• February 26, 2024

Did Jesus have a wife? So says an ancient Egyptian papyrus

A Egyptian papyrus fragment describing Jesus Christ as discussing his “wife” has been making the news globally of late. The idea of Jesus having a wife is many centuries old, having been circulated beginning in the late second or early third century and popularized in modern times by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In 1999, I wrote in The Christ Conspiracy (13):

Jesus has “of late become a black, a white supremacist, a gay, a woman, a heretic, a Mediterranean peasant…a ‘Cynic-sage,’ an Arab, as well as the husband of Mary Magdalene and father of many children.”

Although there remains skepticism as to its authenticity, this papyrus fragment may date to the 4th century and reflects a typical Gnostic dialogue of the latter half of the second century AD/CE. The fragment obviously does not provide earth-shattering proof of Jesus’s existence as a historical figure. The Greek god Zeus is widely known to have had a wife as well, as have gods too numerous for me to list here.

A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife

A historian [Dr. Karen King] of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple…”

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery.

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus…

[King] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

…Dr. King was struck by phrases in the fragment like “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it,” which resemble snippets from the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. Experts believe those were written in the late second century and translated into Coptic. She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second-century Greek text.

The meaning of the words, “my wife,” is beyond question, Dr. King said. “These words can mean nothing else.” The text beyond “my wife” is cut off.

Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition…

Dr. King said she would push the owner to come forward, in part to avoid stoking conspiracy theories.

The notion that Jesus had a wife was the central conceit of the best seller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” But Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the code or its author: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”

The papyrus fragment’s legible text of “33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines” is translated as follows:

  1. “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]”
  2. “The disciples said to Jesus”
  3. “deny. Mary is worthy of it”
  4. “Jesus said to them, My wife”
  5. “she will be able to be my disciple”
  6. “Let wicked people swell up”
  7. “As for me, I dwell with her in order to”
  8. “an image”

According to the Smithsonian article about this fragment, King’s analysis is that “wife” to whom Jesus refers “is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples”:

“She will be able to be my disciple,” Jesus replies. Then, two lines later, he says: “I dwell with her.”

The Smithsonian writer cautions that this text is of no more historical value than The Da Vinci Code, thus emphasizing the fact that scores of people in antiquity were composing fictions about Jesus. This article also highlights Karen King’s Christianity:

Was she still a practicing Christian? Her faith, she said, had sustained her through a life-threatening, three-year bout with cancer that went into full remission in 2008, after radiation and seven surgeries. She told me that she attends services, irregularly, at an Episcopal Church down the block from her home, in Arlington, a town northwest of Cambridge. “Religion is absolutely central to who I am in every way,” she said.

This fact of devotion on the part of this papyrus expert from Harvard Divinity School – a Christian institution – should be kept in mind when reading the following analysis, which may have been more apparent to someone not vested in the literal interpretation of the gospel story.

The multiple Marys

In her paper on the subject, Karen King refers to the multiple Marys of Christian tradition, noting that they have been confusedly dealt with, often with the result that they are depicted interchangeably. For example, Mary the Mother has been equated with Mary Magdalene. As King points out in her analysis of the “Mary” in this papyrus fragment:

The second issue is to identify Mary: Is she Jesus’s mother…or his wife…? Scholars have long noted “the confusion of Marys” in early Christianity, due not least to the ubiquity of this name (Maria, Mariam, Mariamme) for Jewish women in the priod. One of the most influential confusions has been the identification of Mary of Magdala with three other figures: Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-2; 12:1-3), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), and the sinner woman (Luke 7:37-38), resulting in the erroneous portrait of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.  Another is the confusion of Jesus’s mother with Mary of Magdala, and even the substitution of the mother for her, for example as the first witness to the resurrected Jesus in John 20:11-17.

The mark of the Triple GoddessWe would submit that the reason these Marys are treated indistinctly is because they represent not distinct “historical” figures but mythical manifestations of the “Triple Goddess.”

Speaking of the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip, a text evidently from the latter half of the second century, in which Jesus is depicted as often kissing Mary Magdalene, King notes:

Magdalene is represented as the image of the heavenly syzygy between the Savior and Sophia, a pairing that replays the syzygy of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The Greek word syzygy means “yoking together” and represents in Gnostic literature a pair of energies or beings, here the mystical or allegorical couple of Jesus and the Gnostic goddess Sophia or “Wisdom,” the anthropomorphization of not only wisdom but also the “female spiritual power.”

