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New tests show that the fragment of papyrus called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is actually from ancient times. The results of a carbon dating test show that it probably dates to 8th-century Egypt.
The discovery of the fragment, which includes the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” was announced to the world a little more than a year ago by Karen L. King, a professor of history at Harvard’s School of Divinity.
The gospel immediately sparked heated debate and drew immediate dismissals from some because the Gospel refers to Jesus being married.
King joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the implications of the latest tests. She says there should not be a debate over whether or not the historical Jesus was married, rather the role of wives, mothers and sexuality in Christianity.
On the authenticity of the papyrus fragment
“All the tests point positively to the papyrus fragment being ancient. When we weigh evidence one way or another, we weigh not only these very important science reports of the papyrus and of the ink, you know the radio carbon dating, but we also look at handwriting and the language and its grammar — and the content. You know, there needs to be a historical context that helps us also kind of fine tune and date and place the fragments. So all of those together are consistently pointing toward antiquity.”
On what this means about whether Jesus was married
“As far as the ‘was Jesus married’ question, this fragment is in any case not evidence one way or the other about whether Jesus was married or not. This belongs not to the historical Jesus question, it belongs to the question of, what were early Christians saying about Jesus’s marital status later. I was quite fascinated when this first came up that no one had actually done the research, had written and asked the question, who was the first one, who were the first people to say that Jesus was not married? When I looked at that, it turns out to be some people who were called heretics from the later part of the second century, that is to say about 150 years or more after Jesus died. And they’re claiming that no Christian should ever have any sexual relations ever, period, because Jesus didn’t marry.”
On the fragment’s mention of Jesus’s mother
“He says ‘my mother gave me life.’ … The notion that the fall of humanity can be lodged squarely on Eve’s shoulders and that she is the representative sinner for all of humanity has weighed heavily in Christian theology. So now this notion that in fact you have a possibility to say ‘me mother is the one who gave me life, my wife,’ are possibilities to think about these situations being redemptive, exactly in the way that Christians do talk about the coming of Jesus as making it possible to overcome sin and to lead a full life of spirituality in relation to God.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
New tests show that the fragment of papyrus with Coptic text of Jesus speaking of a wife is indeed ancient. Whether or not it ends the debate over what it means is another matter. The tiny papyrus the size of a credit card was announced to the world a little more than a year ago by Karen King, a professor of history at Harvard's School of Divinity. She received it from an anonymous owner.
The results of a carbon dating test at Harvard showed that the papyrus probably dates to 741 A.D. And separate ink testing by Columbia University researchers concludes that the ink used was consistent with ink used by ancient Egyptians.
In the text, Jesus refers to his mother and then come the words: And Jesus said to them, my wife. Next line: She will be able to be my disciple. Well, that launched heated debates about whether Jesus was married, an important topic for many reasons, including that his presumed celibacy is the basis for a prerequisite that many religious leaders be celibate. Now, the debates are launched anew. Professor Karen King joins us in the studio. Welcome.
KAREN KING: Thank you.
YOUNG: Start with whether these texts in your mind are authentic. We're going to take up what they might mean in a minute. But do these tests, these new tests, prove to you that this text and the paper, the papyrus, is from ancient Egypt?
KING: All the tests point positively to the papyrus fragment being ancient. When we weigh evidence one way or another, we weigh not only these very important science reports of the papyrus and of the ink, you know, the radiocarbon dating. But we also look at handwriting and the language and its grammar and the content. You know, there needs to be a historical context that helps us also sort of fine tune and date and place the fragment. So all of those together are consistently pointing toward antiquity.
YOUNG: Well, and the ink testing in particular, they said they just didn't see any sign of what would be modern-day forgery. But as to the words that are written, as you well know, Dr. Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University, says there are gross grammatical errors in the Coptic language that's used and that it looks like a cut and paste from an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, a later gospel, not in the Bible, that contains the same grammatical errors. So he points to that as somebody just stole this and imposed it.
KING: Yes, he does. That's the kind of argument that he makes. He discounts entirely the results of any of the scientific testing. First of all, the parallels are just simply not as close as he claims that they are. And anyone who sits down next to each other can say that.
But even more so, let's say he's right, OK? I don't agree, but let's say he's right that whoever made this took a bunch of it from the Gospel of Thomas. Well, the Gospel of Thomas dates to the second, third century, and the Coptic copies that we have of it are from fourth and fifth century manuscripts. We know that in antiquity, this was very common to do so. The Gospel of Matthew copied from the Gospel of Mark. So this could all very, very well have happened in antiquity.
