‘Jesus wife’ papyrus provides additional confirmation on early church history

Karen L. King (C) KAREN L. KING 2012 You know there’s a buzz out there when 100 emails come into … Continued

Karen L. King

(C) KAREN L. KING 2012

You know there’s a buzz out there when 100 emails come into your box all bearing identical links to the New York Times article responsible for the stir.

I clink on the link and voilà! There before me is a photo of a small papyrus fragment from the fourth century and distinguished Harvard scholar Karen King explaining how this recently recovered and certified authentic Coptic fragment unmistakably has Jesus referring to Mary Magdalene as “my wife.”

Wow! That should send another shock wave reverberating through the Vatican!

Now it’s true that journalism is skewed toward the sensational while scholarship is more skewed toward the cumulative. Karen King is a careful scholar and has done her homework carefully. She knows—as all of us do that have worked in the field with any degree of due diligence—that the contentious issue of Jesus’s marital status is not going to rest decisively on one stray fragment of papyrus.


In this Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University, divinity professor Karen L. King holds a fourth century fragment of papyrus that she says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife.

But what this new discovery does do is to provide additional confirmation for a body of evidence already mounting from those other recently discovered early Christian sacred texts—specifically, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Philip—that a group of very early Christians remember a version of their history quite different from what eventually became the officially sanctioned story. They remember that Jesus’s relationship with Mary was far more than just that of a teacher to a pious devotee or recovering prostitute. They remember that the relationship was spousal in nature, and that she was his designated lineage-bearer. This same message is conveyed, in much the same way in Thomas and in Mary, and Philip specifically refers to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s koinonos, his “companion.”

It’s also right there hidden in plain sight in the four canonical gospels once you start looking more closely.

So this new fragment is not exactly building from scratch. It joins and further verifies a tradition whose authenticity has already been unquestionably established.

Sooner or later, the evidence trickling in from all quarters is going to be too overwhelming for all but the most obdurate traditionalists to ignore. I had already seen this coming when I wrote my “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene” in 2010. My real business in that book was not to argue the question of Mary Magdalene’s and Jesus’s relationship one way or another (I leave that to scholars such as King), but to help people try to get over the shock and sense of betrayal that this revelation so often leaves them with. Why has institutional Christianity become so invested in maintaining that Jesus has to be a celibate to be Jesus? That, it seems to me, is by far the more searching question.

And invested it has certainly become. Back in the 1990s when I was tending a small Episcopal Church in Colorado, I once asked a group of my parishoners, “How do you feel about the possibility of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having been married?” Without an instant’s hesitation their furious answers came tumbling out: “But if Jesus had had sexual relations with a woman, he couldn’t have been the Son of God; he would have been impure. “ “If he loved one person in particular, he couldn’t have loved us all impartially.” What in heaven’s name does that tell us about our own understanding of human sexuality, human love, and conscious partnership as a path to universal compassion? No wonder our churches are so defiled with sexual misconduct and cover-up scandals: our anthropology of human intimacy is still in the gutter.

And yes, the same old rhetoric has already come out in the rebuttals that are already peppering the internet. “Jesus is the only and eternal son of God who will come again to judge the living and the dead,” one irate Christian fulminated—obviously assuming that this unique divine status entails celibacy as part of the package.

But if he were to look more closely at that final court of appeals for issues of early church doctrinal orthodoxy—i.e., the Nicene Creed—he would see that nowhere in the creed does it specify as an article of belief that Jesus is a celibate, or that his divine status depends on his presumed celibacy. This is all later Christian midrash, the product of an increasingly patriarchal and misogynist hierarchy which for the past 1,600 years has conducted its theological discourse in the hallowed halls of celibates speaking to other celibates. Not only does it not reflect the authentic message that Jesus is teaching; it actively distorts this message.

King’s discovery is another small drop in the bucket, but the water that is beginning to collect there from so many different small steams is indeed living water. We are finally getting t the root of the problem.


