Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

That Coptic papyrus fragment tells us nothing about Jesus

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 19, 2012

A Harvard Divinity School professor has unearthed an ancient Coptic papyrus fragment that reportedly refers to a wife of Jesus. What does this prove?

Absolutely nothing.

When Karen King submitted an article about her discovery to the Harvard Theological Review, two of the three scholars who reviewed it concluded that the papyrus was probably a forgery. Other scholars with strong credentials believe it is genuine. Let’s put that question in the “don’t know” category, and move on.

If it is real, and if King is reading it correctly, does the papyrus fragment show that Jesus had a wife? No. It shows that someone in the 3rd or 4th century said that Jesus had a wife. The person who allegedly wrote this fragment of a sentence would not have been an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, nor would he have met any eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses—the Lord’s disciples—testified unanimously that Jesus did not have a wife. It’s difficult to see why this mysterious Coptic correspondent, arriving on the scene a few centuries after the fact, should be taken more seriously.

The BBC report on Professor King’s discovery suggests that if Jesus did have a wife, it might have been Mary Magdalene. Why mention Mary Magdalene specifically, among the thousands of women living in Palestine at the time of Christ? Because the hypothesis that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene has been a favorite of imaginative authors for years.

Professor King isn’t foolish enough to jeopardize her own academic credentials by claiming that her discovery validates the Mary-Magdalene hypothesis. She lets credulous reporters draw their own inferences. Her own claim about the importance of her discovery are actually quite modest:

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married.”

Fair enough. Some Christians in the early 21st century have a “tradition” that Jesus was married, too, and they’ll trot out any evidence, however thin, to advance that theory. As one Coptic scholar told the BBC, there are "thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things.” Professor King’s papyrus might be much older than a Dan Brown novel (although we can’t be too certain of that), but it’s not much more credible.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wmadonovan4215 - Oct. 03, 2012 6:52 AM ET USA

    Many people love shocking, off the wall speculations like this which give them something to talk about and an excuse to toy with the idea that maybe everything we've been told by the mysterious aloof church is questionable.

  • Posted by: bruno - Sep. 21, 2012 3:37 PM ET USA

    The TV article I saw says the fragment contains, "Jesus said, 'My wife...'" Assume, for a moment, the fragment is authentic and that it represents the work of an authentic Christian scribe. Isn't Jesus the 'Bridegroom'? Isn't his 'Bride' the church? We can, as easily as the promoters of heterodoxy, claim that the sentence ends with '...the Church'! Such a tempest about nothing at all!

  • Posted by: djcastel7241 - Sep. 21, 2012 3:33 PM ET USA

    If authentic, the fragment would tell us something about Gnosticism rather than Christianity. According to St. Irenaeus, the Gnostic "Aeons" always came in masculine and feminine pairs. Since the Gnostics considered Jesus to be the highest product of the Aeons, it might have seemed necessary to give him a female counterpart. Other parts of the "wife" fragment mention the need to make the woman worthy of discipleship, as in the Gospel of Thomas, possibly suggesting forgery.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Sep. 20, 2012 2:31 PM ET USA

    Those of us that have been granted the grace to be Catholic shouldn't be concerned in the slightest by stuff like this. We know what Scripture and Tradition teach and if anything at all contradicts either we know it's false, period, close the book. We shouldn't rely on scholars or scientists, both who often are pushing a rationalistic naturalist atheist agenda that is corrosive to the faith of those who are not well formed in the Faith. Woe to them that scandalize any of Chrit's "little ones"...

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 20, 2012 2:27 PM ET USA

    rdubin gave me the best laugh I've had in weeks.

  • Posted by: rdubin1661 - Sep. 20, 2012 12:40 PM ET USA

    The only surprise is that the document wasn't released at Christmas or Easter—the official seasons for apocryphal "news" that, invariably, is predicted to "shake the foundations of Christian faith." By the way, I have studied the fragment carefully, and it clearly says, not "Jesus' wife," but "Jesus' wifi," which is sure to shake the foundations of technological history.