Q&A

1. Does the Gospel of Jesus's Wife prove that Jesus was married?

No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a seventh to eighth century c.e. fragment of a gospel perhaps composed in Greek as early as the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century c.e., so if the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was also composed in the second century c.e., it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus’s marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus’ death before they began using Jesus’s marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now another newly discovered writing, The Gospel of Philip, shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.

Watch Karen L. King discuss GJW with fellow biblical scholars.

2. Is the fragment a forgery (a modern fabrication)?

From the moment the existence of the fragment was announced, some people doubted whether the fragment really is an ancient text and not a modern forgery, primarily because its contents are so unfamiliar or because they suspect someone might have an agenda to prove that Jesus was married or use the forgery to get rich. Scholars, however, use established procedures to determine if a papyrus is indeed an ancient document. They consider a variety of factors and weigh the evidence of the age and characteristics of the papyrus and ink, handwriting, language, and what historical context best fits the content.

In this case, King initially hand-carried the fragment to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in New York, where it was carefully examined by the Institute’s director, the renowned papyrologist Roger Bagnall and by AnneMarie Luijendijk, a scholar of New Testament and Early Christianity from Princeton University. Two radiocarbon tests were subsequently done to determine the date of the papyrus. In the first test, performed by Gregory Hodgins at the University of Arizona, the sample size was too small and resulted in an unreliable date (to 404 to 209 b.c.e). A second test done by Noreen Tuross at Harvard University in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, however, produced a date of 659 to 859 c.e. Using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy, James T. Yardley and Alexis Hagadorn at Columbia University, determined that the carbon character of the ink matched samples of other papyrus that were dated from the first to eighth centuries c.e. In addition, microscopic and multispectral imaging made it possible to examine the fragment in far greater detail. These images provide a lot of information about the nature and extent of the damage and they helped to resolve a variety of questions about possible forgery. For example, if ink had pooled on the lower fibers of the front (recto), that would have shown the papyrus was written on after it had been damaged. Or if the alpha had overwritten a sigma in line four, then it would have shown that someone tampered with an ancient fragment that read “the woman” by changing it into “my wife.” No evidence of this kind is apparent, however. In short, the scientific testing provides no indication of modern fabrication (“forgery”), but does consistently offer positive evidence that the fragment as a material artifact is ancient.

In addition, questions were raised about two unusual uses of grammar. Here Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Professor of Linguistics at Hebrew University and a leading expert on Coptic language, was asked to consider the text’s language. He 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.

Some scholars also noted that the handwriting looked odd, which it does when judged by the standards of ancient professional scribes. But it fits within the lower standards of a large group of crude and idiosyncratic writings containing magical texts or school exercises. King concludes that “The general impression is the kind of handwriting expected from someone who has not progressed beyond an elementary level.”

A few people suggested that a forger could have created the fragment’s content by copying phrases from another ancient text, The Gospel of Thomas. But even if that were the case, it could have been done already in antiquity when such practices were widespread—even the authors of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke copied from the Gospel of Mark. The GJW fragment is similar to an ancient historical context. It is similar to other ancient gospels, and it fits well within the historical context of early Christian debates over whether women can be Jesus’s disciples or disputes about whether marriage or celibate virginity was the ideal mode of Christian life. Thus on the basis of the age of the papyrus, the type of ink, handwriting, Coptic grammar, and historical context, King concludes that it is highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text.

3. What is the significance of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

If ancient, this tiny, damaged fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians. The main topic of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is one that deeply concerned early Christians, who were asked to put loyalty to Jesus before their natal families, as the New Testament gospels show. Christians were talking about themselves as a family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. The particular focus in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, however, is on women: his mother, Mary, his wife, and a female disciple. The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.” These signs indicate some controversy over whether women who are sexually active (mothers and wives) can be disciples of Jesus. Other early Christian writings defend marriage and reproduction against fellow Christians who think virginity and celibacy are required for all, or who argue that “women are not worthy of life.”

This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’ marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife makes it possible to say that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. This conclusion potentially has significant implications for the history of ancient Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.

4. Who wrote the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

The real author of the gospel is not known and would likely remain unknown even if more of the text of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife had survived. This remaining piece is too small to tell us anything definite about who may have composed, read, or circulated it except that they were Christians. Perhaps, like other gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip), this gospel was attributed pseudonymously to one or more of Jesus’s closest followers, but that is only speculation.  Its late date means that the author is not someone who knew Jesus personally.