An Episcopal priest and mystic, the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault is principal teacher and advisor for the Contemplative Society and author of several books including “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene” and “The Wisdom Jesus” and “The Wisdom Way of Knowing.”

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  • Francophile

    Why such emphasis on the celibacy of Jesus? Because after what Adam and Eve were said to have done, they ‘sinned’. Hence sex was ‘sin’ and impure for all. Consequently all those that must be revered, priests, preachers, prophets and Pope, must not ‘sin’.

  • moiratoner

    Jesus’ teaching (specifically, excluding at this moment those who wrote their own experience and interpretation) offered an entirely new view of love, life, faith and God. Love, not fear. That was the point. Did his teachings not in fact inspire a “New Testament” that was and remains a 180 from the Old Testament?

    Based on the texts we do have, Jesus never taught that any form of love, including sex, was sinful. Rather: he invited us to know love and reject fear; he showed us how to love and respect ourselves and each other with the same love we have for God, and God has for us.

    He never, to our knowledge, promoted celibacy as good or sex as bad. When he referred to Adam and Eve (Matthew 19, I think?), it was in answer to a question about marriage.And he referred to them as the subjects of traditional/rabbinical teachings in order to make his point using the language of those attempting to discredit him.

    Jesus did not refer to Adam and Eve as literal figures that set rules for sexual behavior, so why do you?

    That interpretation, belief and documentation was the work of those who came later, each and all with very human political, economic and social agendas.

    We don’t have a Book of Jesus. Perhaps because if it existed at all, it was the then equivalent of a Post-it Note:
    –God loves you. Love God back.
    –Love yourself as God loves you. Nothing less.
    –Love each other as God loves each of you. Nothing less.

  • analisa2

    koinonos, the word could be companion, associate, even business associate. It was used quit ecommonly, and interpreted as wife it would be inacurate, as not only Mary is refferd as koinonos, but the guys too, for example when they got to fishing boat.Were Peter or James his wives because the word koinonos was used?

    As for promoting celibacy, it didn’t need to be promoted when celibacy was an option, specially among men who were poorer, and wanted to dedicate themselves to religious acitivies really deeply, instead of supporitn family with usually lots of children, not being able to do anythign else but be a provider, and be poor. Can’t compare today’s realities when contraceptives are available to earlier times. Lots of life choices depended on reproductive choices, and through history celibacy had its own advantages, gave people more choices. And sex in marriage wasn’t considered sin, adultery was. It seems that often carpet statemetns are made about sex which fir more later Puritans of the New World than the follwoers of Jesus or earlier Christianity.

    Like the painters of medieval time used to depict peopel who lived in Biblical times dressed in the fashion of the Middle Ages, also today we also apply our contmporary criteria without taking in account social history or historical context.

  • SimonTemplar

    There is plenty of evidence that the 4 canonical gospels are the earliest gospels and are more reliable witnesses to the life of Christ. They better reflect the language, the customs, the locale, the known history of the times. They were undoubtedly written in a time and place that places them within close proximity to the Jesus life. The non-canonical writings can not compete with the provenance of the 4 Gospels.

    The Gospels of Thomas, Phillip, Mary Magdalene show too many clues of later development to be considered accurate reflections of the life of Jesus. Thomas, for example, shows too much Syrian influence. They may be accurate reflections of the beliefs of mid 2nd century or later Gnosticism but that is all they are. For Bourgeault to state that “It [this document] joins and further verifies a tradition whose authenticity has already been unquestionably established.” is extremely misleading–especially since this document in question is far from being verified as authentic. The established traditions of gnosticism are NO more relevant than other UNBIBLICAL traditions adopted by the Church itself.

    Bourgeault also misleads by her suggestion “It’s [the idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ companion] also right there hidden in plain sight in the four canonical gospels once you start looking more closely.”

