Gospel of Jesus' Wife

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Gospel of Jesus' Wife, recto.

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife is a papyrus fragment with Coptic text that includes the words, "Jesus said to them, 'my wife...'". The text received widespread attention when first publicized in 2012 for the implication that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married.

The fragment was presented by Professor Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome on 18 September 2012.[1][2][3] King suggested that the papyrus contained a fourth-century Coptic translation of "a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century."[4] Following an investigative Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar published online in June 2016,[5] King conceded that the evidence now "presses in the direction of forgery."[6]

Radiocarbon dating determined that the papyrus is medieval, and further analysis of the language led most scholars to conclude it was copied from the Gospel of Thomas.[7] The fragment's unclear provenance and similarity to another fragment from the same anonymous owner widely believed to be fake further supported a consensus among scholars that the text is a modern forgery written on a scrap of medieval papyrus.[7]


The fragment is rectangular, approximately 4 by 8 centimetres (1.6 in × 3.1 in). According to reports, "the fragment has eight incomplete lines of writing on one side and is badly damaged on the other side, with only three faded words and a few letters of ink that are visible, even with the use of infrared photography and computer-aided enhancement."[8]

Professor King and AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, named the fragment the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" for reference purposes[9] but have since acknowledged that the name was inflammatory.[note 1] They further suggested the text was written by Egyptian Christians before AD 400; it is in the language they believed was used by those people at that time. They considered that the papyrus fragment comes from a codex, rather than a scroll, as text appears on both sides.[8] King has stated that the fragment "should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married".[10] Testing has dated the papyrus itself to somewhere between the seventh and ninth centuries, and Professor Christian Askeland of Indiana Wesleyan University has shown that the text is written in a "peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century".[11]

With reference to the speculative source of the text on the fragment, King and Luijendijk used the term "gospel" in a capacious sense which, as they wrote, includes, "all early Christian literature whose narrative or dialogue encompasses some aspect of Jesus's career (including post-resurrection appearances) or which was designated as 'gospel' already in antiquity."[4]

The English translation of the fragmentary lines is, for the recto:[4]

line 1: ... not [to] me. My mother gave me life ...
line 2: ... The disciples said to Jesus, ...
line 3: ... deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it. ...
line 4: ... Jesus said to them, "My wife ...
line 5: ... she is able to be my disciple ...
line 6: ... Let wicked people swell up ...
line 7: ... As for me, I am with her in order to ...
line 8: ... an image ...

For the verso:

line 1: ... my moth[er] ...
line 2: ... three ...
line 3: ... ....
line 4: ... forth ...
lines 5 & 6: illegible ink traces


Until June 2016, nothing definite was known about the provenance of the papyrus. Before the appearance of Ariel Sabar's article, it was reported that an anonymous owner had acquired the fragment in 1997 as part of a cache of papyri and other documents. This cache was said to have been purchased from a German–American collector who, in turn, had acquired it in the 1960s in then-communist East Germany.[12] Among the other documents in that cache were: (a) a type-written letter dated 15 July 1982 addressed to one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Ägyptologisches Seminar, Freie Universität Berlin) which only mentions one of the papyri, reporting that a colleague, Prof. Fecht, had identified it as a 2nd–4th century AD fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic, and giving recommendations as to its preservation; and (b) an undated and unsigned hand-written note in German and seemingly referring to the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment. According to this note, "Professor Fecht" believed it to be the only instance of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech to refer to a wife. Professor Gerhard Fecht was on the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin. Laukamp died in 2001, Fecht in 2006 and Munro in 2009.

In June 2016, Ariel Sabar published an article in The Atlantic Monthly which identified the previous owner of the papyrus as Walter Fritz, rather than Laukamp, and provided further evidence for supposing that the papyrus was a forgery.[5]


After Professor King's announcement of the existence of the papyrus fragment at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome on 18 September 2012,[1][2] scholarly publication of the text with commentary was slated for the Harvard Theological Review in January 2013.[10] On 3 January 2013, King and Kathyrn Dodgson (director of communications for Harvard Divinity School) confirmed to CNN that publication was being delayed pending the results of (in Dodgson's words) "further testing and analysis of the fragment, including testing by independent laboratories with the resources and specific expertise necessary to produce and interpret reliable results."[13] A revised version of the article appeared in the Harvard Theological Review in April 2014, together with several scientific reports on the testing of the papyrus.[14]

