Q&A 1333 - What about the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? I am wondering if you have any thoughts on this new finding?

In 2012 an ancient papyrus fragment, about the size of a business card, was uncovered. It referred to Jesus’ wife, and quite naturally caused a stir. The excitement resurfaced in April 2014, after scientists verified its antiquity.

One of the headlines reads Ancient, Controversial Papyrus Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Not Fake. Scholars quickly conceded that the document, carbon dated to 659-859 AD (some think it’s even older), does not prove Jesus was married. Yet the immediate impression such headlines generate among the uninformed is that he was. What are the facts?

  • The document dates from the early 8th century (averaging C14 test results); the writing on the document appears to be from the 20th century.
  • It is written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language sacred to Christians.
  • The entire papyrus consists of 14 partial lines.
  • Nearly half of these lines are illegible.
  • The newsworthy excerpt: “…My mother gave to me life… The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Mary is worthy of it…’ Jesus said to them, ‘My wife… She will be able to be my disciple’…”
  • The Mary referred to his likely Mary Magdalene, who is sometimes portrayed as an intimate friend of Christ in late, non-canonical gospels.
  • Many heretical groups wrote spurious gospels from the late 2nd century well into the Middle Ages. Most date to roughly one to three centuries after the genuine (apostolic) New Testament.

"None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery," Harvard Divinity School said. (That is the seminary where I got my master’s degree in New Testament.) Other scholars dissent, citing clear evidence of forgery. Either way, the headline phrase “not fake” means that the papyrus is very old—not that it is accurate!

For example, the oldest copies of the Qur’an (the Muslim bible) date to the 8th century AD. And so do the oldest Buddhist manuscripts I have seen (in Nara, Japan). These may be old, but their age hardly requires me to accept that they are true. (Should we always accept the oldest surviving religious manuscripts? On that count, Christianity and Judaism win hands-down.) In short, antiquity is hardly the same as authenticity. Further, the “Jesus’ wife papyrus” may be old, but it’s not nearly as old, complete, and impressive as the codices and papyri upon which our New Testaments are based.

On another note, all forms of genuine Christianity dignify and raise the status of women. It wasn’t just Jesus or the apostle Paul who chose female disciples as co-workers. Women continued—and continue—to find a haven, trust, and respect in Christ. That is true even without the help of the late and speculative “gospels.”

For more, please refer to the podcast on the life of Jesus—as to why he did not marry, even though he had the right to marry. See also the CD set The lost books of the Bible that were never missing.

Finally, scholar Nick Zola sums up the evidence of forgery, "Ultimately, it looks as though while the papyrus scrap may be 8th cent., the writing on it is 20th cent., at the latest, based on modern printed editions." He then refers us to three bloodspots: