Reality Check: The “Jesus’ Wife” Coptic Fragment

21 September 2012

There has been an unbelievable torrent of hoopla over a newly discovered—or rather, recently announced—Coptic fragment that speaks of Jesus as being married. The news of this small, business-card-sized fragment has gone mainstream, so much so that even David Letterman got into the act. On Thursday evening (20 September), just a couple of days after the story broke in the New York Times, he had a telephone interview with the most important guest he’s ever had: Jesus Christ. This ‘Jesus’ was married and his wife was nagging him in the background. Anything for a laugh, it seems.

But when the circus leaves town, what have we got? Below are some facts, some probabilities, and some possibilities.

The Facts:
1. Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School presented a paper at the International Association of Coptic Studies in Rome on Tuesday, September 18, making public a fragment of papyrus that explicitly claimed that Jesus had a wife. She gained access to this fragment via an anonymous owner who has permitted her to publish the text.
2. The fragment is written in Sahidic Coptic, an ancient language that has roots in the third century CE. Sahidic is the oldest dialect of the Coptic language.
3. Papyrus was used as a medium for writing until the seventh century CE, so if genuine, this fragment must be dated between the third and seventh century CE.

4. It specifically mentions ‘Jesus’ by name twice, and does so in a way that shows that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is in view. This is evident by the fact that the name ‘Jesus’ is written as a nomen sacrum—or sacred name—in the manner of all Greek New Testament manuscripts, as an abbreviation. On the second line on the right and the fourth line down, in the middle of the line, we see what appear to be ‘IC’ in capital letters. These are the letters iota and sigma. There is a line above the letters, indicating a sacred name. This supralinear line indicates that the reader should not interpret this as a word but rather as an abbreviation. This was done for about 15 different words in NT manuscripts, with ‘Jesus’ being one of the earliest words so abbreviated.
5. The fragment is a fairly clean rectangle, with text missing on all four sides. The top of the fragment looks especially clean cut, being almost a straight line. This is rather atypical for ancient papyri and may play a role in how we should view it.
6. Jesus definitely says ‘my wife’ in the fragment. He also says “My mother gave life to me” and “she will be able to be my disciple.” The antecedent of “she” is not clear, but presumably it’s his wife.
7. Although Professor King has dubbed the fragment, The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, this is intentionally provocative. There is simply not enough material here (eight lines on the recto, a few words visible on the verso) to call it a gospel at all, let alone the gospel of Jesus’ wife! It would be more accurate to call it The Fragment about Jesus’ Relations (so the anonymous comment Posted at the Tyndale House [Cambridge] website, on Wednesday, 19 September 2012), since there is no evidence that it is a gospel and at least two family members are mentioned (Jesus’ wife and Jesus’ mother).
8. The hand is neither literary (done by a professional scribe), nor even documentary. It doesn’t even look like it was penned with a stylus because the writing is so blunt. Rather, it looks like it was brushed on. Parallels to this are not easily forthcoming in Coptic writings of any period.
9. Does this fragment prove that Jesus was married? The answer is an emphatic no. At most, it can only tell us what one group of ‘Christians’ in the middle of the second century thought. But it says nothing about true history, about Jesus of Nazareth.
10. The fragment has similarities with the Gospel of Thomas, which most scholars date to the middle of the second century. Saying 114 is especially similar, as is Saying 101. Saying 101: “My true mother gave me life”; fragment, recto, line 1: “my mother gave me life.” Saying 114: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life”; fragment, recto, line 3: “Mary is worthy of it.” But what must be kept in mind is that Thomas 114 has Jesus continue: “See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too might become a living spirit, resembling you males.” Whatever this means, it is unlikely to be an endorsement of marriage or even of women as women. Gospel of Thomas Saying 114 is, in fact, a politically incorrect statement that none should embrace today as representative of the true Christian faith.
11. The provenance, history, and ownership of the fragment are unknown. This creates a good deal of suspicion on the part of the scholarly community as to the fragment’s authenticity.
12. Here’s what the text says (King’s translation, with lacuna in brackets]):
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [”

1 ] “my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [”
5 ] (illegible)

13. Although Mary (Magdalene) is mentioned in line 3 and Jesus speaks of ‘my wife’ in line 4, because of the fragmented nature of the MS it cannot be positively determined that Jesus is saying that Mary was his wife. This is an inference and a likely one, but without proof. The proof is in the portions of text that have either not been preserved or, more likely, have been cut out by a modern dealer. Why they were cut out must remain speculative (see below).