In response to Ariel Sabar's article in The Atlantic, the Harvard Theological Review issued a statement saying that it had never committed itself to the authenticity of the papyrus and refused to print a retraction of King's article.[15] Retraction Watch called the journal's decision "a cop-out of...Biblical proportions."[16]


Initial evaluations[edit]

Before King published the discovery of the fragment, she asked AnneMarie Luijendijk and fellow papyrologist Roger S. Bagnall of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University to review the fragment. They determined that it was likely authentic, both because of the skills which would have been required to forge the fragment, and because the papyrus seemed to have been in a collection for many years without having been announced. According to Luijendijk, it would have been "impossible" to forge, while Bagnall thought that "it is hard to construct a scenario in which it is at all plausible that someone fakes something like this".[10]

Since the presentation of the fragment, a number of scholars have questioned its authenticity. Georgeos Diaz-Montexano and César Guarde-Paz of the University of Barcelona promptly published (on 18 September 2012) an English edition of the first paleographical report, contesting its authenticity on paleographical grounds.[17] Professor Craig A. Evans of the Acadia Divinity College, suggested that the "oddly written letters" were "probably modern". Others have said the handwriting, grammar, shape of the papyrus, and the ink's colour and quality made it suspect.[18] Professor Francis Watson of Durham University published a paper on the papyrus fragment suggesting that the text was a "patchwork of texts" from the "genuine" Gospel of Thomas which had been "copied and reassembled out of order".[19] In summer, 2015, Professor Watson edited and introduced six articles in the journal New Testament Studies, all arguing against authenticity of the text; these articles have been put on line by Professor Mark Goodacre of Duke University.[20]

Also in September 2012, numerous news services announced that the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, had declared the fragment counterfeit. As of 29 September 2012, all that L'Osservatore's search engine identified on the subject was part of an article dated 28 September 2012 by Professor Alberto Camplani of Sapienza University of Rome[note 2] protesting against "the excessively direct link between research and journalism [which] had already occurred before the conference". He remarked that while the reports in the news media were marked by tones quick to shock, the papyrus had not been excavated from an archaeological site but had been acquired in the antiquities market, and he therefore urged that "numerous precautions be taken to ... exclude the possibility of forgery".[21] A brief editorial comment appended to the article by the editor of L'Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, dismissed the fragment as in ogni caso un falso ("in any case, a fake").[22] However, in a television documentary about the fragment that was presented on the Smithsonian Channel in September 2012, Camplani suggested his position had changed and that he now considered it more likely to be authentic.[23]

In defense of the text's authenticity, Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Professor of Linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading expert on Coptic language, concluded that the language itself offered no evidence of forgery. King also found examples from a new discovery in Egypt that has the same kind of grammar, showing that at least one unusual case is not unique. While some experts continue to disagree about the other case, King notes that newly discovered texts "often have new spellings or grammatical oddities which add to our knowledge of the Coptic language."[24]

Radiocarbon dating[edit]

A radiocarbon dating analysis of the papyrus by the Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in 2013 dated the papyrus to between 404 and 209 BC. However, the cleaning protocol had to be interrupted during processing to preserve the fragment. A second analysis was performed by Harvard University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found a mean date of AD 741.[25] A Raman spectroscopy analysis at Columbia University found that the ink was consistent with those in manuscripts from 400 BC to AD 700–800. These analyses suggest that the fragment as a material artifact is probably medieval and not modern.[26]

Analysis of text[edit]

However, while the papyrus itself is medieval, further analysis has suggested that the text itself includes additional errors that suggest it is not authentic.[11][27][28][29]

In October 2012, Andrew Bernhard observed that that there is a close resemblance between Mike Grondin's Interlinear of the Gospel of Thomas and the text that the forger appeared to have used to compose the text of the Gospel. Karen King has now made available the interlinear translation provided to her by the owner of the papyrus, and Bernhard has shown that every line shows evidence of copying from Grondin's Interlinear.[30]

Given the extraordinary similarities between the two different texts, it seems highly probable that Gos. Jes. Wife is indeed a "patchwork" of Gos. Thom. Most likely, it was composed after 1997 when Grondin’s Interlinear was first posted online.[31]

