A discovery by a Harvard researcher may shed light on a controversial aspect of the life of Jesus Christ.
Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King says she
has found an ancient papyrus fragment from the fourth
century that, when translated, appears to indicate that
Jesus was married.
The text from the New Testament is being dubbed "The
Gospel of Jesus' Wife." The part of it that's
drawing attention says, "Jesus said to them, 'my wife'"
in the Coptic language. The text, which is printed on
papyrus the size of a business card, has not been
chemically tested to verify its dating, but King and
other scholars have said they are confident it is a
"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not
married, even though no reliable historical evidence
exists to support that claim," King said at a conference
in Rome on Tuesday. "This new gospel doesn’t prove that
Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole
question only came up as part of vociferous debates
about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning,
Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to
marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death
before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to
support their positions."
King, who focuses on Coptic literature, Gnosticism
and women in the Bible, has published on the Gospel of
Judas and the Gospel of Mary of Magdala. She presented
her research Tuesday evening in Rome, where scholars are
gathered for the International Congress of Coptic
The idea that Jesus was unmarried and chaste is
largely accepted by Christian denominations and forms
the backbone of the practice of celibacy among Roman
"Beyond internal Catholic Church politics, a married
Jesus invites a reconsideration of orthodox teachings
about gender and sex," said journalist and author
Michael D'Antonio, who writes about the Catholic Church,
in a blog on The Huffington Post. "If Jesus had a
wife, then there is nothing extra Christian about male
privilege, nothing spiritually dangerous about the
sexuality of women, and no reason for anyone to deny
himself or herself a sexual identity."
The quote about Jesus' wife is part of a description
of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. In
the conversation, Jesus talks about his mother twice and
speaks once about his wife. One of them is identified as
"Mary." His disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy of
being part of their community, to which Jesus replies,
“she will able to be my disciple.”
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
The private owner of the papyrus first approached
King in 2010. King said she didn't believe the document
was authentic, but the owner persisted. She then asked
the owner to bring the papyrus to Harvard, where she
became convinced it was a genuine early Christian text
fragment. Along with Princeton University professor Anne
Marie Luijendijk and Roger Bagnall, director of the
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, King
claims to have confirmed the document is real. The
document's owner has not been named and King said he
does not want to be identified.
It's unclear when the text was initially discovered.
The owner who showed it to King found it in 1997 in a
collection of papyri that he acquired from the previous
owner, who was German. The papyri included a handwritten
German description that had the name of a now-deceased
professor of Egyptology in Berlin who called the
fragment a "sole example" of a document that claims
Jesus was married.
The scholars believe the text is from Egyptian
Christians before the year 400, as it is written in the
language used at that time. Since writing appears on
both sides of the fragment, scholars believe it came
from a codex, a kind of book, and not a scroll. The
scholars also believe the document is a translation of
an earlier one that was likely written in Greek.
King notes in her research that the idea of Jesus'
celibacy hasn't always existed, and that early
Christians debated whether they should marry or practice
celibacy. It was not until around the year 200 that
Christian followers began to say Jesus was unmarried,
according to a record King cites from Clement of
Alexandria. In his writing, Clement -- an early
theologian -- said that marriage was a fornication put
in place by the devil, and that people should emulate
Jesus by not marrying.
One or two decades later, Tertullian of Carthage in
North Africa declared that Jesus was "entirely
unmarried" and told Christians to remain single. But
Tertullian did not come out against sex altogether and
allowed couples to get married one time, denouncing
divorce and remarriage as overindulgent. A century
later, the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy said in the
New Testament that people who forbid marriage are going
by the "doctrines of demons," but did not include
anything about Jesus being married in order to make the
The point of view that ultimately became dominant was
that celibacy is preferred as a high sexual virtue among
Christians, but that marriage is needed for the sake of
"The discovery of this new gospel," King said,
"offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew
by asking what role claims about Jesus's marital status
played historically in early Christian controversies
over marriage, celibacy, and family. Christian tradition
preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never
married. The Gospel of Jesus's Wife now shows that some
Christians thought otherwise."
