Did Jesus have a wife? – Tom Holland

Karen King with 4th century Coptic papyrus

Jesus & Mary Magdalene: Husband & wife?“Some Christians, for instance, claimed that the human body, and sexuality with it, was irredeemably corrupt, while there were others who saw in the language of marriage and intercourse a metaphor for salvation. So it was, in a notorious verse from another long-lost gospel recently rediscovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Philip, that Jesus was described as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth.” – Tom Holland

Our sources for the ancient past are often the merest shreds and patches, and peculiarly challenging is to trace the evolution of religions. Invariably, the process by which one particular orthodoxy succeeded in establishing itself as definitive was a complex and protracted one. Then, once cemented as canonical, back stories for it would come to be written, from which any lingering sense that the religion might once have been an inchoate swirl of competing doctrines and beliefs was effectively purged. The consequence is that histories told by believers about the early centuries of their own faith tend to serve as monuments to the obliteration as well as to the preservation of the past.

Hence the excitement this week surrounding the discovery of a tiny fragment of papyrus on which, for the first time in any ancient Christian manuscript, Jesus is recorded as speaking of “my wife”. Although the provenance of this startling find is mysterious, its ultimate place of origin – presuming that it is not, as some scholars suspect, a forgery – can only have been Egypt.

This is not merely because the language of the fragment is Coptic. In Egypt, preserved in the dry and shifting sands of abandoned municipal tips, scraps of text that otherwise would have remained unknown have regularly been exhumed. Most are the equivalent of an emptied filing cabinet: bills, receipts, and the like. Occasionally more precious finds have been made: lost masterpieces of classical literature and – most revelatory of all, perhaps – heretical gospels.

AthanasiusThat these gospels had come to be defined as heretical in the first place was due to the triumph in the fourth century AD of a particular brand of state-sponsored Christianity. In 367, four decades after the formulation of the Nicaean Creed under emperor Constantine, a famously authoritarian bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius wrote to the churches under his jurisdiction. In these letters, he prescribed the 27 books that henceforward were to be considered to constitute a “New Testament”. Simultaneously, Athanasius said that all gospels not included in his canon were no longer, on any account, to be read. Among these, presumably, was the one of which the tiniest fragment has just been brought to light: the one christened by Karen King, the Harvard professor responsible for publishing it, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

It is certainly telling that the fragment has been dated to the fourth century: the very moment when all save the four canonical gospels of today’s New Testament were starting to be suppressed in Egypt. Even more tantalisingly, though, the original dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that it records has been dated by Professor King to the second half of the second century. That takes us back to a period when the spectrum of Christian opinion – hairesis, in Greek – was, by the later standards of post-Nicaean Christianity, bewilderingly wide. There were some Christians, for instance, who claimed that the human body, and sexuality with it, was irredeemably corrupt, while there were others who saw in the language of marriage and intercourse a metaphor for salvation. So it was, in a notorious verse from another long-lost gospel recently rediscovered in Egypt, the Gospel of Philip, that Jesus was described as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, it would seem, was written as a contribution to the same debate: a debate which, in due course, Christians would come to forget had ever raged.

Jesus's Wife PapyrusWhat the fragment does not do is shed any light on the marital status of the historical Jesus – let alone whether he truly had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Written almost two centuries after Jesus’s birth, and at an immense ideological remove from the circumstances of his life, the notion is grist, perhaps, for Da Vinci Code fans – but not for real-life Harvard professors. What it does give us, though, is a glimpse into an otherwise occluded moment in the evolution of Christianity, and a reminder of how effectively religions have been able to manufacture for themselves, in defiance of messy reality, a streamlined and authorised past. – The Guardian, 19 Sept. 2012 

IS-SDS AvatarEnd Note: Of course, we do not know if such a man as Jesus ever lived. The best Christian scholars have not been able to give us any proofs. And the history of the compilation of the Bible is now so well known that the Bible’s contents cannot be taken as factual. So whether Jesus had a wife — or two according to Biblical exegete and theologist Barbara Thiering — is really neither here nor there. He is described in pious tales as a rabbi and in Jewish society from ancient times till today, there is no such thing as an unmarried rabbi. But the evidence produced for Jesus’s wife — first or second we do not know — is not yet proved, and the scholars involved are feminists who may have a bone to pick with a misogynistic Church. Their perhaps unreal papyrus piece is timely evidence when there is a push to put ladies in the Roman pulpit. And there is the other angle: if Jesus had a  real wife, then he must have been a real husband too. So a failing Christian Church in a  Europe that has gone beyond belief gets an historical boon: a real historical Jesus and — never mind true believers! — a real historical wife too. As least she is historical and not hysterical. Socrates, the greater man altogether and the one we should follow, had to suffer a hysterical wife (who was also historical without need of a papyrus certificate). – Editor

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6 Responses

  1. Really! Where is this magic code and how do we use it to decode the encoded Bible?

    Its all in your head, Brahmastra, and it may explode any minute. Throw away you Bible and get yourself to a doctor fast!