The Likelihoods:
1. The fragment’s four edges suggest that it was cut this way in modern times, probably by the dealer of the fragment in order to get more money out of several fragments so cut. This is the conclusion that Roger Bagnall of New York University came to. But it raises the question: Was this fragment cut because of the rest of the text that may have given a context in which the controversial phrase spoke of Jesus’ wife as other than a literal woman? Dirk Jongkind of Cambridge University used this analogy as a possibility: “We all have our favourite examples of the enticing brochures advertising our perfect holiday homes, which fortuitously manage to miss the oil refinery on the horizon, the overhead power lines, or the motorway at the back of the property. Here we have a fragment which has been deliberately altered, ‘most likely’ by a modern dealer seeking to maximize profit, who gets rid of ‘something.’ And this ‘something’ might well be in the same league as the oil refinery—it might be a spoiler that affected the value of this fragment negatively. The fragment may have been torn in the shape it is now in order to coax the reader into a certain interpretation” (Posted at the evangelical textual criticism website on Thursday, 20 September 2012).
2. The date assigned to it—fourth century—is largely an educated guess. Coptic manuscripts are notoriously difficult to date. Roger Bagnall of New York University and AnneMarie Luijendijk (pronounced ‘Lion Dike’) of Princeton University have argued for its authenticity and date. Scott Carroll of Oxford University dates it to the first half of the fifth century—if it’s genuine at all. There has been talk about using Carbon-14 to date the fragment more accurately, but since this would destroy some of the text it has been discouraged.

However, there is a relatively new method for dating manuscripts that is non-destructive. I did not see any discussion of this in the reports. Developed by Dr. Marvin Rowe of Texas A & M University and his doctoral assistant, Professor Karen Steelman, the method uses a plasma chamber that does not damage the artifact. (See Marvin W. Rowe and Karen L. Steelman, “Non-destructive 14C Dating: Plasma-Chemistry and Supercritical Fluid Extraction,” March 2010, ACS National Meeting 2010.) So it would indeed be possible to get a firm date on this fragment without destroying any text. It would be interesting to see if Professor King and the anonymous owner would permit this method for getting a better fix on the date and especially to dispel any suggestions of its inauthenticity.
3. Karen King has said that although the fragment is from the fourth century, the text is most likely from the middle of the second century, on the basis of similar ideas floating around in Gnostic and other texts. But this is difficult to assess, especially since almost no context is given for Jesus’ words, and nothing is known about the fragment’s provenance or what other manuscripts were found with it.

The Possibilities:
1. This manuscript is a fake. Dr. Christian Askeland, in attendance at the International Association of Coptic Studies conference in Rome, noted that about two thirds of those in attendance were very skeptical of its authenticity, while one third were “essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.” Askeland said he did not meet anyone at the conference who thought it was authentic (posted at the evangelical textual criticism website on Wednesday, 19 September 2012). This presumably does not include Professor King. A number of noted coptologists have pronounced it a fake or have expressed strong reservations, including Alin Suciu of the University of Hamburg, Stephen Emmel of the University of Münster, Wolf-Peter Funk of l’Université Laval in Quebec, Hany Sadak the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Scott Carroll, Senior Scholar at the Oxford Manuscript Research Group, and David Gill of the University of Suffolk.
2. If genuine, the text is either (a) not Gnostic (since it contradicts the basic Gnostic view of the material world); (b) Gnostic though with an interpretation of marriage as other than the physical bond between a man and a woman (in the Gospel of Philip “the relationship between Jesus and Mary [Magdalene] is an allegory of the soul’s meeting with God in the bridal chamber, i.e. salvation” ; similarly, the Gospel of Mary [Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University, interviewed on the Tyndale House [Cambridge] website, on Wednesday, 19 September 2012]); (c) orthodox but metaphorically referring to the church as the wife of Jesus (a view already attested in the New Testament—implicit in Eph 5.23–27 and explicit in Rev 19.7); (d) a derivative Christian group that gave some push-back against the growing asceticism of the orthodox in the late second century, when marriage was somewhat frowned upon; or (e) parabolic or metaphorical with some other referent in mind.
3. Even Professor King did not suggest that this fragment means that Jesus had a wife (and she is not known for her conservative views!): “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus.” If it goes back to a second-century tradition, we must keep in mind that there is a world of difference between first-century, apostolic Christianity and the various spin-off groups that rose after that early period.