Christian Askeland's linguistic analysis of the text shows that it is in a dialect which fell out of use well before AD 741. He concluded that the text must have been written on a fragment of medieval papyrus by a modern forger.[11] In addition, Askeland showed that the fragment is "a match for a papyrus fragment that is clearly a forgery." This second fragment, containing part of the Gospel of John, belongs to the same anonymous owner, and is now overwhelmingly considered a fake. Askeland argues that the text of this was written by the same person, in the same ink, and with the same instrument as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.[11][29] Professor King said, "This is substantive, it’s worth taking seriously, and it may point in the direction of forgery. This is one option that should receive serious consideration, but I don’t think it’s a done deal."[28] The Atlantic reported that "even though King herself has refused to declare the case closed, for all practical purposes, judgment has been passed on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: it’s a fake."[7]


King told the International Congress of Coptic Studies that the text does not prove that Jesus had a wife. She noted that even as a translation of a 2nd-century AD Greek text, it would still have been written more than 100 years after the death of Jesus. According to King, the earliest and most reliable information about Jesus is silent on the question of his marital status.[32] King also acknowledged, though, that the text (which she suggested is a fragment from a non-canonical gospel) "provide[s] the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married."[33] A Harvard News Office article reported that King dated the speculative Greek original to the second half of the second century because it shows close connections to other newly discovered gospels written at that time, especially the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.[34]

King later, in a 2012 television documentary, commented on the possible implication of the papyrus fragment:

The question on many people's minds is whether this fragment should lead us to re-think whether Jesus was married. I think however, what it leads us to do, is not to answer that question one way or the other, it should lead us to re-think how Christianity understood sexuality and marriage in a very positive way, and to recapture the pleasures of sexuality, the joyfulness and the beauties of human intimate relations.[23]

Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Asbury Theological Seminary, said that while the text might contribute to the study of Gnosticism in the 2nd or 4th century, it should not be considered a "game-changer" for those studying Jesus in a 1st-century historical context. He further explained that, "during the rise of the monastic movement, you had quite a lot of monk-type folks and evangelists who travelled in the company of a sister-wife" and that the term "wife" was open to interpretation.[35]

Father Henry Wansbrough echoed the same sentiments:

It will not have a great deal of importance for the Christian church. It will show that there was a group who had these beliefs in the second century—Christians or semi-Christians—who perhaps had not reflected enough on the implications of the canonical scriptures - to see that Jesus could not have been married. It's a historical interest, rather than a faith interest.[23]

Daniel B. Wallace, of the Dallas Theological Seminary, and others have suggested that the fragment appears to have been intentionally cut, most likely in modern times. They further suggest that this leads to the possibility that in context Jesus may not have even been speaking of a literal wife.[36]

Discussions of the significance of the fragment died down as evidence indicating the text is a modern forgery increased.

Links to modern theories[edit]

The modern idea that Jesus was married is largely attributable to The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, a book by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln. Its thesis was that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, and that the legends of the Holy Grail were symbolic accounts of his bloodline in Europe. This thesis became much more widely circulated after it was made the center of the plot of The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling 2003 novel by author Dan Brown.[10][22][35] However, King rejected the link to The Da Vinci Code, telling the New York Times that she "wants nothing to do with the code or its author: 'At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.'" [10] The name of Jesus' wife is not given in the papyrus fragment.

Other text[edit]

The fragment also includes the line, "she will be able to be my disciple". The New York Times article states that scholars date debates over "whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple to the early centuries of Christianity."[10] King however contends that, prior to the recently published papyrus fragment, no texts exist which claim that Jesus was married, but that the canonical gospels clearly imply that Jesus had female disciples.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Asked her handling of the public disclosure of the fragment, King admitted that she had "...misjudged just how inflammatory that title would turn out to be". According to the interviewer, "she's been asking around for ideas on a new, less exciting name".
  2. ^ One of the organisers of the Congress at which Professor King delivered her paper