YOUNG: As we know, he has said, Dr. Depuydt, there's nothing that can be said that will make him believe this. So...
YOUNG: ...let's set that aside, because there is nothing, there is no testing that will make some people believe that this is from ancient times. But let's go with the testing and say, OK, it's from ancient times. What does it mean? What does it mean that somebody is quoting Jesus as saying, my wife? He could have been saying, if I had a wife...
KING: That's a...
YOUNG: So what do you think it means about whether or not Jesus was married?
KING: Well, as far as that, was Jesus married question, this fragment is in any case not evidence one or the other about whether Jesus was married or not. This belongs not to the historical Jesus question. It belongs to the question of, what were early Christians saying about Jesus' marital status later?
And I was quite fascinated when this first came up. That no one had actually done the research had written and asked the question, who was the first one? Who were the first people to say that Jesus was not married? When I looked at that, it turns out to be some people who are called heretics from the later part of the second century. That is to say, about 150 years or more after Jesus died. And they're claiming that no Christian should ever have any sexual relations, period...
YOUNG: Well, let's weigh in and underscore...
KING: ...because Jesus didn't marry.
YOUNG: Yes. So let's underscore that.
YOUNG: The first people that you could find in your research who actually said Jesus wasn't married, therefore, Christians should not have...
YOUNG: ...sexual relations, they were called heretics.
KING: Right. They were. And that position - that radical position that marriage is absolutely out is not the one that Christianity ultimately took up but...
YOUNG: Because there would be no Christians if they had.
KING: Yes. Well...
YOUNG: This is so fascinating, that what you're trying to get into the debate over this is what people were actually saying at the time about celibacy? And you find the early Christians saying Jesus was celibate, so we need to be - they were called heretics. What do you think the debate was at about the time that the testing puts this parchment?
KING: I think they have not had time to really look into it, quite frankly. I think this is a good direction for a new research to go. When we talk about it, we talked about, you know, what did it mean when it was composed? Then if it was translated and passed on, what did it mean then? And then if it continued to be translated and it's still being read, so one would want to say, well, who was reading this in the eighth century and why? And what was going on there? And that would require another research project.
YOUNG: Which you hope to launch. That's Karen King, professor of history at Harvard's School of Divinity, on news today that the papyrus, the Gospel of Jesus' life, which she introduced to the world is indeed ancient. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
We know you spoke to our colleague, Bob Oakes, this morning. He asked you a great question: How does this impact the whole Adam and Eve story that launches the Bible? The idea that man is fallen and women helped tripped him in part by offering him the apple. He went against God's will by eating the forbidden fruit and is therefore flawed and fallen.
KING: Well, like my response was: that's a very interesting question.
KING: But, you know, I've been thinking about a little bit in the time since as well. What's interesting to me is that the way that the Adam and Eve story gets interpreted in early Christianity is that it is about original sin. But of course, the word sin doesn't quite appear. I mean, these people are disobedient, right? But there's also - it's also not - the story itself in Genesis would - when you read is not about sex. By the time you get to these early Christians who were very pro-celibacy, pro-virginity, they really see the sexuality there as sinful. That from that moment on, sex without sin was not possible.
YOUNG: Yeah, that this was...
YOUNG: This was apple as metaphor.
KING: Right. But, you know, Christians has always claimed that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, you know, the presence of the Holy Spirit makes it possible to live a different kind of pure life. And so this notion about if Jesus were married, this would mean that sinless marriage was possible, that it is possible to have sex without sin and that would be quite radically new.
I don't think that the papyrus fragment is actually interested in the question of sin and sex. I think that's a consequence of the way from the Adam and Eve story, in the way we've come to think about it, and this notion that Jesus being sinless could not have been married. People tell me that, well, I think this fragment is focused on is this question about whether women who are sexually active, that is to say wives and mothers, can be full disciples of Jesus.
YOUNG: And we should say that, in the previous line, he says something about his mother...
KING: Yeah, yeah.
YOUNG: In this scrap, what did he say?
KING: He says, my mother gave me life.
YOUNG: You could read it as a statement about equality.
KING: Yes. The notion that the fall of humanity can be lodged squarely on Eve's shoulders, and that she is the representative sinner for all of humanity has weighed heavily in Christian theology. So now, this notion that, in fact, you have the possibility to say, my mother is the one who gave me life, my wife, our possibility for - to think about these situations being redemptive exactly in the way that Christians do talk about the coming of Jesus as making it possible to overcome sin and to lead a full life of spirituality in relation to God.
YOUNG: Karen King, professor of history at Harvard's School of Divinity, thanks so much.
KING: You're welcome.
YOUNG: Fascinating. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.