We’ll take a break today from election politics. It’s not every day ancient documents make the news. This past week, Karen L. King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced a tiny papyrus fragment dating from the fourth century CE. It is a portion of a longer text, a work which has been dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” You can find Professor King’s paper on the discovery here.
What relevance has this to a political blog? To the extent that our society is shaped by religious beliefs, it may indicate the fragility of that society. But perhaps more importantly, it sheds light on the differences between things the public generally knows, and things known by specialists in a field. When that field seems to have little relationship to everyday life (think: astrophysics), the public can perhaps be excused from knowing all that much. But when the topic is concerned with the way we live and the way we shape our governments and our economies (think: global warming) the ignorance is dangerous, and allows for manipulation.
Among some of the media, Professor King’s newly-released text has caused a bit of sensation, and you might have seen breathless coverage. There is evidence of the beginnings of a small industry dedicated to debunking the fragment as being either or forgery or some other type of distasteful fraud. Yet for scholars of early Christian history, it isn’t terribly shocking. It’s simply one more indication of the complexity and diversity of early Christianity, something historians of the era are familiar with, but the general public is not.
In the first few centuries of the Common Era, there really was no single, standard, “orthodox” form of Christianity. There were, instead, quite a number of competing, and sometimes wildly different, Christianities. It was not until late in the fourth century (probably at the Synod of Hippo Regius in 393 CE) that the current list of books to be included in the New Testament reached anything approaching a consensus. Central to them all are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It can even perhaps be said that these four books form the heart of the New Testament, and that all else is elaboration or embellishment.
These are not, however, the only Gospels. Many others were known in the early centuries of Christianity, and many had claim to be every bit as “authentic” and authoritative. For centuries, scholars knew of these works, for the records of the early Christian councils often include discussions — and sometimes condemnations — of various such books. After an “official” canon was accepted, however, efforts were made to destroy as many copies of these competing works as possible. As a result, scholars and historians knew many of these works existed, but no longer had copies of them to read.
Our knowledge of early Christianities would be dimmer were it not for a chance discovery in upper Egypt in 1945, near the town of Nag Hammadi. An Arab peasant discovered a cache containing some fifty texts and fragments. According to one version of the tale, it was a cold night in the desert. To keep warm, he used some of the papers as kindling for a campfire. In the morning, thinking the rest may have some value, he headed toward town and eventually had them looked at by an antiquities expert. The texts turned out to be a library of ancient writings, including such works as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Phillip, the Apocalypse of Adam, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and dozens more. This collection has come to be known as the Nag Hammadi Library, or as the Gnostic Gospels.
To gain an appreciation for the significance of these works, it’s important to understand a common literary technique from ancient times, called pseudepigraphy. The straightforward definition of this word (as from the online Mirriam-Webster link) is “the ascription of false names of authors to works” (from pseudo- false, –epi– name, –graphy writing). A pseudepigraphic work is a work that was not written by the person whose name is given as the author. Such works are, instead, written as if that person had been the author. In modern terms, this would be a considered a forgery. In ancient times, it was an accepted literary device meant to imply a deep understanding of the subject matter.
Author Gore Vidal used this technique in his novel Julian, a biography of the last Pagan emperor of Rome. It has long been known that Emperor Julian’s close friend, Sallust, did write such a biography. But the book has not survived, and there is some evidence that later Christian emperors destroyed every copy they could find. Vidal researched the life of Julian and wrote his novel as if it was the lost work of Sallust. Now, Gore never pretended he had done anything other than that; he never presented the novel Julian as anything other than his own work. But it was written using the same literary technique as the ancient pseudepigraphers. Ancient examples of pseudepigraphy include the previously-mentioned Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, or the recently-discovered Gospel of Judas, and countless others.
Scholars of the New Testament are aware that the majority of canonical works are pseudepigraphic in nature. Of the four canonical gospels, only one — the Gospel of John — was perhaps written by the person claimed to be its author (the apostle John). Whoever wrote John also appears to have written the Apocalypse of John (also known as the Book of Revelation). It is also likely that Saul of Tarsis (who later took the name “Paul”) wrote perhaps seven of the thirteen canonical Letters of Paul. All the rest of the New Testament is pseudepigraphic. This is settled scholarship among secular historians, and even among most historians within religious circles.