  1. ^ a b "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" revealed in Rome by Harvard scholar by David Trifunov (Global Post, 18 September 2012)
  2. ^ a b Was Jesus married? New papyrus fragment fuels debate (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 2012)
  3. ^ The Lessons of Jesus' Wife by Tom Bartlett (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 October 2012)
  4. ^ a b c "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus". Harvard Divinity School. Retrieved 2012-09-19. 
  5. ^ a b Ariel Sabar. "The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife". The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 2016-06-18. 
  6. ^ Sabar, Ariel. "The Scholar Who Discovered the ‘Jesus's Wife’ Fragment Now Says It's Likely a Fake". 
  7. ^ a b c Joel Baden and Candida Moss (December 2014). "The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife". The Atlantic. 
  8. ^ a b "The Gospel Of Jesus' Wife," New Early Christian Text, Indicates Jesus May Have Been Married by Jaweed Kaleem (Huffington Post, 18 September 2012)
  9. ^ "Harvard scholar's discovery suggests Jesus had a wife". Fox News (via Associated Press). 18 September 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-19. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus' Wife by Laurie Goodstein (New York Times, 18 September 2012)
  11. ^ a b c d Pattengale, Jerry (1 May 2014). "How the 'Jesus' Wife' Hoax Fell Apart". Wall Street Journal. 
  12. ^ Sabar, Ariel (September 18, 2012). "The Inside Story of the Controversial New Text About Jesus". Smithsonian.com. Retrieved 11 February 2013. 
  13. ^ Marrapodi, Eric (January 3, 2013). "'Jesus Wife' fragment gets more testing, delays article". CNN Belief Blog. Retrieved 11 February 2013. 
  14. ^ Karen L. King (April 2014). ""Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’": A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus" (PDF). Harvard Theological Review 107 (2). 
  15. ^ Wangsness, Lisa (21 June 2016). "Harvard Theological Review won't retract 'Jesus’s Wife' paper". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 28 June 2016. 
  16. ^ Marcus, Adam (21 June 2016). "Coptic cop-out? Religion journal won't pull paper based on bogus 'gospel'". Retraction Watch. Retrieved 28 June 2016. The venerable publication about religious matters is refusing to retract a 2014 article by a noted scholar of early Christianity despite evidence that the article — about Jesus's wife — was based on a forgery. [...] However, the journal issued a statement about the article, a cop-out of — bear with us — Biblical proportions. 
  17. ^ Coptic Papyrus about Mary, Jesus' Wife Real or Forgery?: The First Paleographical Report of the Papyri of the Gospel of the Wife of Jesus, which impacted in the media and in the Santa Sede of the Vatican, by Georgeos Díaz-Montexano and César Guarde-Paz, SAIS, 09/18/2012. ISBN 9781480058460
  18. ^ "Jesus Wife" Research Leads To Suspicions That Artifact Is A Fake by Jaweed Kaleem (Huffington Post, 26 September 2012)
  19. ^ Gospel of Jesus's Wife is fake, claims expert by Andrew Brown (The Guardian, 21 September 2012)
  20. ^ Goodacre, Mark (25 June 2015). "NT Blog: Gospel of Jesus' Wife in New Testament Studies". 
  21. ^ A papyrus adrift by Alberto Camplani (L'Osservatore Romano, 28 September 2012)
  22. ^ a b O'Leary, Naomi (28 September 2012). ""Gospel of Jesus' wife" fragment is a fake, Vatican says". Reuters. Retrieved October 16, 2012. 
  23. ^ a b c The Gospel of Jesus's Wife, directed by Andy Webb (Blink Films for Smithsonian Channel, September 2012)
  24. ^ "Q&A The Gospel of Jesus's Wife". Harvard University. 
  25. ^ King, Karen L. (2014). "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...': A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment". Harvard Theological Review 107 (2): 131–159. doi:10.1017/S0017816014000133. Retrieved April 10, 2014. 
  26. ^ Goodstein, Laurie (April 10, 2014). "Papyrus Referring to Jesus' Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say". New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2014. 
  27. ^ "Authenticity Of The 'Gospel Of Jesus's Wife' Called Into Question". The Huffington Post. 25 April 2014. 
  28. ^ a b Goodstein, Laurie (4 May 2014). "Fresh Doubts Raised About Papyrus Scrap Known as ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’". The New York Times. 
  29. ^ a b Baden, Joel S.; Moss, Candida R. (29 April 2014). "New clues cast doubt on 'Gospel of Jesus' Wife'". CNN. 
  30. ^ Goodacre, Mark (29 August 2015). "NT Blog: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: “Patchwork Forgery” in Coptic . . . and English (Recap)". 
  31. ^ How The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Might Have Been Forged, by Andrew Bernhard (October 11, 2012)
  32. ^ Harvard professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married by Lisa Wangsness (Boston Globe, 18 September 2012)
  33. ^ Ancient text has Jesus referring to "my wife" (CBC News, 18 September 2012)
  34. ^ HDS scholar announces existence of new early Christian gospel from Egypt (Harvard Divinity School, 18 September 2012)
  35. ^ a b Reality check on Jesus and his "wife" by Alan Boyle (NBCNews.com, 18 September 2012)
  36. ^ Reality Check: The "Jesus’ Wife" Coptic Fragment by Daniel B. Wallace (danielbwallace.com, 21 September 2012)

External links[edit]