Now she, like everyone else, is waiting for the results of that test, which should be available late this month. The test could prove that the ink has modern elements, which would mean that it is a forgery. If it comes back negative for such elements, the debate will go on. If it is positive, not having waited for that test will look like a mistake.

But how do you roll out a potential blockbuster discovery like this? King said she’s been asking colleagues how they would have handled it differently, and they’ve reassured her that they would have done what she did. And while she’s been dinged by some for jumping the gun, others would have attacked her for keeping it to herself. “The longer I held back, the more criticism there would have been,” she said.

One thing she would change? The title of the fragment. Calling it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” seemed natural. And for scholars like King, one of the authors of a book about The Gospel of Judas, alternative accounts of the Jesus story are not shocking. She misjudged just how inflammatory that title would turn out to be. She’s been asking around for ideas on a new, less exciting name.

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