  2. The Holy Bible is written in code and decoding is necessary to understand the religion. The rituals of the various christian churches are based on the Bible. Incidentally, the differences that exist between christian churches of different denominations are minor and based mainly on mundane rituals and in some cases, local politics. However, the real problem afflicting the christian churches is their lack of focus on spiritualism. Since the time of Emperor Constantine the Great, christian churches have, particularly after the Council of Nicea, been advised to focus on issues like governance, etc, giving spiritualism a go. The reason was that Constantine was deeply devoted to Jesus Christ (referred to as ‘Son of God’) in the Holy Bible. Christian tradition enjoins the worship of this Jesus’ father and also permits the worship of his mother known as ‘Virgin Mary”, whose only child he incidentally was. However, worship of this Jesus is not permitted. Because, Christianity talks of ‘Holy God’ or ‘Holy Father’ meaning Father of this Jesus; ‘Holy Virgin’, meaning Virgin Mary and ‘Holy Cross’, meaning the cross which symbolically crucified this Jesus. It also talks of ‘Holy Ghost’ (identity unknown). It does not talk of ‘Holy Jesus’. Similarly, whereas Virgin Mary is referred to as “St,Mary’ and her husband as ‘St.Joseph’, Jesus is not referred to as ‘St.Jesus’. Christianity as understood today was established as an occult religion by St.Pauls. There is reference to another Jesus in the Holy Bible, referred to as ‘Son of Man’. He was the original founder of Gnostic Christianity and St.Pauls was his follower. All 12 apostles referred to in the Holy Bible were his followers. His existence was suppressed by Constantine. The truth has recently been discovered and needs to be made public by the church. Because of suppression of this truth, many facts of Christianity continue to be hidden. The real message of crucifixion is one of these.


  3. bharathiya history should be told true and not made propaganda. swami can be commended for his work and not obstructed by media. his book is well known even if editors don’t give him due. and he has made it available free to anybody who wants to study bharathiya history.


  4. Swami Ishwar Sharan has done well to expose the hypocrisy of the New Indian Express. The Editor now has a chance to practise what he has pontificated so loftily. Let us see if he rises to the occasion. Don’t put your money on it, though.


  5. Good point made about truth-telling and history writing in today’s Express edit!

    Why then does The New Indian Express (along with The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle) continue to promote the St. Thomas in India fable as Indian history?

    Everybody knows the story of St. Thomas in India is untrue. It is a vicious communal tale created to implicate Hindus in the murder of a Christian apostle and saint. Later it was used to justify the presence of foreign colonizers and their foreign religion and church in India.

    In fact there is no evidence that a look-alike twin brother of Jesus ever lived — yes, he is described in the root legend as the look-alike twin of Jesus. This means Christianity has TWO Only Sons Of God!

    The historical reality of Judas Didymus Thomas — St. Thomas — must be established first before his alleged journey east of the Indus can be pronounced as historically true.

    Why does The New Indian Express (along with The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle) continue to refuse to review the book The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple even after it has gone into three editions and is the only modern comprehensive study of the St. Thomas legend in India today?

    The New Indian Express must put its money where its mouth is: it must review the book in a fair and objective way — which means that it is not given to the Archbishop of Madras-San Thome for his comments as he has a vested interest in keeping the anti-Hindu fable that he and his predecessors established in the popular media alive.

    “Journalists have a vested interest in ignorance,” said George Bernard Shaw.

    Oh, how true! how true!


  6. In History There Is No Substitute For Truth – V. Sudarshan (Editor), The New Indian Express – Chennai – 24 September 2012

    The discovery and decoding of a scrap of papyrus that says, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife… she will be able to be my disciple,'” by Coptic scholar and historian Karen L King have set in motion a discussion among Biblical scholars on the life and times of Jesus. A lot will depend on who the anonymous discoverer is, how he/she got hold of it and, most important, how authentic is the discovered object. In Biblical antiquity, it is not uncommon to come across findings that eventually turn out to be fraudulent creations. Yet, the discovery needs to be critically examined, not negated.

    The papyrus found by Karen King — like many other discoveries by scholars over the years — have put forward interesting, and at times disturbing, questions on the history we have come believe over the years. While they might at times throw disturbing posers it is important that the quest for a better understanding of our past is not abandoned simply because they are inconvenient. It is important to know the truth about our past because partisan history tends to misguide us into false conclusions. We should not stop exploring the past because it may bring out inconvenient truths.

    Researching the past is not just a quest after forgotten objects and events. It is a ceremony of reason, a rebuttal of ancestral myth, a way of looking at the past with the same rigour that we ought to apply to the present. To surrender a dispassionate search after truth to the cause of fantasy, however enjoyable or profitable, is to court superstition and fanaticism. With the advancement of technology like carbon-dating and DNA mapping historian today have tools that they lacked in the past and these should be used to separate the chaff from the grain. History as fantasy is no substitute for rigorous truth.


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