Wife of Jesus papyrus fragment

The September 18 story from the New York Times about a papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to someone (presumably Mary Magdalene) as “my wife” caused considerable controversy.

There now seems to be a growing consensus among Coptic specialists that this is a modern forgery, which was also the assumption of Karen King when first offered an opportunity to examine the papyrus.

For a more detailed description of the papyrus and a draft of Karen King’s paper, see the story on her Harvard Divinity School web page.

Karen King is a colleague of mine in the Jesus Seminar, and a long time scholar of early Christianity in antiquity. There is no problem about the Egyptian provenance, Coptic language, etc. A large percentage of our ancient papyri are from Egypt. They survived there due to the dry conditions.

There seems to be nothing especially improbable about the fragment, but its lack of provenance and the desire of its owner to sell the papyrus ring alarm bells.

As a fourth-century Christian text—even if genuine—the fragment would tell us nothing about the historical Jesus. What it would reveal (if genuine) is that Christians 250-300 years after Easter were still speculating on the nature of his personal life, and especially the idea that Mary Magdalene may have been both a disciple and a spouse.

The latter is not really a question we can address as biblical scholars and historians, but it is worth asking ourselves why we might find such a prospect either attractive or repulsive. Our answer to that question will tell us more about ourselves than about Jesus, of course!

If only some dastardly dealer had not torn up the larger papyrus to create more pieces for sale!

One the other hand, if—as now seems likely—the text is a modern forgery it also tells us a great deal about a modern problem with ancient roots: greed.

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