    Jesus had many disciples, men AND women. This contrasts with the contemporary practice of the other Rabbi of Jesus’ time. Some of the disciples were closer to his inner circle. This fact is not “hidden” at all. Consider Luke 8:1-3 (and note some of the female disciples clearly listed, “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helpin

  • Rodlarocque

    The person who wrote this article is intentionally misleading her readers. The reason the canonical gospels are the received tradition is because the early Christians authenticated them.
    Other stories circulating at the time and later (like this fragment) were considered heretical and thus never became part of the Church’s teaching. And for good reason, Our Lord clearly was a very devout ‘person’ and cared more about purfiying the objective worship of God than he did about his own comfort, even less for the ancient equivalent of a middle-class lifestyle.
    As for those that think he didn’t care about the sexual lives of others, just read the Gospels again, he purifies marriage, condems the woman at the well for her sin and Mary Magdelene’s past.
    This little scrap of papyrus is only being publicised as an opportunity to use it to vent against the tradition of the Church and remake Our Lord in a modern image.
    And they say religion is man-made, YES – we keep wanting him to be respectable and common, rather than who he really was, The Messaiah and Son of God and Saviour. Not a social worker, community organizer or nice-guy.

  • stephanpickering1

    Shalom & Boker tov…Cynthia Bourgeault’s midrash is quite interesting, as was her 2010 extrapolations on ‘Mary Magdalene’. Her 2002 updated ‘Love is stronger than death’ I carefully read in August 2008 when my wife of 24 years entered Spirit realms. My own argument with her thesis, as a Torah Jew, revolves around a confluence: ‘Yeshua benMiriam’/’Iesous Kristos’ was the fabrication of a late 2nd century CE/early 3rd century CE Graeco-Roman-Egyptian revelatory death cult. There was no: parthenogensis, discipleships, Gol Goatha, ‘resurrection’…NO contemporaneous documentation. ‘Saul’/’Paul’ was the manufactured fiction of Marcionites. The smoke of Auschwitz hangs over the ’empty tomb’ of crcifictionism and its idolatries. Thus, for Reb Bourgeault to speak of an ‘authentic message’ or a ‘divine status’ is meaningless. My own feeling is that to be a believing crucifictionist after the Shoah is a blasphemy against Spirit, against Her.
    STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
    Torah G-ddess Jew Apikoros Ishi / Philosophia Kabbalistica Researcher

  • SimonTemplar

    Wow. In spite of all the evidence for the historicity of Christ and Paul and the new testament records, there STILL is no end to the conspiratorial theories and the lengths people will go to close their minds to the truth.

  • MikeLVNV

    Jesus Christ is the Almighty God of Israel in the flesh. He created everything why would he need to marry? Next will it be that Jesus Christ fathered a child by this alleged marriage?

  • solsticebelle

    Why do the same religious kooks who are so obsessed with “protecting” marriage become even more unhinged at the thought of JESUS being married?

  • malusk03

    Rodlarocque: What “translation” are you reading? Jesu never condemned the woman at the well. We remember St Andrew for bringing his brother to Christ, but the woman at the well brought her whole village. And we don’t even know her name.
    Jesus cured Mary Magdalene of seven demons but never condemned her past. Her “past” as a prostitute is the product of the imagination of ealy medieval monks who conflated Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the “woman of the city” into a single serial anointer.

  • Prawda

    The fragment is a fourth-century translation of a second-century Greek text.
    How many generations actually came and went before the story was written.
    We all know how many facts change when information is passed along
    and translations are altered. It is just a piece of information.

    If he was married … why would anyone get their knickers in a knot about it?

  • sweeneygeilt

    actually……when the real christians in this country finally awaken to the assault on their values via the atheist left socialists the real fun begins. I wouldn’t want to be you guys. Hell, I already don’t want to be you guys.