100 thoughts on “Reality Check: The “Jesus’ Wife” Coptic Fragment

  1. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    Here’s an intelligent look at the spin surrounding the recent publication of a Coptic fragment purportedly quoting Jesus referring to “My wife…” Daniel Wallace is an authority on ancient manuscripts, and the New Testament in particular.


  2. Jon D

    Thanks for a useful summary on this, Dan. Two questions, if I may:
    – has the non-destructive dating method that you referred to (Rowe and Steelman) been used to date any of the key NT manuscripts? I’m conscious that it is a relatively recent discovery, but wondered what impact this might have on our understanding?
    – could you direct me to the Evangelical Textual Criticism Website?!


  3. Doug

    Jongkind’s point is especially important in light of Matthew 12:48-50. One can almost imagine Jesus saying: “My wife, my mother, and my brothers and sisters are those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”


  4. jonandjodavies

    Thanks for a useful summary on this issue, Dan. For a layman who has only recently started reading up on textual criticism, I have found your comments very accessible.

    I was interested in your reference to Rowe and Steelman’s non-destructive dating methodology. Has this process been used on any of the key witnesses to the NT? If so, do you envisage it having any significant impact on the current majority view?


    1. Rowe and Steelman have not applied the method to NT MSS yet. I met with them a few months ago to discuss the procedure. It’s surprisingly not well known among those who study ancient artifacts. The question I have is, What are we afraid of?


  5. Pingback: CrossExamined Blog » Blog Archive » Was Jesus Married?

  6. jonathandavid

    Exactly! Just because something maybe genuinely written between 2-4th century doesn’t mean it’s genuinely apostolic.


  7. Pingback: Reality Check: The “Jesus’ Wife” Coptic Fragment « Daniel B. Wallace « Simple Profundity

  8. Thom Mansfield

    Ms. King leaves doors open for her own escape, including expressing certain doubts in somewhat subtle ways while presenting a self-serving, very, very tacky, shakey and, in considering the import of the subject matter itself, a very watery, unscholarly and unprofessional piece of work apparently done without much, if any, solid research…

    I personally agree with your Possibility #1 very much, John, in which you provide a nice conclusion to another excellent topic!


  9. Pingback: Reality Check: The “Jesus’ Wife” Coptic Fragment «

  10. Thom Mansfield

    OOPS!!! Regarding my unscholarly and unprofessional error.. “I personally agree with YOUR Possibility #1 very much, John.. [ :(((( ]

    My agreement statement SHOULD have read “I personally agree with MR. WALLACE’S Possibility #1 very much, John, in which HE provides a nice conclusion to another excellent topic!

    That being said, what say You?? ;))


    1. Dr. Wallace’s work is a breath of fresh air when it comes the reliability of these types of fragments and manuscripts. I hope that the hubub around this fragment will lead more people to check out the fine work of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and ultimately to discover the strong case for the incredible reliability of the New Testament.


  11. Pingback: Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?

  12. Pingback: The Jesus’ Wife Fragment – What It Actually Says |

    1. John, if you’re talking about ancient MSS that support Jongkind’s speculation (and that’s all he is calling it), no, I don’t know of any off-hand. But the probability is so great that a modern dealer cut the text into slices for greater profits, the only question that surfaces is whether he knew what he had. If he did, then the tampering with this fragment seems especially pernicious.


  13. Thank you Dr. Wallace for your very thorough summary of what’s been going on this week since the announcement of the Coptic fragment was made.

    As you noted there are a number of scholars who have questioned the authenticity of this fragment, but there is the possibility (also as you noted) that this fragment could be genuine. From the perspective of a local church pastor I plan on emphasizing to my congregation that this fragment could be 100% genuine and still not call into question ‘the life of the historical Jesus’.

    There seems to be a tendency among many Christians to assume that genuineness means truthfulness, or more troubling in this case, genuineness means scriptural.

    So the papyrus could be dated from the third to seventh century CE (proven by plasma chamber), the writing could be dated as early (given the challenges of dating these Coptic manuscripts), and the surrounding pieces (if they could be found) could even support the idea that Jesus had a wife; and we would still not have to change our understanding of the historical Jesus’s marital status.

