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Jesus' wife: the fairy tale

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Alfred Sangster, GUEST COLUMNIST

There has been recent media interest in the reference to a papyrus fragment which, it is claimed, provides evidence that Jesus had a wife. Christians must see this as another of the Devil's straw men put up to try to deceive them. Alternatively, we must see it as another modern fairy tale. Let us examine the claim and the context more carefully. We can look at the issue from both historical and theological perspectives.


The claim that Jesus was married is not new. There were early Gnostic writings which suggested that Jesus was married or, if not married, had a sexual relationship with women. In more recent times, we can list three such claims or suggested claims.

The first is that of Dan Brown in his blockbuster mystery detective novel The Da Vinci Code of 2003, which was later made into a film. The Da Vinci Code skilfully weaves historical assertions which are intended to shake the very foundations of Christian belief; raise questions as to whether Jesus was merely human and not divine; and prove or persuade that Jesus did marry Mary Magdalene and had a child or children

The book was widely condemned by both Catholic and Protestant scholars for its claims to historical accuracy which were shown to be false.

The second is that of American Episcopalian Bishop John Selby Spong of Newark. His book, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, is an attempt, he says, "to rescue the Bible from fundamentalists".

He argues that: (1) The birth narratives in the New Testament are fanciful stories which are not to be taken literally; (2) Mary was quite likely the victim of rape; (3) the Virgin Birth has contributed immeasurably to an artificial and destructive view of women because Mary has been used to force women to fit into the stereotyped role of motherhood; and (4) Jesus was probably married, most likely to Mary Magdalene.

The third is the recent paper by Professor Karen Leigh King, holder of the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard University, whose paper described as the "gospel of Jesus' wife" at the International Congress of Coptic Studies conference in Rome in September 2012, has created a great deal of media interest and scholarly controversy.

The very small papyrus fragment, 4cm by 8cm (1.5 inches by 3 inches) which was provided by - at the present time - an anonymous donor has the expression:

Line 4 of the text - Jesus said to them, "my wife ...".

Line 5 - "she will be able to be my disciple".

The document has created a great deal of controversy among scholars, and two questions need answers.

Is the papyrus fragment legitimate? And does the fragment support the view that Jesus was married?

Many scholars agree that it is likely to be a fourth-century Coptic text of Egyptian origin. Beyond that, scholars are very divided as to whether it is a forgery or not.

Professor King is adamant that we have, for the first time in a document, a clear reference to a "wife" of Jesus, though to be fair, she is not (yet!) making a claim about the historical fact of Jesus being married. She argues that the quotation probably comes from a second-century Gnostic Greek text. It is important to note that many of the early Gnostic texts refer to female companions in non-sexual terms.

At the conference, early Christian scholar Christian Askeland said that about two-thirds of the specialists who were there were extremely sceptical, and one-third were convinced that the fragment was false.

Professor Ben Witherington of St Andrews University is critical of the overexcited (and somewhat tendentious) reporting about the fragment in the news media. He also notes that the document is yet to be formally authenticated, its shape and size are suspicious, and it appears to have been cut off at the top in modernity and is yet to be formally carbon (or other method) dated because of its small size. In addition, he says it goes beyond the text to read into it some sort of romantic relationship between Jesus and a wife/woman in any sense.

It is also surprising that a reputable university such as Harvard could have gone so far in support of the document when the Archeological Institute of America will not publish articles without a provenance. Also, many American museums have a policy to no longer acquire antiquities without a provenance. It is also very significant that a Smithsonian Institution documentary which was due to be released on September 30, 2012, has been delayed because of doubts on the veracity of the document.

We finally need to look at Professor King's academic position through her memberships and publications. To begin with, she is a member of the Jesus Seminar. This is a group with a membership of about 150 self-proclaimed academics and laymen of varying academic stature which was founded in 1985, to which Time Magazine gave prominence in January 10, 1994. The group analyses and votes on various theological questions.

