Since the discovery of the “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars and the general public cannot seem to get enough of alternative versions of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and most recently, the Gospel of Judas, have all raised provocative questions about Christianity. Were stories of Jesus intentionally left out of the New Testament? Were these alternative versions of Christianity suppressed (or oppressed)? And do the canonical gospels really give us an accurate picture of Jesus?
Just as the dust had settled from the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, a new discovery has now reopened all these questions. During my class break yesterday (ironically just before I began my lectures on apocryphal gospels), I received news that a new manuscript was discovered that portrays Jesus as having a wife. This is noteworthy because—despite the claims of The Da Vinci Code—we have no text within all of Christianity that explicitly says Jesus was married.
This new manuscript—aptly titled the Gospel of Jesus' Wife—is a fragment of a fourth-century codex written in Coptic (Sahidic) that in one place reads, “Jesus said to them, 'My wife . . . she will be able to be my disciple.'” The fragment is quite small (4 x 8 cm), with faded writing on the back. The main text is written in a cramped, semi-literate hand. Most notably, Karen King of Harvard University has suggested that while the manuscript is fourth century, the original composition should be dated back to the middle of the second century.
So what shall we make of this new discovery? Here are several considerations.
Forgery is not uncommon in the antiquities market. I am not an expert in Coptic palaeography (my work is in Greek manuscripts), but I had concerns about the initial appearance of the manuscript. In particular, the sloppy nature of the scribal hand, and the wide and undifferentiated strokes of the pen seemed problematic. In addition, the color of the ink seems off—it's too dark, almost as if it were painted. Ancient inks tend to be lighter in color, though there are exceptions. This scenario is exacerbated by the ambiguity about the place of its discovery and the identity of its anonymous owner.
However, according to Karen King's forthcoming paper, this manuscript was examined by Roger Bagnall and AnnMarie Luijendijk, two reputable scholars, who both found it to be authentic and attributed the odd style to the blunt pen of the scribe. Other indications of authenticity are the use of the nomina sacra (abbreviations of certain words) and the faded ink on the back of the page (something that would have required considerable time). But my friend and Coptic scholar, Christian Askeland, is skeptical of its authenticity due to, among other things, the odd formation of some of its letters (particularly the epsilon) and omissions in the Coptic text. Other scholars have also expressed skepticism about the fragment.
At this point, there is no way to know whether it is genuine or a forgery. We cannot be certain until more scholars have an opportunity to examine it.
Assuming for the moment that the manuscript is genuine, questions remain about its composition. First, what kind of document are we dealing with here? At first glance, the document appears to be composed as a gospel-like text that contained stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus seems to be doing what he often does in other gospel texts: he is having a conversation with his disciples. Some scholars have suggested this fragment may be a magical text like an amulet, particularly given its small size. However, amulets normally did not have writing on the back of the page (the verso). If the writing on the back of this fragment is continuous with the front (which is unknown at this point) then it may simply be a miniature codex. Miniature codices were popular in early Christianity and often contained apocryphal texts. For more on this subject, see my article here.
Another question pertains to the date of the story this fragment contains. When was this story first composed? King argues that it was composed in the middle of the second century based largely on the broad similarities with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, which both existed during this timeframe. This is certainly a possibility, particularly given that we know a number of other apocryphal gospels were composed in the second century (e.g., Gospel of Peter, P. Egerton 2, P.Oxy. 840). However, this argument does not require a second-century date. This story could have been written in the third century and may have simply drawn upon writings like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.
Most important, there is nothing that would indicate that the composition of this gospel should be dated to the first century. It was produced long after the time of the apostles, along with all other known apocryphal gospels.
The key question is whether this particular gospel account can tell us anything about what Jesus was really like. Does this text prove that Jesus had a wife? Does this gospel provide reliable historical information? No and no. There is no reason to think this gospel retains authentic tradition about Jesus. It is a late production, not based on eyewitness testimony, and likely draws on other apocryphal works like Thomas and Philip.
Moreover—and this is critical—we do not have a single historical source in all of early Christianity that suggests Jesus was married. None. There is nothing about Jesus being married in the canonical gospels, in apocryphal gospels, in the church fathers, or anywhere else. Even if this new gospel claims that Jesus was married, it is out of step with all the other credible historical evidence we have about his life. As King herself noted, “This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married” (p. 1 here).
Conspiracies and the Canonical Gospels
Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It would certainly be far more entertaining for our culture if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (e.g., Constantine). But the truth is far less sensational. While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books now in our New Testament canon. Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not arbitrarily “created” by the church in the fourth or fifth century. The affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.
When it comes to these sorts of questions I like to remind my students of a simple—but often overlooked—fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century. Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century—but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And only four gospels meet that standard.