No, People, a 4th Century Scrap Doesn’t Prove Jesus Had a Wife

So calm yourselves.  First, what’s the provenance of the fragment?  Was it discovered in a controlled scientific dig?  Who are the excavators?  Where are the photos of the artifact’s discovery in situ?  Who deciphered it?  What is its date?

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

Again, what are the answers to the questions above.  King isn’t an archaeologist so how did she come into possession of the piece?  Furthermore, a statement on a papyrus fragment isn’t proof of anything.  It’s nothing more than a statement ‘in thin air’, without substantial context.  For all King knows (and those panting after the papyrus like it was a gold inscribed tablet dug up in Illinois and interpreted by the angel Morono) the full context is a joke of a letter written by one pagan to another.

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.

Ah, so it’s provenance is a mystery.  That means, so far as real historians and biblical scholars are concerned, it’s rubbish.  No provenance, no usefulness.  The only people who accept unprovenanced artifacts are people who do shows for the Discovery Channel.  Anyway I think the first thing that King needs to answer is where and when she got it and from whom and how.  And then that person needs to turn over the chain of custody so that the piece can be understood properly.  It may well not be a ‘forgery’ but without more context, both historically and archaeologically, the snippet is valueless.

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

Well that’s sensible.  Taking a fragmentary statement in a fragmentary document and building a theory from it has already been done- and it resulted in miserable failure and widespread rejection (Panthera, father of Jesus, whatever happened to you?)

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.  “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

Actually the only thing it shows is that one (potential) Christian writing in Coptic in a document that is incomplete may or may not have been referring to a tradition concerning Jesus that was held by only himself or perhaps a handful of others.

In short, what it shows is that even now, when people should know better, they still are more than willing to say more than can honestly and confidently be said.  I’m not accusing King of that- but those who will now run with her slight comment and slim evidence and produce mockumentaries from studios in Canada featuring talking heads and various ‘authorities’ keen to see themselves on TV.

UPDATE:  A few other observations and news reports are available here, here (NBC), herehere (BBC) and most recently here and here in The Guardian.  Simon Gathercole of Cambridge chimes in here.  A new video completely ignores the question of provenance, but it seems that there are still those pretending that – even without provenance- this discovery is meaningful.  Finally, Francis Watson shows that, beyond a doubt, the fragment is a fake (in three essays), and most recently in a more popularly aimed essay on B&I which includes even further information and an appendix by Stephen Carlson which is must reading.

UPDATE II:  HTR has decided to have nothing to do with the papyrus or its publication.  The Vatican has slammed Harvard for its publicity questing, also describing the fragment as a fake.

27 thoughts on “No, People, a 4th Century Scrap Doesn’t Prove Jesus Had a Wife

  1. Pingback: Coptic Text Mentions Jesus’ Wife

  2. There is a reason why I keep reading your articles! You hit the nail right on the head! Example: You say…
    “Ah, so it’s provenance is a mystery. That means, so far as real historians and biblical scholars are concerned, it’s rubbish. No provenance, no usefulness. The only people who accept unprovenanced artifacts are people who do shows for the Discovery Channel. ”

    and I ask… Like Bob Cargill? I watch those shows on Discovery and NetGeo and I can write a book on the amount of disinformation is blurted from those shows… (and I am the one who is an amateurish or “armchair” theologian…) Bob is one that comes to mind because in the show “The Secret Life of the Apostles”, specifically, he mentions something about Acts being “unbelievable, and/or incorrect” (not a direct quote) that is simply NOT in the book of Acts. If you watch the show or has the show recorded find it when he refers to Acts as mentioning “numbers of Jews being converted to Christianity that do not add up” (not a direct quote either), but Acts speaks of numbers but also referring to the same number, nowhere in the book of Acts it says 5000, plus 3000, plus 5000 again converts in a very short period of time… Anyway, Yes, these scholars believe and attempt to prove what they already assume and prefer it to be true. No offense! I love these guys and they are very helpful with their research otherwise, and I do not hesitate in benefiting from their intellect, but the “faith” they have in this “proofs” and “provenances” is enviable; I can only wish Christians would have that much faith in the Bible!


    • well no i certainly do NOT have Cargill in mind – whose work is spectacular. i have other discovery channel shows in mind by pseudo archaeologists unclothed. i’ve never seen any program with which bob cargill has been involved that was sub par or misleading or down right falsely pandering to the lowest common herd mentality. i dont always agree with bob- but when i don’t, i always know he has thought things through and has substantive and thoughtful reasons in hand.


  3. I have been reading Cargil’s opinions and a few pages (I have to admit) of his work and I was really surprised by the sarcastic (in my humble view) tone that he said that in the book of Acts (in the aforementioned show) because I benefited greatly from his research and writing. I exchanged some ideas with him the “gay” issue on his web site but he was VERY, respectful although disagreeing with me (and I was merely saying that “gays” go about the wrong way the same way Christians go about the wrong way in defending their position in the issue: Christians quote the bible unduly; gays mock the Bible and use O.T. standard of marriage to condemn the arguments of Christians).

    I wrote a note about what he said in that show (The Secret Lives of the Apostles) and thought I had published in his Web Site in his email session, but it probably ended up in the same place my socks go when I put them in the dryer. In that note I said that nowhere in the book of Acts that I can see (I can read some Greek, but I can research a LOT of Greek), it implies, even by association that in Acts 2:41 and 4:4 is an addition… 3000 of the five thousand of 4:4 could very well be the same of 2:41 and they believe in the Sermon on the temple as well as they believe in the sermon on the day of Pentecost, but as I said I see no 3000, plus an additional 5000 and so on and so forth. Please, these men are used of God whether they like, want, it or not! So their research is beneficial to all who study the Bible and to say it otherwise is to deny an attribute God by his Mercy bestowed to all of us: Intellect.