The life of historical Jesus is often a matter of
controversy, and this is not the first time it's been
proposed that Jesus was married. Most recently, Dan
Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" depicted Jesus as
being married to Mary Magdalene. The book was published
as fiction, but nonetheless attracted
loud criticism from Vatican officials.
UPDATE: 4:28 p.m. -- Speaking on a
conference call Tuesday from Rome, King said that some
people who have read about the discovery have asked if
the papyrus fragment was describing Jesus as being
married to the Christian faith, not to a woman.
"One cannot overrule that it might be him saying 'my
wife as a church,' but in the context where he's talking
about 'my mother' and 'my wife' and talking about 'my
disciple,' the one thing you would not say is that the
church would be 'my disciple.'"
Even before King's discovery, there has been
speculation that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. "I
do not think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene," King
clarified Tuesday, adding, "whether he was or was not
married ... I really think the tradition is silent and
we don't know."
King also said that a professor who saw her report
asked her if the text on the papyrus could have been a
homily and not a gospel, an idea she said she had not
King added that she hopes the discovery will diminish the view outside of academic circles that the debate over marriage and sexuality in the early church is "fixed and over." In current church debates over issues such as same-sex marriage and marriage among Catholic priests, "having more voices from the early church and a better, more accurate version of early Christianity is more helpful," she said.
HOW DOES THIS DOCUMENT COMPARE TO THE GOSPEL OF MARY ?
Although the work is popularly known as the Gospel of Mary, it is not Canonical nor is it technically classed as a gospel by scholastic consensus. For example, Andrew Bernhard notes in his text-critical edition of non-canonical gospels that "the term 'gospel' is used as a label for any written text that is primarily focused on recounting the teachings and/or activities of Jesus during his adult life."
Papyrus Berolinensis 8502, also known as the Akhmim Codex, also contains the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and a summary of the Act of Peter. All four works contained in the manuscript are written in Sahidic in the Subakhmimic dialect. Two other fragments of the Gospel of Mary have been discovered since, both written in Greek (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus L 3525 and Papyrus Rylands 463). P.Oxy. L 3525 "... was in fact found by Grenfell and Hunt some time between 1897 and 1906, but only published in 1983," by PJ Parsons.
The two fragments were published respectively in 1938 and 1983, and the Coptic translation was published in 1955 by Walter Till.
Hollis Professor of Divinity Karen King at Harvard Divinity School suggests that the original gospel was written in Greek sometime during the time of Christ. Most scholars disagree with her conclusion, instead dating it to the 2nd century.
Scholars do not always agree which of the Marys in the New Testament is the central character of the Gospel of Mary. Arguments in favor of Mary Magdalene are based on her status as a known follower of Jesus, the tradition of being the first witness of his resurrection, and her appearance in other early Christian writings. She is mentioned as accompanying Jesus on his journeys (Luke 8:2) and is listed in the Gospel of Matthew as being present at his crucifixion (27:56). In the Gospel of John, she is recorded as the first witness of Jesus' resurrection (John 20:14-16); (Mark 16:9 later manuscripts).
De Boer compares her role in other non-canonical texts, noting "in the Gospel of Mary it is Peter who is opposed to Mary’s words, because she is a woman. Peter has the same role in the Gospel of Thomas and in Pistis Sophia. In Pistis Sophia the Mary concerned is identified as Mary Magdalene." The final scene in the Gospel of Mary may also provide evidence that Mary is indeed Mary Magdalene. Levi, in his defense of Mary and her teaching, tells Peter "Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us." In the Gospel of Philip, a similar statement is made about Mary Magdalene.
Aida Spencer, however, reviewing De Boer for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, notes: "In summary, Mary Magdalene [the title of a study by De Boer] is an interesting, insightful, and intriguing historical study. However, the reader who is not capable of analyzing theories and who may be susceptible to the idea of an open canon may confuse a pleasant, respectable style with a potentially misleading theory."
