Coptic fragment presenting Jesus as saying "my wife"?

The following video from Harvard professor Karen L. King has received a huge amount of discussion online over the last few weeks.

Is the fragment directly relevant to the discussion of Hellenistic Greek? No. It is written in Coptic, and there is no credible evidence that it is a translation of an earlier Greek original. While Dr. King assumes the fragment to be a translation, I have found no evidence to support this assumption.

Do I think the Coptic fragment is authentic? I’m skeptical. The provenance of the fragment is unknown. This is a serious problem for any attempt to argue for authenticity.

Dr. King’s assertion that the fragment is evidence of a previously unknown Gospel is highly questionable. It rests on assumptions that I see as difficult to support. If authentic, the fragment was once part of a larger document of some kind. Was that document a Gospel? Perhaps. But it could also have been a letter or a work of religious fiction.

Dr. King has been clear that the fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. If it is authentic, it provides evidence only of what a later group of Christians thought about whether he was married, not evidence of the historical reliability of their thinking. By assuming the fragment to be a translation of an earlier Greek original, though, Dr. King is able to assert that the view it represents on Jesus marital status dates to an earlier period than I believe the evidence actually supports.

While I think it is unlikely that the fragment is actually authentic, that does not mean that I reject the idea that Jesus could have been married.

The question of Jesus marital status did not arise until at least a hundred years after his death, at a time when the early church was struggling with whether Christians should marry, or at the least with whether clergy should marry. The canonical gospels are entirely silent on the issue. [O.K., so here’s the only possible tiny connection between this post and the Greek texts!] They say neither that he was or that he wasn’t married. They never mention a wife, but neither do they assert that he didn’t have one. The assertion that he was single throughout his life is based on theology, not the Greek texts.

If responses appear to this post, I will try to steer them toward discussion of the relevant Greek texts and meanings of particular Greek words and phrases.

5 Replies to “Coptic fragment presenting Jesus as saying "my wife"?”

  1. I am thankful for Dr. King’s persistence with the Gnostic texts. I feel there is a very good chance that a lot was destroyed after the various church councils in the third century, and by persecutions of the Gnostics earlier. Our own traditions are very inclusive of minorities, so shouldn’t we have this same attitude toward inclusiveness of other findings about Jesus as real possibilities? There is much that is fragmentary about the earliest canonical gospels – I don’t think they have a whole lot more to rest on as far as early original manuscripts. Dr. Palmer once told me that in the year 250 approximately one third of Christians were Gnostics. Something must have made them convinced of their inheritance from the movement of the apostles out of Jerusalem in the first century.

    1. It’s good to hear from you Robert.

      I’m not sure what connection you see with the Gnostics here. The fragment Dr. King has introduced (if authentic), dates from the 4th century.

      Can you apply your view in some way to the Greek texts? If Dr. King is right that the fragment represents a small part of a translation from Greek, what Greek phrase could stand behind the Coptic phrase she has translated into English as “my wife”? Is she assuming that the Greek text included a phrase such as ἡ γυνή μου? If so, what range of meanings do you see as possible for that Greek phrase?

      1. I hope you received my lengthy reply .I was proofing and it disappeared. Can you translate your Greek phrase for me?

        can you compare the respective amounts of Greek fragments that exist for the canonical texts to those that exist for the Gnostic texts?

        How do you think the Gnostic text of Philip saying that the other disciples were jealous of Mary Magdalene, because ‘the Savior kissed her often on the (mouth)’ supports or does not support the new fragment? Would not this third century reference be supportive of Dr. King’s 4th century find?

        1. The Greek phrase I gave (ἡ γυνή μου) can be translated in more than one way. It could be “my wife,” but it could also be “my woman.” I offered it as a simple guess at what Dr. King might think lies behind the the Coptic text that she believes to be a translation of Greek.

          The number of fragments that exist for the canonical texts is vastly greater than the number for the gnostic texts. That’s pretty easy to explain. The canonical texts, precisely because they became canonical, got copied far more frequently. Any one of the four canonical Gospels is represented by a larger number of fragments than all of the non-canonical gospels combined.

          While the ideas expressed in the text of the gospel of Philip suggest an intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdaline, and the Coptic text Dr. King has presented implies Jesus was married, neither of these texts provides support for the authenticity of the other in any way. They simply have a theme in common. The question of whether the Copitic document is authentic—that is, whether it actually comes from the fourth century as proposed—rests on issues of provenance, the age of the papyrus, and the chemical composition of the ink. What the words say is not really relevant to that question.

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