  4. Without provenance this text is meaningless. However, I have read that perhaps there is a verifiable chain of command if the owner would be willing to reveal his identity. Maybe he should think twice about that. If he is Israeli, they will automatically call it a forgery and charge him with a crime. The IAA does not allow Christian artifacts that do not follow traditional Christian dogma.


    • i think if the thing is legit from an actual controlled dig it’s purveyors owe it to the rest of us to come clean. full disclosure is what academic honesty requires


  5. Jim, Milt, and Susan, it is strange…on the one hand as Susan says: Without provenance this text is meaningless and you are all right in that science should never be based on rubbish or sloppy research. But in a sense, this bit of sensationalistic journalism brings up the question: would it really matter if Jesus, like any other Rabbi of his time, had a wife? As I am growing older, I tend to think that nothing doctrinally important really hangs on that. What say you? Claude.


    • for myself it’s a non issue. but basing claims on 4th century fragments of snippets and watching those claims ‘go viral’ is a disservice to honest scholarship. it also, unfortunately, casts a doubting light on well executed academic enquiry.


  6. I don’t see how it would be a disservice to ‘honest’ scholarship. Many people will click on the link, scan the article and then go back to Honey Boo Boo. It will be a momentary blip. Please explain how this is a disservice and how does it cast a doubting light?


    • because it claims for a fragment what can’t fairly be claimed. there’s just NO evidence for calling it, as king apparently does, ‘the gospel of jesus’ wife’. come on. that’s pure sensationalism and nothing less.


  7. I reread the original article and several others but did not see where Dr. King said that. Actually, she cautioned about jumping to any conclusions.


  8. “Ah, so it’s provenance is a mystery. That means, so far as real historians and biblical scholars are concerned, it’s rubbish. No provenance, no usefulness”.
    P6, P7, P12, P32, P37, P38, etc etc etc (NT in Greek)
    P.Berlin Graec.Fol.66, MS.89 of P.Fouad 266, P.Mich.III.131, etc etc etc (OT in Greek)
    Nash Papyrus, Sdeir 1, etc etc etc (OT in Hebrew)
    The above examples of biblical MSS without provenance can be multiplied perhaps ten fold yet they are all manuscripts cited by real historians and biblical scholars – provenance is important and useful but no provenance does not mean no usefulness.


    • ALL discovered in a different time before greedy fortune hunters perfected the art of fraud. so, apples and oranges.


  9. A simple question – When exactly did the greedy fortune hunters perfect the art of fraud so we can divide the apples and oranges?

    Was it the 1950s – this would make many Dead Sea Scrolls from Cave 11 suspect along with scrolls from Nahal Seelim and Nahal Hever. Was it the 1960s – this would make manuscripts such as Rahlfs 875, XQPhy1-4 and Murabba’at Genesis B suspect. Was it the 1970s – this would make the Gospel of Judas and associated manuscripts such as one of Exodus suspect. Was it as late as the year 2000 – this would make manuscripts such as 0312 and the Leviticus fragments from Nahal Arugot suspect along with about 100 Dead Sea Scroll fragments, mostly from Qumran Cave 4, that have recently come to light.


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  11. Pingback: Reality check on Jesus and his wife » Ogabb

  12. Pingback: Did Jesus Have a Wife? (No) « Reading Acts

  13. Pingback: Did Jesus have a wife? | Open Source Thinktank

  14. Pingback: Jesus' Wife Papyrus Might Be Just Some 'Crazy Thing' | News 47News 47

  15. Matthew this has been going on at least since the 1970’s when I began working for the IAA as a curator. Then it was usually southern ministers, or those claiming to be ministers/archaeologists who claimed to discover things left and right. Unfortunately, colleagues helped them get licenses to rape the land, as they do today, on condition that they would fund their own legitimate digs. There were always a handful of biblical scholars, running questionable non-profits, usually coming from a Christian background who knew exactly what the fundamentalists wanted to hear. Since the Da Vinci Code things have become worse to the point that a few Hollywood types have been threatening those who have the audacity to criticize them,. For example, Dead Sea scrolls have always been ripe for abuse by a handful of scholars, for example, not long ago a FAX was sent from Israel to a very well known DSS scholar, asking if he could find a buyer for 17-19 fragments, asking price 7 million dollars.. The FAX went to the wrong person and the word was out however not a word from DSS scholars who seemed to be sitting comfortably in their ivory towers. Fact is, these fragments were not from a legit. archaeological excavation, but were looted and here are two well known personalities trying to find a buyer in the US and total silence from scholars. Here in IL that would not be tolerated, but in the US rules seem to be different. Around the same time a DSS fragment from another questionable source made the scene, same story press conference however folks here were skeptical so they DNA’ed the biblical fragment and the result, the parchment was from a porcupine, which are rather large here in the eastern Med. Again it was hushed up, rather than being brought out in the public.. Senecas remark that ‘academics should be lawyers for the masses’ seems to have fallen on a deaf ear somewhere along the way despite the fact that the masses paid for our education and continue to do so. We owe them more.


  16. Pingback: Was there a Mrs. Jesus?: Thoughts on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife « Theo-sophical Ruminations


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