    It is always exciting when Jesus gets a little press, but it’s important that we remain grounded at the same time. As always I appreciate your scholarship and in particular the data that you have provided for this conversation.

    In Christ,
    Aaron Kraft


    1. JDL

      And even if it is genuine and true, are there any real impacts? Jesus being married would have little to no impact on my faith or ministry.


  14. Pingback: Colbert, Gathercole, Jacobovici, Watson, et al., on the Gospel of Jesus’ wife. | Near Emmaus

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  16. Steve P.

    Thank you for your comments Dr. Wallace. I have great respect for your scholarship and for what you are doing in the world of Textual Criticism. God bless you…


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  22. philipmt

    I was wondering whether the Coptic ⲧⲁⲍⲓⲙⲉ is a more explicit word for “wife” as opposed to the Greek γυνη, which only is translated “wife” based on the context. If not, then couldn’t (due to lack of context) the reference to a “wife” in this text be altogether suspect?


    1. The Coptic is pretty much like the Greek: the unmarked meaning of ⲥϩⲓⲙⲉ is ‘woman,’ but it can easily transfer, almost imperceptibly, to ‘wife” (see W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary, 385). It’s sometimes used as the translation of θῆλυς (e.g., in Rom 1.26 and Gal 3.28). The prefixed possessive pronoun is a strong marker that, used with ⲥϩⲓⲙⲉ, is almost surely meant to indicate one’s wife. The burden of proof is surely on the one who sees this as other than ‘my wife.’


      1. Thanks for the insight. I was just surprised that with so little context that the particular reading was so assured. The possessive marker didn’t seem terribly conclusive to me at first, because there are certainly instances of the possessive still rightly being translated more generically in the Greek (e.g., Rom. 1:26). Perhaps the combination of the possessive and the singular is a little more difficult though. Thanks again for helping me think it through.


  23. All I can think is Psalm 2: Yahweh is in the heavens, laughing at the deviants who would overthrow His reign every time we find musings from some 2nd century Joseph Smith-style would be prophet. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, blessed are all those who trust in Him.

    But with that said, I am eager to find out if this thing really is a forgery, and to see how that would work out for Professor King’s career.

    With all honesty, I wonder if the upcoming revealing of the 1st century Mark fragments will receive this kind of attention. A man can dream, right?

    Thanks again Dr. Wallace.


  24. Pingback: Reality Check: The “Jesus’ Wife” Coptic Fragment « Daniel B. Wallace | Current Events in Light of the Kingdom of God

  25. Thanks, Dan. Your treatment of the text was outstanding as usual. I agree with you that there seems to be a panic over this, and I am not sure why. It just shows how our society is becoming more and more like sheep that are easily steered by trivia, and stubborn against the reliable. I have to confess that I didn’t see the Letterman take, but I do find it funny. Forgive me.


  26. Burke

    In the time period that Jesus lived, at what age were men married? What about prearranged marriages in this time period? With a large portion of the mans life a complete mystery, I think people are foolish to believe he lived outside of the times. Jesus was a teenage boy, he had needs that were met. Who are we to say how he lived prior to turning 30. Jesus likely had a wife, and children, and any reference to any if this may have been destroyed by the church.


    1. Follower of Christ

      The problem with that is Women cause Men to sin! Therefore; Jesus could not have been married. He was perfect! Plus, what would He yell at the kids when they frustrated Him? On a serious note: Jesus’ parents were aware of His mission, even more so when He began teaching at 12 years old. They would not have pushed marriage on Him; nor would He have allowed it. Christ came for a specific purpose; and it wasn’t to have a wife and kids.


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  31. Marvis Camat

    “…she will be able to be my disciple…” — whoever wrote this in the past, had some brainwashings to do by putting words on Jesus’ mouth, not uncommon even in our times. Even if it’s Sahidic Coptic, they could sprout anywhere, like the writer of the gospel of Thomas, Mary, Judas, etc., no more different having imaginative minds like great literary poets. The idea of Jesus having a wife (Mary Magdalene) must be supported by all, ALL manuscripts and papyri (by way of a written and boring telephone game type). No reason to destroy them or keep them from the public. Even in the times of the church fathers some preachers taught the number of the beast was 616, and later in our times that fragment was dscovered, and boy who cares if it’s old, some people are so accustomed to take as truth everything coming from the ancients. Does it mean a very old lie can at some thousand years later can become truth?


