Tag Archives: Mary Magdalene

Jesus’ Wife: What is the significance of this new Egyptian Fragment?

If you’ve been following or perusing news websites at all this week, you’ve most likely read or at least seen one of the many articles published in response to Dr. Karen King, of Harvard Divinity’s announcement regarding a new Coptic fragment containing a quote attributed to Jesus referring to “his wife.” (1) This discovery was released in the New York Times and further reported by CNN, NBC, BBC, and many others news agencies. This of course launched quite a response from scholars, bloggers, and everyone with an opinion (for reliable insights on this discovery check out Marc Goodacre’s blog). While I believe Dr. King and most of the articles covering the story were responsible, my facebook newsfeed showed some (what I call) overreactions to the discovery and I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I want to ask and address one main question, and it’s three components, “What is the Significance of this specific discovery, or what do we learn from this fragment?” In order to answer this main question, we will focus on three components that will lead us to a reasonable conclusion at present. A. Does this say anything about the Historical Jesus? B. Regardless of the search for the Historical Jesus, what else could this document tell us? C. As some are suggesting ( see summary in 2), does this influence the view of role of women within the church, or lead us to new stunning discoveries that Jesus may have had female disciples? For the sake of discussion, I will assume the fragment’s authenticity (see skeptical article).

A In order to put things in perspective, we must look at the date of the text The fragment is roughly dated to the 4th Century (300s) and written in Coptic. Dr. King believes that it was initially written in Greek and may have been written as early as the late 2nd Century. So, this means that this fragment is from a book or scroll that was at best written 50-70+ years after the Gospels in the Bible were written and (if we give a 150 CE date), 120 years after Jesus’ time on earth. So, it is highly unlikely that this fragment would tell us anything about the Historical Jesus or his disciples. Dr. King, rightly emphasizes that point. This is a fairly uncontroversial position, as both scholars who trust the New Testament as the Word of God (Ben Witherington, see NBC article above), and those who believe we cannot ascertain any accurate picture of the historical Jesus out of the New Testament (see April Deconick [3]) , believe that this document does not shed any new light on Jesus’ life or status from 4BCE-34CE.

B So, what does this tell us? If anything, it is evidence that a group of Christians possibly believed that Jesus was married. Is this the only text that hints at this possibility? No, but it is one of the few. The most popular and most significant is the Gospel of Philip, where Mary of Magdala is referred to as his companion that He kisses on the mouth (a scholar, Dr. Deconick, who specializes in the Gnostic Gospels, indicates that Valentinian Christians held a view of a married Jesus. While she personally believes Jesus was married, she admits that the new fragment, as well as any gospel we have cannot lead us to that conclusion or vice versa on purely historical grounds). The Gospel of Philip, nor our fragment can get us closer to understanding the historical Jesus. Yet, Philip and the new fragment can provide insight into communities that existed within the late Second and early Third Centuries. If one assumes that the reference to “my wife” was literal and does not involve any theological or mystical metaphors, it can indicate that Jesus’ marital status was a topic of discussion and theological debate. However, we need to proceed with caution and not read too much into the text or the author/community it came from. The author is unknown, the place or origin is unknown, and we do not know what community or group produced it.  While it may seem easy to place it in the collection found at the Nag Hammadi library in the early 20th Century, we cannot responsibly make that assumption with the data in hand.

Also, what exactly does the text say?

As per the article from the Christian Post, the text reads

• “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
• “The disciples said to Jesus,”
• “deny. Mary is worthy of it”
• “… Jesus said to them, ‘My wife … ”
• “… she will be able to be my disciple …”
• “Let wicked people swell up …”
• “As for me, I dwell with her in order to”
• “an image”

Unfortunately, this does not tell us much. As mentioned briefly above, it may fit into Valentinian thought with a huge dose of Gnostic influence. However, we cannot asset that solely from the text itself. We cannot, as far as I can recognize, gather gnostic spirituality from this either. Some have suggested that “my wife” refers to the church ( see overview in 4), since the church is often referred to as Jesus’ bride (I don’t hold much stock in that viewpoint, but the lack of data we have cannot eliminate that theory however unlikely or likely it is). It also cannot tell us if Jesus’ bride is Mary of Magdala, Jesus’ “companion” in the Gospel of Philip.
C. Finally, I wanted to look at the last question regarding the discovery’s significant. Does this fragment add anything new to the status of women among Jesus and his disciples. Does it suggest that Jesus had female disciples? Regarding the historical Jesus, this passage does not really give us much regarding his followers in 30 CE. It may indicate that the discussion was more lively regarding the role of women in the late second sentury, but it adds nothing new. I don’t believe that this passage suggests that Jesus had female disciples, but it doesn’t have to, The Gospel of Luke already implies it.
 Jesus had disciples that were not part of “the Twelve.” While it would be controversial to say that Mary was part of the twelve, it is not at all that daring to say that she was a disciple (conservative Christian scholars affirm this ie. Bauckham). In Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he suggests that the internal evidence in the Gospel of Luke points not only toward female discipleship, but by use of inclusio, the possibility that Mary was a key witness and major source in the composition of that gospel (See my earlier post on this topic). Again, this is a conservative-leaning Christian scholar, not a progressive-liberal Christian thinker.
In conclusion, what does this new Fragment tell us? Probably nothing about the historical Jesus, not much (or nothing new) about his inclusion and selection of disciples, and it cannot tell us much about the specific community it came from. However, it can give us insight and confidence that there was a group out there (possibly the Valentinian Christians) that believed Jesus had a wife.  Unfortunately by using this fragment alone, we cannot honestly go much further without spinning into conjecture. The group may have been addressing theological and social topics such as Christian Sexuality, whether it was better to be single vs married , etc (1). It is still too difficult to gain specifics like that solely on the data we have without reconstructing too much on our own. Regardless, it is an exciting discovery even if it is not as sensational as some would like to believe. Now it’s time to wait for the peer review process.
1. Goodstein, Laurie. “Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?pagewanted=all&gt;.
2. Cooper, Kate. “‘Wife of Jesus’ Reference in Coptic 4th Century Script.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19645273&gt;
3.Deconick, April. “The Forbidden Gospels.” : Did Jesus Have a Wife? N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2012/09/did-jesus-have-wife.html.  (She does not explicitly state that the use of the fragment does not shed light on the Historical Jesus, but her final paragraph explaining the use of the New Testament implies it. {Dr. Deconick, if you happen upon this site and I have interpreted you incorrectly, please let me know}
4. Boyle, Alan. “Reality Check on Jesus and His ‘wife'” Cosmic Log. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/09/18/13945001-reality-check-on-jesus-and-his-wife?lite

Women and the Bible

What role did women have in the Bible?  … wait… before we clam up and fight as to whether women should speak in church, become elders, pastors, or maybe the Pope someday… lets reread, and maybe rephrase the question. What role did women have in the Bible’s construction?  This may sound like an odd question considering that there is no book in the new testament called, The Gospel according to Miriam, or Joanna, but women seem to have a greater role than most realize.

If you read the Gospels, you will notice that named-women appear surprisingly frequently throughout Jesus’ ministry. We also see them at the cross, at his burial, and at the empty tomb. This prompts the question, why and how do we have stories about these women? It seems obvious that some were eyewitnesses, but how much is actually their testimony?

The Gospel according to Luke is the most helpful when examining the testimony of women. First of all, Luke by implication states that he is not an eyewitness. He describes that he has carefully investigated everything from the beginning, and taken an account of the testimonies of the first eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). If you are like me you will wonder,  “who are these first eyewitnesses?”

Scholars such as Richard Bauckham will suggest that there is a good possibility that a substantial amount of Luke’s eyewitness testimony came from women like Mary and Joanna (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Gospel Women). There are a few clues as to why: the literary technique of inclusio, and text’s internal evidence regarding Mary and Joanna’s knowledge of the ministry.

Inclusio is an ancient literary technique where similar ideas, or phrases bracket the beginning and end of a section.


Beginning: He is a Champion

He likes to play football

he wins MVP’s

He’s won multiple superbowls

End: He is a Champion

While we see this mainly in literary or rhetorical instances (see Hebrews: Christ as the perfect high Priest), we see this in ancient histories and biographies for eyewitness testimony as well. This means that a section will introduce a person, and fill the inner section with testimony or anecdotes from that person, and then close the testimony off by dismissing the individual in some way. A few biblical scholars today (Bauckham, Hengel) will claim that the Gospel according to Mark is largely the eyewitness testimony of Peter based on an inclusio of his testimony (for a non-Christian example of ancient eyewitness inclusio, see Lucian’s Alexander). In Luke, we seem to have multiple sources at work, but the main inclusio we see is with Mary and Joanna. Luke introduces the two in Luke 8:2-3 and last mentions them in Luke 24:11. While interesting and notable that there are two events (the ministry in Luke 8 and the empty tomb in 24) the women were possibly eyewitnesses for, why give them more credit? This comes from their disciple-like knowledge of Jesus’ ministry described in Luke 24.

The women go to the tomb where they find two shimmering men who claim that Jesus is not there. They tell the women,

Luke 24:5b-8

“Why Do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words.

Pay close attention to “remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee.” The two men move on from this statement, assuming and taking it for granted that these women obviously heard this before. So, let’s go to the original scene in Galilee

Luke 9:18, 21-22

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him… Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

The section in chapter 9 shows that this specific teaching of Jesus was given to his disciples in private. The two men in chapter 24 suggest that these women were there with Jesus for this teaching. This means that there is a good possibility, that the women were responsible for the accounts of ch. 9: 18-26. Therefore, it seems safe to postulate that if Mary and Joanna were privy to this private conversation, they were present for considerably more.

Inclusio and the testimony from Luke 8 and 24 lead us to believe that some of the women we find in the gospel contributed a considerable portion of the eyewitness testimony we have.* While we cannot know this for certain, a strong case is available. At the very least we can remind ourselves of a few things today. Women are more than just stay-at-home moms and can play quite an important role in ministry. These women traveled with Jesus, participated in his ministry, served the poor, shared the gospel, and as a result put family life aside. These were not women who simply stayed at home. On the contrary, they were with Jesus through his ministry, and remained with him at the cross when the Twelve were too fearful, and most likely quite active in the rise of the early Church.

For further reading:

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Gospel Women

*By implication in the introduction, Luke used multiple sources. I am not saying that these women were authors, or the only eyewitnesses, just major contributors.