King also argues in favor of naming Mary Magdalene as the central figure in the Gospel of Mary. She summarizes: “It was precisely the traditions of Mary as a woman, as an exemplary disciple, a witness to the ministry of Jesus, a visionary of the glorified Jesus, and someone traditionally in contest with Peter, that made her the only figure who could play all the roles required to convey the messages and meanings of the Gospel of Mary.”
The most complete text of the Gospel of Mary is contained in Berolinensis 8502, but even so, it is missing six manuscript pages at the beginning of the document and four manuscript pages in the middle. As such, the narrative begins in the middle of a scene, leaving the setting and circumstances unclear. King believes, however, that references to the death of the Savior and the commissioning scene later in the narrative indicate the setting in the first section of the text is a post resurrection appearance of the Savior. As the narrative opens, the Savior is engaged in dialogue with his disciples, answering their questions on the nature of matter and the nature of sin. At the end of the discussion, the Savior departs leaving the disciples distraught and anxious. According to the story, Mary speaks up with words of comfort and encouragement. Then Peter asks Mary to share with them any special teaching she received from the Savior, “Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember - which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.’” Mary responds to Peter’s request by recounting a conversation she had with the Savior about visions.
- "(Mary) said, ‘I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’ He answered and said to me: “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’ I said to him, ‘So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it <through> the soul <or> through the spirit?’sup id="cite_ref-sol.com.au_7-1" class="style1">
In the conversation, the Savior teaches that the inner self is composed of soul, spirit/mind, and a third mind that is between the two which sees the vision. Then the text breaks off and the next four pages are missing. When the narrative resumes, Mary is no longer recalling her discussion with the Savior. She is instead recounting the revelation given to her in her vision. The revelation describes an ascent of a soul, which as it passes on its way to its final rest, engages in dialogue with four powers that try to stop it.
Her vision does not meet with universal approval:
- "But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, 'Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.'"
- "Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Savior. 'Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?'"]
However Levi defends Mary Magdelene and quells Peter's attack on her. In the text, Peter appears to be offended by the discovery that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings.
The Gospel of Mary is often interpreted as a Gnostic text. According to Pheme Perkins, on the basis of thirteen works, the Gospel follows a format similar to other known Gnostic dialogues which contain a revelation discourse framed by narrative elements. The dialogues are generally concerned with the idea of the Savior as reminder to human beings of their bond with God and true identity, as well as the realization of the believer that redemption consists of the return to God and liberty from matter after death. The Gospel of Mary contains two of these discourses (7.1-9.4 and 10.10-17.7) including addresses to New Testament characters (Peter, Mary, Andrew and Levi) and an explanation of sin as adultery (encouragement toward an ascetic lifestyle) which also suit a Gnostic interpretation. Scholars also note that the 5th-century Coptic version of the Gospel is part of the Berlin Codex along with the Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ which are typically viewed as Gnostic texts. However, while many scholars take for granted the Gnostic character of the Gospel of Mary, the Gnostic beliefs concerning creation theory and the Demiurge that would suggest an extreme dualism in the creation is not present in the portions currently retrieved (De Boer 2004).
According to Bart D. Ehrman: "Mary (Magdalene) is accorded a high status among the apostles of Jesus." Levi actually acknowledges that Jesus loved her more than he loved all of the other apostles. Mary claimed to have had a conversation with Jesus, and Andrew and Peter questioned this. "Four pages are lost from the manuscript," so there is really no way for anyone to know exactly what happened.
De Boer (2004), however, suggests that the Gospel of Mary should not be read as a Gnostic specific text, but that it is to be "interpreted in the light of a broader Christian context". She argues that the Gospel stems from a monistic view of creation rather than the dualistic one central to Gnostic theology and also that the Gospel’s views of both Nature and an opposite nature are more similar to Jewish, Christian, and Stoic beliefs. She suggests that the soul is not to be freed from Powers of Matter, but rather from the powers of the opposite nature. She also claims that the Gospel’s main purpose is to encourage fearful disciples to go out and preach the gospel (De Boer 2004).