This says nothing about the “authenticity” or “reliability” of any of these works. Nor should it be taken to mean anything about the worth or truth (or even Truth) contained in these books. It is simply an acknowledgement of how religious works are generally written, and have generally been written. A religious work is about the meaning and theology it conveys, not so much about who actually wrote it.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear to be based on a single, older text that consisted primarily of a collection of sayings ascribed to the rabbi Jesus of Nazereth, much as there are collections of the sayings of Confucius, or of Chairman Mao, or even of Abraham Lincoln. Most of the “gospels” in the Nag Hammadi library are works of this type, collections of quotes with little or no surrounding narrative. The sayings included there sometimes are close to those in the canonical gospels, but sometimes differ wildly. (Perhaps in a future article, I’ll give a taste of some of those differences.)
Historical scholars have concluded there were a variety of oral traditions relating to the teachings of Jesus, some of which found their way into writing. Various schools of tradition stressed different theological and cosmological ideas. These developed into different branches of religious dogma. The question of which gospels should be assembled into an “official” New Testament hinged primarily on which school of religious dogma wielded the most political power at the time the canon became codified. You can find a riveting and compelling description of the process — as well as an exploration of Christianities that might-have-been — in the works of scholar Elaine Pagels. (I highly recommend The Gnostic Gospels as the place to start. But do get all her books.)
Seen within this framework of multiple traditions of thought, the ideas and revelations contained within the newly-released Gospel of Jesus’ Wife are hardly shocking. The question isn’t so much “Did Jesus have a wife?” as it is “What were the theological ideas of early Christian sects that thought he did?”
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said at a conference in Rome on Tuesday. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”
One scholar has gone so far as to claim of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife that “Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas” — which means there’s really nothing new here at all. Yet somehow, to this particular scholar, Francis Watson of Durham University (whom I am having trouble finding in references other than in this context), this means the fragment “might be regarded as ‘fake’ whether its author belongs to the ancient or the modern world. In both cases, the aim would be to persuade as many readers as possible to take the new text seriously…” Mr. Watson seems anxious for this fragment, which he says is not at all unique, to not be taken “seriously.”
What does this fragment say? It’s a short piece, really more a tease than anything else. One side contains only some individual words among smears of ink and ancient threads: “… my mother … three … forth which …” The other side has eight brief lines of text, broken at the end and sometimes at the beginning of each line:
not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]…
The disciples said to Jesus, “…
deny. Mary is worthy of it …
…” Jesus said to them, “My wife …
… she will be able to be my disciple …
Let wicked people swell up …
As for me, I dwell with her in order to …
and image …
There is a long tradition holding Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus. There is even thought that the wedding at Cana, at which Jesus turned water into wine, was the wedding of Jesus and Mary. It is significant to note that this event is mentioned in only one of the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel of John — which is the one based on a tradition of sayings and legends other than the traditional that produced Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Even within the canonical gospels, there is evidence of the diversity that used to be ancient Christianities.
Is any of this relevant to modern politics? Perhaps it tells us something about the myths that underlie our religious and political structures. In as much as we build our worldview upon assuming the superiority of a particular philosophy, we really should understand how and why that philosophy developed as it did. Knowing the true origins of our religions does not invalidate them. It merely removes the fog that surrounds them, and allows rational discussion of them as historical events.
If we can do that with our religions, perhaps we can do it with political dogma as well. Are tax breaks always good? Is there anything — Social Security, perhaps — that really is too sacred to touch? Do we dare make an honest examination of the underlying assumptions that shape our lives?
- Harvard professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married (boston.com)
- Jesus Had a Wife, Newly Discovered Gospel Suggests (livescience.com)
- A New Gospel Revealed (livasperiklis.com)
- Newly revealed Coptic fragment has Jesus making reference to ‘my wife’ (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
About dcpetterson (198 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson