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?