Karen King considers the work to provide
an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years...[it] presents a radical interpretation of Jesus' teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects His suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is—a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women's leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority."
King concludes that “both the content and the text’s structure lead the reader inward toward the identity, power and freedom of the true self, the soul set free from the Powers of Matter and the fear of death.” “The Gospel of Mary is about inter-Christian controversies, the reliability of the disciples’ witness, the validity of teachings given to the disciples through post-resurrection revelation and vision, and the leadership of women” (De Boer 2004).
King also sees evidence for tensions within
2nd-century Christianity, reflected in "the
confrontation of Mary with Peter, [which is] a scenario
also found in i>The
Gospel of Thomas,
Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.. Peter and Andrew
represent orthodox positions which deny the validity of
esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to
in the Media
The Gospel of Mary's portrayal of the world as
essentially unreal has been echoed in numerous
science-fiction books and movies, perhaps most notably
in the literary works of
Philip K. Dick and in the 1999 film The Matrix
and its sequels.
Kathleen McGowan's 2006 novel, The Expected One, involves the search for a complete copy of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
- Andrew E. Bernhard, Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts, Library of New Testament Studies 315 (London-New York: T & T Clark, 2006), p. 2. ISBN 0-567-04204-9.
- Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, p. 80.
- Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005), p. 138-148.
- AD 'P.Oxy. L 3525', Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, Oxford University.
- Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle, p. 148.
- Esther A. de Boer, The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple, p. 14-18.
- Evans, Craig A.. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Books, 2008.
- The Gospel of Mary
- The Gospel of Philip - The Nag Hammadi Library
- Aida Besangon Spencer, Review: Mary Magdalene Beyond the Myth, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 (2000).
- Karen L. King, Why All the Controversy? Mary in the Gospel of Mary. “Which Mary? The Marys of Early Christian Tradition” F. Stanley Jones, ed. Brill, 2003, p. 74.
- “It should be noted, however, that the above figures do assume that the Gospel of Mary was indeed the first work in the codex and that nothing preceded it. This is probably the case (if there were another text preceding the gospel in the codex, it must have been very short), but given the state of existing evidence, one cannot be certain.”, Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, p. 6, n. 8.
- Karen L. King, "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene", in: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (ed.), Searching the Scriptures. Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary, New York: Crossroad, 1994, p. 602.
- Mary 9:2
- Mary 9:4
- the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Apocryphon of John, the Nature of the Archons, the Book of Thomas the Contender, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Dialogue of the Saviour, the First Apocalypse of James, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, Apocalypse of Peter, Zostrianus, Letter of Peter to Philip, the Gospel of Mary, and Pistis Sophia
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). Lost Scriptures. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 35.
- King, Karen L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle, p. 3.
- Gospel of Thomas, log. 114.
- Pistis sophia, 1:36
- Douglas M. Parrott, ed. (1979). Gospel of Mary. Nag Hammadi Studies. XI. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
- De Boer, Esther A. (2004). The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblican Mary Magdalene. London: Continuum.
- De Boer, Esther A. (2006) . The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple. London: Continuum.
- King, Karen L. (2003). The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.
- Meyer, Marvin (2004). The Gospel of Mary. San Francisco: Harper.
- Tuckett, Christopher (2007). The Gospel of Mary. Oxford Early Christian Gospel Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-921213-2.
Details of manuscripts:
- Early Christian Writings: Gospel of Mary
- Gospel of Mary Text from the Papyrus Berolinensis
- Gospel of Mary: (English), syncretic text, incorporating Coptic and earlier Greek versions; further web links
- Eric Thurman, 'The Gospel of Mary: Alternative Authority in Early Christian History', American Bible Society website.
- EI Sanchez, Gospel of Mary (conservative response)
- Secrets of Mary Magdalene Website
- Gospel of Mary Magdalene from the Official Site for The Lost Tomb of Jesus
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