5. Why is the fragment called the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

The name, the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” has been given to the fragment simply so that there is a way to refer to it. It is not possible to know whether the word “gospel” would have been part of the ancient title of the work to which this fragment belongs, or even if it had a title—many ancient Christian writings did not. The subject matter of the text is similar to other texts in the gospel genre, which depict Jesus in dialogue with his disciples. The genre of gospel includes all early Christian literature whose narrative or dialogue encompasses some aspect of Jesus’ career (including post-resurrection appearances) or which was designated as “gospel” already in antiquity. Two reasons for thinking of this fragment as a gospel are that 1) it presents a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, and 2) it discusses discipleship in terms similar to select passages in other early Christian gospels, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of the Egyptians. The use of the term “gospel” here makes absolutely no claim to canonical status or to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather the title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.

6. What are the characteristics of the material fragment?

The GJW fragment is a small piece of fragile papyrus, measuring only 1.6 inches (4 cm) in height by 3.2 inches (8 cm) wide, with writing in Coptic script on both sides. On one side there are eight incomplete lines of writing, and on the reverse side, there are six lines, but that side is especially badly damaged and the ink so faint that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible. 

7. Where is the fragment from?

One very likely possibility is that a papyrus fragment that is this damaged came from an ancient garbage heap, like almost all of the earliest fragments of the New Testament, or it may have come from a burial site. Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt where the dry climate allows ancient writings to survive and because it is written in the Coptic form of the Egyptian language. 

8. What language is the fragment written in?

The text of the fragment is written in Coptic, the form in which the Egyptian language was written beginning in the early centuries c.e. when Egypt was increasingly becoming a vital center of early Christian activity.  Coptic uses letters from the Greek alphabet as well as some letters from an older Egyptian script called Demotic. We know that a substantial part of the earliest surviving writings in Coptic were translated from Greek, so this fragment may also have originally been written in Greek, and was only later translated into Coptic for use among Coptic-speaking Christians.  

9. What is the approximate date of the material fragment?

Newly discovered papyrus writings like this one are often dated by comparing the handwriting with known examples, but this method has significant limitations, especially when considering writing that is not done by professional scribes.  The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment appears to have been written by writer with only an elementary education, who wrote with a nubby pen that didn’t let the ink flow well, causing uneven letters and blotting.  Scientific testing of the papyrus with accelerated mass spectrometry radiocarbon determination and micro-Raman spectroscopy, however, places the date of the fragment around the seventh to eighth centuries c.e. and the ink is probably from this time period as well.

10. What is the approximate date when this gospel was composed?

Although the newly found material fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife probably dates to around the eighth century, it may be a copy of an earlier copy in Coptic which had possibly been translated from a Greek copy. This means that the date of the material fragment is unlikely to be the date when the gospel was first composed; rather it indicates that the gospel could not have been composed later than the eighth century. How much earlier might the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have been composed? Since it refers to Mary, Jesus and his disciples, it had to have been written after the first century c.e. It could date as early as the second half of the second century, because it shows close connections to other gospels which were written during that time, in particular the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.

11. When was the fragment discovered?

Nothing is known about the circumstances of its original discovery, but there are some clues about its modern history.  The earliest documentation about the fragment is a bill of sale dated November 12, 1999, stating that the former owner had acquired six pieces of papyrus in 1963 in Potsdam (East Germany).  Accompanying it is an unsigned, undated handwritten note indicating that a Professor Fecht (from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin?) believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus. It now belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted Karen L. King at Harvard Divinity School for help in identifying its contents.

12. What are some of the other newly discovered ancient Christian writings?

Various previously unknown early Christian texts have come to light in the modern period. The most important of these in Coptic are the writings discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, a book called the Berlin Codex discovered at the end of the 19th century, and the Tchacos Codex, which came to light in the early 1990s. They contain a wide variety of literature, such as The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and Thunder Perfect Mind, all available in English translation. These works are valuable in providing evidence for a fuller and more accurate history of the diverse forms, practices, and ideas held by Christians in the earliest centuries after the death of Jesus.