The ‘Jesus’s wife’ papyrus reveals another version of the Christian story
By Tom Holland, Wednesday 19 September 2012 13.30 EDT
Our sources for the ancient past are often the merest shreds and patches, and peculiarly challenging is to trace the evolution of religions. Invariably, the process by which one particular orthodoxy succeeded in establishing itself as definitive was a complex and protracted one. Then, once cemented as canonical, back stories for it would come to be written, from which any lingering sense that the religion might once have been an inchoate swirl of competing doctrines and beliefs was effectively purged. The consequence is that histories told by believers about the early centuries of their own faith tend to serve as monuments to the obliteration as well as to the preservation of the past.
Hence the excitement this week surrounding the discovery of a tiny fragment of papyrus on which, for the first time in any ancient Christian manuscript, Jesus is recorded as speaking of “my wife”. Although the provenance of this startling find is mysterious, its ultimate place of origin – presuming that it is not, as some scholars suspect, a forgery – can only have been Egypt.
This is not merely because the language of the fragment is Coptic. In Egypt, preserved in the dry and shifting sands of abandoned municipal tips, scraps of text that otherwise would have remained unknown have regularly been exhumed. Most are the equivalent of an emptied filing cabinet: bills, receipts, and the like. Occasionally more precious finds have been made: lost masterpieces of classical literature and – most revelatory of all, perhaps – heretical gospels.
That these gospels had come to be defined as heretical in the first place was due to the triumph in the fourth century AD of a particular brand of state-sponsored Christianity. In 367, four decades after the formulation of the Nicaean Creed under emperor Constantine, a famously authoritarian bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius wrote to the churches under his jurisdiction. In these letters, he prescribed the 27 books that henceforward were to be considered to constitute a “New Testament”. Simultaneously, Athanasius said that all gospels not included in his canon were no longer, on any account, to be read. Among these, presumably, was the one of which the tiniest fragment has just been brought to light: the one christened by Karen King, the Harvard professor responsible for publishing it, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
It is certainly telling that the fragment has been dated to the fourth century: the very moment when all save the four canonical gospels of today’s New Testament were starting to be suppressed in Egypt. Even more tantalisingly, though, the original dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that it records has been dated by Professor King to the second half of the second century. That takes us back to a period when the spectrum of Christian opinion – hairesis, in Greek – was, by the later standards of post-Nicaean Christianity, bewilderingly wide. There were some Christians, for instance, who claimed that the human body, and sexuality with it, was irredeemably corrupt, while there were others who saw in the language of marriage and intercourse a metaphor for salvation. So it was, in a notorious verse from another long-lost gospel recently rediscovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Philip, that Jesus was described as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, it would seem, was written as a contribution to the same debate: a debate which, in due course, Christians would come to forget had ever raged.
What the fragment does not do is shed any light on the marital status of the historical Jesus – let alone whether he truly had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Written almost two centuries after Jesus’s birth, and at an immense ideological remove from the circumstances of his life, the notion is grist, perhaps, for Da Vinci Code fans – but not for real-life Harvard professors. What it does give us, though, is a glimpse into an otherwise occluded moment in the evolution of Christianity, and a reminder of how effectively religions have been able to manufacture for themselves, in defiance of messy reality, a streamlined and authorised past.
Photograph of fourth-century papyrus fragment referring to Jesus having a wife (AP Photo/Harvard University, by Karen L. King). http://media.washtimes.com/media/image/2012/09/19/us-scholar-jesus-wife_lea_s800x527.jpg or http://bit.ly/TaL1Tb