Physically the artefact consists of a scrap of papyrus about the size of a calling card, consisting of seven lines written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language.
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.
[ 3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it
[ 4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .
[ 5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . .
[ 6 ] . Let wicked people swell up …
[ 7] . As for me, I am with her1 in order to .
[ 8 ] . an image …
From this, Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, hypothesized a “gospel” revealing that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. One of the great deficiencies in the study of early Christianity is the lack of sources outside of the canonical Christian scriptures. Especially amongst feminist scholars, there is a notion that other documents were destroyed by the patriarchal “orthodox” Christian authorities as heretical, and the few that survive, documents with labels like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Judas, received considerable publicity from the popular press before fading into obscurity. For those of us who believe that the New Testament is most likely the only source we have of authentic information about Jesus of Nazareth, those gnostic writings of genuine antiquity are probably late fictional theological propaganda with no first-hand connection to the historical Jesus.
A standing joke about a religious studies department in a secular university is that it is the only department where the professors are forbidden to maintain that what they teach is actually true. Ironically, in the case of Harvard Divinity School, some of the Harvard faculty, such as Steven Pinker, claim that a college training ministers has no business in a modern university, based on scientific and rational principle. (Apparently such critics have no problem with a school of government that trains politicians, a school of business that trains prospective CEOs, and a college of education for “educators”—not to mention a college of law!) Amusingly, the publicity surrounding “the gospel of Jesus wife” gave the divinity school a new lease on life. One could add that a lot more real science, including carbon 14 dating, chemical analysis of the inks, and paleographic analysis of the script, seems to have gone into the examination of that papyrus fragment than underlies the publications of Professor Pinker.
I think we scholars are fascinated by forgeries because they appeal to our delight in trying to solve mystery stories as a test of our knowledge of the past. But too often we lose sight of the maxim that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is not. Like other inventors, forgers have to know their market. In such an age of faith as the Middle Ages, when relics were thought to do miracles, artefacts like the Shroud of Turin were created. Now in our age of disbelief (at least in tradition), many religious studies professors have never seen a heresy they didn’t like. Except for Roman Catholics, with their practice of clerical celibacy, there is no reason Christians should be surprised at the notion of a married Jesus—personally I’ve long wondered if he might have been a widower. As we have references to Jesus’ mother and brothers in the Scriptures, if Jesus had a wife during the period of his ministry, we might have heard of her.
Ariel Sabar is a journalist not a scholar, but he spins a marvellous tale, beginning with the story of Karen King’s announcement (at the Vatican, appropriately) of the document, and then following with the investigation of the genuineness of the fragment itself, and finally tracing the actual source by way to Berlin to Florida. The author’s publishers seem to have been very generous in covering travel expenses and providing translators. It’s ironic that forgeries are much more interesting to read and write about than real biblical studies, but I remained entranced till nearly the end, when the rather squalid real identity of the creator was revealed. And once we find out how it was manufactured, it seems strange that it was not immediately taken for a prima facie fake.