Not long ago, professor Karen King had made an announcement that she was in possession of a fragment of ancient papyri containing reference to Jesus’ wife. Much of the Christian world was immediately skeptical, including myself. Some Christians’ skepticism stems from a concern or fear that a newly discovered wife of Jesus would have some theological or historical impact on the faith they profess. My skepticism is due to the idea that virtually every historical recording of Jesus from the earliest makes no mention of the alleged spouse. No mention by any of the earliest Christian authorities or church fathers either. The claim doesn’t appear until hundreds of years after Jesus lived.
(Wall Street Journal) — In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of a Coptic (ancient Egyptian) gospel text on a papyrus fragment that contained the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’ ” The world took notice. The possibility that Jesus was married would prompt a radical reconsideration of the New Testament and biblical scholarship.
Yet now it appears almost certain that the Jesus-was-married story line was divorced from reality. On April 24, Christian Askeland—a Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University and my colleague at the Green Scholars Initiative—revealed that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as the fragment is known, was a match for a papyrus fragment that is clearly a forgery.
But Ms. King had defenders. The Harvard Theological Review recently published a group of articles that attest to the papyrus’s authenticity. Although the scholars involved signed nondisclosure agreements preventing them from sharing the data with the wider scholarly community, the New York Times was given access to the studies ahead of publication. The newspaper summarized the findings last month, saying “the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery.” The article prompted a tide of similar pieces, appearing shortly before Easter, asserting that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was genuine.
Then last week the story began to crumble faster than an ancient papyrus exposed in the windy Sudan. Mr. Askeland found, among the online links that Harvard used as part of its publicity push, images of another fragment, of the Gospel of John, that turned out to share many similarities—including the handwriting, ink and writing instrument used—with the “wife” fragment. The Gospel of John text, he discovered, had been directly copied from a 1924 publication.
“Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery,” Mr. Askeland tells me. “First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century.” Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and “concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries.” In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the “Jesus’ wife” fragment was written in a dialect that didn’t exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.
One would have to ascribe to the notion that there was a mass cover-up of this truly theologically benign fact. As far as I can tell, there is no reason Jesus would need to have been unmarried. And it doesn’t upset any doctrines of Christianity if he were.
This is one reason I’ve always found it curious as to why so many of Christianity’s detractors are eager to discover some such controversy. Why? What would it prove; what would it discredit? I suppose it could be argued that such a discovery undermines the accuracy of the Gospel accounts. But not necessarily. Would Jesus’ wife have been a significant detail to the story? Maybe, I guess. It just seems like such a non-controversial detail to have not only omitted, but to have covered up and concealed.
Could it be as simple as being taken in by the intrigue of possibly uprooting the biblical story that academia and the media are so quick to latch on to virtually any claims of a contrary account?
The Gospels continue to be the most reliable sources for the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They can’t be so flippantly dismissed as eyewitness accounts of these events either.