Matter and Mater

These various Gnostic discourses such as the Gospels of Thomas, Mary and Phillip in significant part represent the “values” being promulgated at the time of their composition. Here we see a clear attempt at male domination in the subordination of the goddess figure. She is no longer the great goddess whose consort is a mere sidekick. Instead, she is a wife and a disciple of a greater power. This usurpation represents a prime Gnostic tenet of distaste for “matter” or mater – “mother” – in Latin. Matter, material and mother are considered in this belief system to be made of the same substance, to be earthly and therefore unspiritual. Here is simply more of the same mythological and religious push to bring down the goddess and replace her with a pliable underling.

The Archons and Female Spiritual Power

In the Gnostic text the Hypostasis of the Archons, we read about the archons or false rulers in charge of the “fallen world.” One of these arrogant, blind and lost rulers proclaims, “I am God; there is none apart from me.” He is answered by a female voice emanating from the “incorruptible world,” who says, “You are mistaken, Samael,” this latter moniker meaning “God of the blind.” Here, Ruether (115) remarks, that this myth “suggests that the Jewish creator God traditionally proclaimed by this statement is a fallen demonic power.” His mother, however, from the “higher celestial world that transcends him” unveils his “false nature.”

Here the female principle, Pistis Sophia or “Faith Wisdom,” is the real creator, bringing to the “waters below” the world above. Her jealous opposers, the archons, are unable essentially to work in matter or the material world, the realm of the mater or mother. The archons attempt to draw Wisdom down into the material world by manifesting her in the man, Adam, a soulless brute who only becomes a human being with the entrance of (Sophia’s) Spirit. The Gnostic figure of Sophia, the anthropomorphized “Wisdom” who can also be found in the Old Testament as Hokmah, is called the “Wife of the Male.”

The Gnostic Adam and Eve

Next comes the story of Adam in the Garden, with a Gnostic twist that depriving him of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is in itself perceived as an evil act of trickery by the archons, not the result of a wise and good God. Thus, the archons lull Adam into a “sleep of ignorance,” during which time they remove from his side the “spiritual power,” which they place into a female. Seeing her, he recognizes that she is “his true source of life.” He then calls her “Mother of the Living.” Here we see again the Gnostic turning on its head of biblical tales and doctrines, as the female in this story is no mere “rib” but the very power of spirit itself.

This “spiritual woman” is jealously pursued by the archons, who try to rape her, but they cannot approach her true essence and can only defile “a shadow reflection of herself (Eve, or carnal woman). Enter the snake, as the manifestation of the female spiritual power, “the instructor,” who teaches Adam and Eve the truth about eating the fruit of the Tree and being awakened to see, such that they will be as gods. At this point, the couple realizes its carnal aspect and desires the spiritual power, which is denied to them by the archons, who expel them from the Garden.

After producing Cain, Abel and Seth, Eve bears a daughter, Norea, who symbolizes the female spiritual power her mother lost.

In the Hypostasis, we read about the “Great Angel, Eleleth,” who leaves the “higher celestial world” in order to help the Gnostic figure of Norea the “virgin whom the Forces did not defile.” Norea is being pursued by the “rulers” or archons, who wish to rape her, “as they had done to her mother, Eve.” Norea “calls out to the true God of the celestial world to save her.” According to the angel, Norea the “virgin spirit” dwells in the “Incorruptibility” and cannot be defiled. In Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (University of California Press, 2005:117), Dr. Rosemary Ruether writes:

The angel then outlines for Norea the prehistory of the cosmos: how Pistis Sophia, dwelling in the incorrutible realm, desired to create something without her consort. Out of that desire, the veil between the world above and the realm below was breached. A shadow came into being beneath the veil, and this became matter. The aborted being produced by Sophia’s desire then proceeded to organize this matter and to rule over it, proclaiming himself the only God. But it was Sophia above who introduced light into matter, while Zoe (Life), the daughter of Pistis Sophia, was the voice that revealed to the ignorant God Sakla (Yaltabaoth) his mistake.