  • medogsbstfrnd

    “They remember”? Give us a break, Rev. This fragment doesn’t confirm anything but your overwrought isogesis. It’s 4th century. That is a guess since no one even knows where it’s from nor have tests been done on its age. It has Coptic language and there is little consensus about its authenticity to 4th century Copt. Imagine someone writing about you 400 yrs after your death in a locale that is a thousand or more miles from where you lived and with no access to anything but hearsay… They may write about you, but they sure as hell aren’t remembering you. Prof King will ultimately be embarrassed for having shoved this fragment into the limelight. When and if it is determined to be a fraud, I am sure you will write a follow up on how gullible you were. BTW, I could care less if Jesus was married. I do know that the Church you took ordination in was begun by a king who married several times and was known for cutting off their heads or sending them into exile. I know that but I don’t remember it.

  • Addison H. Hart

    Let’s be careful here. First, the fragment — as well as the Gospels of Mary and Philip (Thomas is another matter, and doesn’t fit the claims in your piece) — is not “very early” at all, but was written three centuries later than the four canonical Gospels. Second, it doesn’t say that Jesus was married, only that he said something that included the words “my wife” or “my woman”, and there is good reason to suspect that the remainder of the line — as in other texts of the sort — was a metaphorical statement.

    Now, I agree that one can’t find a literal affirmation of Jesus’ celibacy in the earliest Gospels (but we’re not fundamentalists, are we?), but there is no clear statement that he was married either. In Judaism it wasn’t uncommon for “prophets” to be unmarried — e.g., Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and John the Baptist (!). So, let’s not go off half-cocked over this thing. Interesting, but not staggering.

  • itsthedax

    Or…Emperor Constantine was concluding a civil war, and didn’t wanted to preclude any more civil unrest, so he had the new testament cobbled together to be consistant with the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus. By doing this, he prevented the use of religion as a pretext for another rebellion.

    The moral: This fragment of papyrus is unimportant. Religious texts are not history books, or science books. They’re not about facts. They’ve always been about politics.

  • `simlinyagsa

    this is a prove of what the muslims have said about the mutilation of the Bible

  • SimonTemplar

    You misunderstand our defensive posture. If the Biblical scriptures indicated that Jesus was married then we would be ok with the idea. The scriptures give us every reason to believe he was not married. That is why, when someone comes along 200 years (or 2,000) later and suggests that he was we will correct them. The gnostic writings, written far too long after the time of Christ to be relevant concerning historical matters of fact, are being foisted upon us as having equal validity with the canonical Gospels and we reject such claims.

  • SimonTemplar

    Wrong on several counts. First, when religious texts accurately recount history, as the New Testament texts do, then they do in fact become important historical texts. Secondly, you have misstated the history of the forming of the canon. Political motivations were not part of the formula that was used to determine canonicity. The criteria is quite different and you can probably easily obtain it via a google search. Be careful not to simply google mere opinion pieces.

    There is actually no comparison of Christianity between the cults you mentioned. I’ve read opinions of those who try to link them but those claims do not survive scrutiny. It is too easy today for people to say, “I think what happened is…” then fill in the blank with whatever makes sense to you. But if the facts of history say otherwise, then of what use is your theorizing?

  • stephanpickering1

    Shalom & Boker tov…the Jew baiting nonsense you propogate is predictable, as you are have no familiarity with Hebrew/Aramaic or with koine Greek and Coptic. There is no ‘historicity’, Mr Templar, and the ‘new testament records’ (forged texts, none from the 1st century CE) are not valid. I would refer you to the scholarship of, e.g., Earl Doherty — assuming (which I do not) you are capable of critical thinking. As a Jewish scholar, I look upon what you are saying as irrelevant, every word coming from your smarmy posturing an unnecessary stain on silence and no-thing-ness. The only ‘conspiratorial’ theories are within the echo chambers you would consider your warped proto-nazi mind.
    STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
    Torah G-ddess Jew Apikoros Ishi / Philosophia Kabbalistica Researcher

