As readers of this site are probably aware, Karen King, Christian history scholar, caused quite a stir in religious circles with a surprise announcement regarding a fragment of an ancient document that quotes Jesus talking about his “wife.” While at Holey Books, on our long mission to blog through the Bible, we have only made it to Joshua so far, given the significance of this discovery we thought we might offer a few words of comment, in case you are wondering what the importance of this discovery is.
The answer: probably not much. But why? Wouldn’t an ancient text stating Jesus had a “wife” be the sort of revelatory thing the bad guys in The DaVinci Code so desperately wanted to keep secret?
Alas, in real life history is far less dramatic than Dan Brown makes it out to be. The New York Times article, at least, does a good job (as King does herself) downplaying the importance of this discovery. What this essentially shows us is that we can be reasonably confident that there was at least a group of Christians who believed Jesus had a wife, and that his wife was central to his teachings (the discovered papyrus also makes reference to Jesus’ wife being an important disciple). This may be an existing group that we already know about, including certain Gnostic Christians or others, or may be an entirely new group/tradition. At least with the former, we know from scholarly work in the 1970s and 1980s after the translation of the Nag Hammadi scrolls, that women were much more central to the beliefs of many Gnostics than the so-called “orthodox” Christians. (If you are unfamiliar with this history, Elaine Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels does a nice job of explaining this.)
So this new fragment all but confirms a lot of circumstantial sources in these Gnostic Gospels (and in other, harder to define “lost” gospels, of which we only have fragments thanks the purging efforts of early church fathers). Can we, then, rely on it as historical fact? That is difficult to say, but most likely we cannot. The gospels featuring the most historically accurate rendition of Jesus’ life are probably Matthew, Luke and Mark, with Mark being the earliest (and therefore best) historical account.* (Indeed, the oldest copies of Mark do not have a resurrection narrative, which is a curious fact.) Whatever this fragment came from, it seems unlikely that it came from an account earlier than Mark (or Thomas) or any of the other canonical gospels. Hence it probably has less historical value.
Nevertheless, it is still significant, especially if we find other pieces of it to provide context, or if we could eventually assign it to a certain gospel or certain Jesus-started movement. Let’s hope, then, that this is the first discovery of more to come.
*Depending on which scholar you talk to, they might also argue that the Gospel of Thomas, an arguably Gnostic text (I wrote a long paper about this in undergrad, actually) is older than Mark, or at least as old. I’m no scholar, but in my amateur research I tend to agree with this perspective.