An example quoted in Time was a test of the authenticity of those sayings of Jesus in the Gospels that were really authentic. Coloured balls were used to tally the vote in the ballot box. A red bead was probably authentic, pink beads meant that the sayings were possibly authentic, grey beads were statements thought to have been altered by the disciples or early Christians, and black beads were the strongest no-vote.

Of the 700 sayings attributed to Christ, only 18 per cent were considered to be unquestionably authentic and only one saying from the Gospel of John was accepted: "A prophet has no honour in His own country." (John. 4:4)

Professor King has published many books and papers, several of which lean to feminine roles and Gnostic studies. Examples are: The Gospel of Mary of Magdala; Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism; Gnostic Studies: Revelation of the Unknown God.

In the context of all that is said about Professor King, we would have every right to be sceptical about her paper and the minute piece of a scroll on a possible wife of Jesus.

The 'marriage of Jesus' pot has been stirred locally, arising from a very recent Sunday Gleaner article, 'If Jesus were wedded and bedded' (September 30, 2012) by Gordon Robinson, who styles himself as an "irreverent mortal". He supports the idea that Jesus, as a rabbi, could have been married.

What is the Christian answer to these spurious and bogus claims?


The faith of many Bible-believing Christians has been challenged by the speculative theories of Jesus and his supposed marriage and family. Christians should, therefore, recognise the challenges that are posed and also note, as pointed out above that they are not new. Paul the Apostle, in his writings, was at pains to point out to his audience that there would be challenges to their faith and that they should be watchful and strong. Peter also argued that we need to be aware of our faith and be ready to give a reason for our beliefs.

We need to be clear on the theological issues that are at stake.

First, the necessity of Jesus' Virgin Birth. Early in the book of Genesis, the Bible using an unusual phrase speaks of the 'seed of the woman'. Genesis 3:15. Later, Old Testament writers refer to the unusual and normally impossible reality of a virgin conceiving. (Isaiah 7:14). Matthew's Gospel speaks about Mary, the mother of Jesus, being a virgin, until Jesus was born. (Matthew 1:25). And later, Jesus is confronted with his brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55). His half-brother James was later the leader of the early Church in Jerusalem.

Dr Luke, who no doubt discussed the facts of Jesus' birth with his mother, Mary, writes extensively about the early days of Jesus in his Gospel. It was necessary and essential for the purpose of redemption that none of the tainted and sinful Adamic blood line be in the human Jesus.

By extension, if Jesus had sexual relations with a woman, he would have been contaminated, as it is a biblical and human truth that a married man and woman have become one flesh through sexual union. (Matthew 19: 5, 6). Sinlessness was critical for Jesus' role in redemption.

Second, the death of Christ on the cross was fundamental to God's plan of redemption. It was a-once-and-for-all human death and sacrifice that was planned in the eternal council of God and which provides the redemption that Christians celebrate at Easter. (Hebrews 2; 14, 15)

Third, the resurrection of Jesus was the final validation of the legitimacy of the unique Jesus as Saviour and Redeemer. Paul makes it very clear that the resurrection is a pivotal fact in the Christian's belief system. If Jesus is not raised, you are dead in your sins and your faith is vain (1 Corinthians 15:17). His resurrection is attested to in history and in the lives of those who were transformed by his risen presence and who were ready to die for a living and risen Saviour.

Fourth, the Gospels present an itinerant group of men following Jesus, and He himself declared that He had no home of His own and no place to lay His head. (Matthew 8:20) With a wife, this would have been a strange thing to say.


Our eyes need to be opened to another set of straw men or religious fictions that the Devil has put up to try to frighten us.

We can stand firm with a unique belief system that maintains for Jesus, His Virgin Birth; His virtuous life; His vicarious death; His victorious resurrection and His projected visible return.

The Bible stands firm in its historic reliability and changeless message of redemption through Jesus the Saviour of the World.

Dr Alfred Sangster is former president of the University of Technology. Email feedback to