  • stephanpickering1

    Shalom & Boker tov … as a footnote, I would add that Karen King’s Sahidic Coptic 4th century CE fragment consists of 33 words in incomplete sentences. While provocative for crucifictionists, it is not a historical ‘proof’ of anything. ‘Simon Templar’ and his meaningless antisemitic pseudoscholarship only reveals his stupendous ignorance of Jewish sources, warping his ‘conclusions’.

    cf. Earl Doherty, 2009. Jesus: neither god nor man. The case for a mythical Jesus (Age of Reason Publications), 802pp

    Karen L. King & AnneMarie Luijendijk, 2012. “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife'”: a new Coptic gospel papyrus. Harvard Theological Review 106(1) IN PRESS

    STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
    Torah G-ddess Jew Apikoros Ishi / Philosophia Kabbalistica Researcher

  • Genesisoneone

    “King’s discovery is another small drop in the bucket.” Indeed! It is like saying that a few drops of fresh water will make the SALT sea FRESH! It is just like attempts made by evolutionists to try and prove natural selection without any evidence. Jesus Christ was called “EMMANUEL,” which literally translates, “GOD robed in human flesh.” Genesis 1:26 says, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and then in verse 28 it says, “Be fruitful and multiply…” Why is bestiality wrong? Because it CANNOT REPRODUCE…Why is homosexuality wrong? Because it CANNOT REPRODUCE! This was the charge given to mankind from the beginning. Why? Because we were made in the IMAGE OF GOD! God sent his Son-ONLY BEGOTTEN-into the world to redeem MANKIND, not to help them reproduce!

    I am not writing to convince Karen King, or any of the ones who HELPED TO PRODUCE this ERRONEOUS BLASPHEMOUS CONTERFEIT…I am writing to those they are trying to deceive! Perhaps some of you will realize that Jesus is LORD OF ALL. II Peter 3:3-7 says, “Knowing this FIRST that there shall come in the LAST DAYS SCOFFERS walking after their own lusts…!” II Timothy 4:4 says, “For the TIME WILL COME when they will not endure SOUND DOCTRINE; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers having itching ears!” That is, teachers that teach what we WANT to hear, not what we NEED to hear.

    How do I know we are in the last days? Daniel 12:4 states that in the last days, people will be able to travel to and fro IN THE EARTH, and knowledge shall be increased! Many of you remember the record player…LOOK AT HOW ADVANCED THINGS HAVE BECOME SO QUICKLY! In THIS CENTURY, knowledge is increasing RAPIDLY. We first learned how to fly in this century, and now, we have jets that can go three times the speed of sound!!! SCOFFERS ARE IN THESE LAST DAYS! “He that hath an ear, LET HIM HEAR!” Beware of false teachers! Believe on the LORD JESUS CHRIST, who took upon himself YOUR SINS, and you wi

  • itsthedax

    Please read a history book.

  • SimonTemplar

    “I once asked a group of my parishoners, “How do you feel about the possibility of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having been married?” (Bourgeault)

    History is not a matter of how we “feel.” You don’t get to make it up according to your emotions.

    “But if he were to look more closely at that final court of appeals for issues of early church doctrinal orthodoxy—i.e., the Nicene Creed—he would see that nowhere in the creed does it specify as an article of belief that Jesus is a celibate, or that his divine status depends on his presumed celibacy.” (Bourgeault)

    It also doesn’t say he WAS married either. You are seriously arguing from silence? Besides, the final court regarding orthodoxy is the Bible, not the Nicene Creed.

    “And yes, the same old rhetoric has already come out in the rebuttals…” (Bourgeault)

    ““There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.” (Stephen Emmel, Professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster)

    ““I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the 4th century.” (Alin Suciu, Papyrologist at the University of Hamburg)

    Funny, they don’t sound angry at all.

    “King’s discovery is another small drop in the bucket…” (Bourgeault)

    It may well be one more scrap on growing pile of fakes and forgeries pretending to be authentic, authoritative windows unto Christian belief. I believe Dan Browns Davinci Code and James Cameron’s Talpiot documentary are buried in that pile.