In the story, Sophia is desirous of creating without her consort, as a parthenogenetrix, or “virgin mother,” a religious idea dating from thousands of years before the common era.  In this story, Sabaoth, son of Yaltabaoth, a jealous god – clearly the biblical god Yahweh – repents of his father’s mistake and praises Sophia and Zoe.” It should be further noted that the Greek god Dionysus was known as a major representative of zoe or “life” in pre-Christian and pre-Gnostic times. Sabaoth is equated with the “Lord of the hosts” at Isaiah 9:12, “hosts” referring to angels and warriors as well as the sun, moon and stars. He is thus both the Father and the Father in the Son, Jesus. (Francis Fallon, The Enthronement of Sabaoth, Brill, 1978:131.) As his reward for acknowledging these two Gnostic figures, Sabaoth-Jesus is made “ruler over the universe.”

Sophia is also part of the discussion of “dwelling,” as she resides in the pleroma, the “incorruptible realm” where the Gnostic gospel story takes place. It is not a literal story, and this fragment would as evidence that we are discussing mythmaking here, not historical facts. The “Jesus Christ” of the Gnostic (and canonical) texts is a composite of characters, some real and mythical, compiled as the supposed historical speaker of numerous sayings of pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic cultures. This type of literature is similar to that of the Hermes Trismegistus tradition, in which multiple writers composed pseudonymously both texts and sayings, attributing them to the Greco-Egyptian god Hermes “Thrice Blessed.”

In Valentian Gnosticism, which predates the clear emergence of the canonical gospels as we have them and which was addressed by early Church fathers such as Irenaeus, who was responsible for choosing the four gospels for the canon, Sophia is the female aspect of the “divine pair” or “syzygy” (“yoking together”) that included Jesus. In other words, she is his wife.

In the Hypostasis, after all this female promotion, we are told that Norea is but a product of the Primordial Father. If you are confused, you would not be alone. Gnosticism is confusing for the very reason that it attempted to fuse together numerous religious and mythological traditions of the Roman Empire and beyond, into eastern lands such as Syria, Persia, Arabia and India. Therefore, we find multiple and often contradictory forces at work here, but the main thrust is that, while the female spiritual power possesses greatness, responsible for the creation of matter as well, the son of the jealous demiurge, equivalent to the biblical Yahweh, is made “ruler over the universe.” This sort of subordination of the female spiritual power is similar to the tale we see here with the female appearing as Jesus wife and disciple.

In the article, we read:

“She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.”

Nor should this fragment be taken as proof that Jesus WAS a historical person. So long as these artifacts are interpreted through the false lens of historicity, they will never make sense.

It is to be admitted that the Gnostic stories concerning Jesus, residing in the mythical pleroma and interacting with Sophia, Ialdabaoth, the Aeons and Archons, are allegorical, mythical and fictional, not literal history. Significant Gnostic literature actually appears earlier in the historical record than do the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as we have them. Indeed, these historicizing and literalizing texts emerge clearly in the historical record at the end of the second century, seemingly as a response to the allegorical Gnostic texts.

The Gnostic tale of Adam and Eve, which sets the biblical version on its head, is very Buddhistic in several of its important elements. A major quest in Buddhism is for enlightenment, i.e., the “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” which is the Gnostic goal for Adam and Eve. The snake is wisdom itself, procured through self-introspection. Another interesting correlation is the “rib” story of drawing the female spiritual power from the side of Adam to imbue a soul in Eve. This story sounds like the yogic myth of Shakti, as well as that of Buddha, in which he is born through the side of his virgin mother, per St. Jerome’s account.

As concerns the debate within the Catholic Church of whether or not women should be ordained, perhaps the sovereign remedy is for women simply to break away from the church and start their own ministries based on women’s religious and mythological traditions dating back hundreds and thousands of years before the common era.

All in all, this brief fragment gives the impression of being part of a Valentinian Gnostic text, part of the mass of allegorical, mythical and fictional tales about Jesus that accumulated before there is a clearcut canon establishing history and literalization of the gospel story.

Further Reading

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'”: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus by Karen L. King

The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Who is the Virgin Mary?

The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus

The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene

Pistis Sophia

Religion and the PhD: A Brief History

Harvard claim of Jesus’ Wife papyrus scrutinized

Aeon (Gnosticism)

Reality check on Jesus and his ‘wife’