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Karen L. King/Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel

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Religion | Papyrus fragment purports to show Jesus talking about a wife

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King has identified a papyrus fragment, which she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” as “the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife.” After mentioning “my mother” and “Mary,” the fragment includes the statements “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’” and “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The document, smaller than a business card, probably was once part of a larger papyrus. It features incomplete phrases in an ancient Coptic language, and is likely a translation of an older Greek text.

King notes that the document does not “provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” The publicity surrounding the fragment has renewed questions, however, about “gospels” of Jesus outside the canon of Scripture. King argues that this document confirms that by the latter half of the second century A.D., people were discussing the possibility that Jesus had a wife. The idea of a married Jesus is familiar to readers of Dan Brown’s bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code, but King distances herself from Brown. She told The New York Times, “Don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”

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Although King consulted some scholars of papyrology and Coptic linguistics to confirm the document’s legitimacy, other experts remain unconvinced. (There is a long tradition of forgery in the ancient manuscripts market.) Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, told the Associated Press, “I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to real ancient Coptic writing.

Michael J. Kruger, professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, says that even if the document is legitimate, it is almost certainly based on a late Greek production, and it does not offer historical information about Jesus himself. He notes that of all the known “gospels” of Christ, “only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century.”

Prayer patrol

Associated Press/Photo by Morry Gash

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has delivered a “cease and desist” letter to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, asking the university to stop holding pregame prayers at its football games. The group recently sent similar letters to institutions including Haralson County High School (Ga.) and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, both of which decided to end the practice. 

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that, in addition to being unconstitutional, “when you’re not religious or are of another faith and you get prayed at during events, it’s really very grating. It’s a sock in the gut for you to go for a sporting event and then be told to conform to someone else’s religion.” 

UT-Knoxville’s chancellor, however, says that “nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment,” and that it will continue. The FFRF contends that some of the prayers at Neyland Stadium have referred to Jesus, contradicting the university’s claim that they are nonsectarian.

The Supreme Court has held that sponsored prayers in public schools, and student-led prayers over the public address system at high-school games, are unconstitutional. Courts have not yet, however, banned prayers at public university sporting events. Some universities (and certain high schools) still offer pregame prayers, but the FFRF’s letters suggest that secularists will make this a major priority in their campaign to remove religion from government. —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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