    “We are finally getting t the root of the problem.” (Bourgeault)

    One root of the problem is so-called scholarship that has to resort to controversy, shock value and theories about non-existent conspiracies (Dan Brown and his friends) in order to gain academic fame and news coverage.

  • SimonTemplar

    If the history is being written by the likes of Bourgeault and King, I think truth is in danger of extinction.

  • di89

    Even if authenticated, this fragment would show that one person, somewhere, thought Jesus was married.


    People think all kinds of things. I’ve got a book on my shelf right now written by a minister who purports to show that the Bible proves that the sun revolves around the earth. This book was written in the 2000’s. So if two thousand years from now some archaeologist finds this, it would prove that twenty-first century American society believed in a geocentric universe? And the fact that this book contradicts the textbooks of the time would give it extra weight, just because it is contrary? It must be right, that’s why it’s suppressed and there’s only one of those but ten texts in my house that say otherwise?

    Historically interesting about the script, but the logic of the arguments is something I’d expect out of grade school children who really, really, want to believe something.

  • Catken1

    “Jesus had many disciples, men AND women. This contrasts with the contemporary practice of the other Rabbi of Jesus’ time. ”

    That makes sense to me, and what annoys me about the “married Jesus” argument is the idea that “if he was particularly close to a woman, we must automatically assume a sexual, and not an intellectual, relationship.”

    I have no quarrel with either Jesus married or Jesus unmarried- I just don’t think we have enough evidence either way. (I don’t know how you know Jesus “considered the Church to be his bride” given that he doesn’t actually talk about a “Church” much in the canonical gospels at all, except for that bit with Simon Peter which to me appears to be an obvious late insertion intended to promote the papal supremacy.)

    This passage could finish in any number of given ways, from “My wife is the Torah: let others populate the world” to “My wife is the chiefest of my apostles, obey her as you would me.” Who knows? Who can honestly say? There’s just not enough here to speculate on.

  • mikestech

    It isn’t that Jesus being married would tarnish his divine status. It’s that if Jesus really is divine, really is God Himself, and really does have the singular mission to redeem humanity, then what possible purpose could he have for taking a wife?

    Everything Christ did, he did for the sake of his mission, for the sake of glorifying the Father. Taking a wife and passing on a lineage of half-divine offspring makes no sense theologically whatsoever. It turns Christianity into some sort of Greek Hercules-esque religion where the gods are little better than men. It simply doesn’t fit with the rest of Christianity to carry any sort of plausibility.

  • yeshu2004

    Christianity first appeared in Egypt in 42 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander. Jesus’ disciple Mark preached in Alexandria and many became Christians. If Jesus had a wife, Mark, a contemporary and disciple of Jesus, would have told the new converts, the Coptic Christians. Alexandria was a well developed, cultured city with a huge library. Rome was ruled at that time by Claudius, with a strong Christian population in Rome. There was also a theological school in Alexandria, the Catechetical School, the oldest school in the world. Founded around 190 AD by the scholar Pantanaus the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and Origen, the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. The theological institutions of Egypt and the great Christian scholars who lived in Egypt long before this fake papyrus fragment was found, do not say anywhere that Jesus had a wife. In these circumstances, Karen’s thesis that the early Christians believed that Jesus had a wife is a fallacious fabrication. Karen claims that this papyrus was written 400 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Who owned it all these 1612 years? Why the Coptic Church in Cairo was not aware of it? How could Karen fix the age of the papyrus to 400 years without subjecting it to carbon dating? Probably it would have been produced quite recently by using a crumpled papyrus. So there is something fishy, something shady and something malefic in the entire episode. It is evident from all accounts that the faded papyrus fragment is fabricated, manipulated and concocted with a sinister motive. If such a fake papyrus about Mohammed had been exhibited, the fate of the Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh would have happened to the sponsor.

    Dan Brown also scandalized Jesus in his book, The Da vinci Code. Dan Brown told a lie that t