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  33. Cynthia Curran

    Well, Eusebius wrote his history about this time-4th century, he never stated that Jesus had a wife, Its late dated and it might be a christian group out of the mainstream


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  37. Andrew Spurgeon

    Dr. Wallace, Could it be just “my woman” rather than “my wife”? As in John 4:21—legei aute ho Iesous; pisteue moi gynai. Or, John 2:4.


    1. Andrew, this question was asked before, but I think that since Coptic marks the word for woman similarly to how Greek does, the possessive pronominal prefix strongly suggests that it means ‘my wife.’ The burden of proof is certainly on the person who argues otherwise.


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  39. nick

    As so as I read this was a fourth century Coptic document I was suspicious of it’s validity. Something this fragment does highlight is that there have been many fringe groups for what ever motives have erred. The fact remains that the four Gospels eye witness portrayal of Jesus has been the reliable place to go to discover the person of Christ. One other point I would make is would Jesus marry given his awareness of the Father’s mission. He was well aware he would be killed Mt 16:21-23. Taking on a wife would seem morally irresponsible to me in light of this issue. The Gospels record an ethical teacher of great worth and trustworthiness if we view this from a purely human perspective. The canonical Gospels also speak of Jesus and his cousin John as being single, and devout. What woman for instance would move to the desert and eat Locusts with honey! Not many. All the Gospels have these two figures being set apart for God. The psychology of Jesus from what we read is not one where significant personal lack in present within his humanity. Anyway, I liked the analysis.


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  47. Isaac

    The words that are stated in the papyrus is simply, “Jesus said to them, My wife…” The word, them, as mentioned here refers to many people and yet the phrase, My wife, refers to a wife. As the phrase, Jesus said to them My wife, is mentioned in this papyrus, it simply refers to the so-called, Jesus, refers to many people to be his wife. It must be a joke instead of fact. If Jesus would have a wife, it should mention that Jesus said to her instead of them, My wife. As it is simply a joke, why take it so seriously that Jesus could be married.


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  53. The church is the Bride of Christ. If Jesus referred to anyone or anything as a wife…it could only be the church (souls that make it thereof). I am not a researcher, a predictor nor prophetic….I’m a BELIEVER.

    Blessed by Grace,
    Barb Shelton


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  56. What the Gnostic writings has to do with the true gospel of salvation? Anything based on a lie is a lie.The Holy blood Holy grail pretend that Jesus escaped death on the cross and married Mary Magdalene.Then Da Vinci code pretend a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the real blood of the grail is inside Mary based on the painting of the last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci.After that some persons pretend finding Jesus tomb and bones and carried DNA tests! and statistics on names! Through history many people has and still tried to strip Jesus of His deity.They believe in a Jesus who was a mere man,a great teacher with spiritual insight but otherwise ordinary.The marriage of Jesus is taken to be proof that He was not God in the flesh,but only a mortal man.Actually in the above fake stories there is a very dangerous and deceiving lie about the real blood and the wife.The truth is that real and Holy blood is on Jesus’ forehead and not in the womb of Mary Magdalene or any other woman.This is revealed by Souheil Bayoud in the true story The Coin Of The Temple.As for the wife,the impossibility of the marriage of Jesus is not and will not be revealed to disbelievers and opponents to Orthodox Christianity and the Church,the wise and the learned.


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  66. Falk, I’d love to read this, but , for the sake of dyslexics (like me) everywhere, please have a blunt synopsis at the top, and then the word lovers can continue with the fun facts below!


  67. Thanks for your post on this ;lot of valuable info. I have no knowledge of the coptic language, but I do know something of Byzantine history. Here is my theory for what it’s worth. I think that the language used –i.e. mention of ‘my mother ‘ {twice}, mention of ‘Mary is worthy ‘ and the word ‘ image’ suggest a piece of ‘ iconodule ‘ writing, poss from the height of the Iconoclastic controversy of the 8th century. The coptic church was known to be iconodule { pro images } and the veneration of Mary was important to them. As I understand it, the coptic word for wife can also mean woman. This is possibly an iconodule writer twisting scripture or using some non canonical work { probably bit of both } to argue the case for images or icons.


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  74. 1972 I was in Sta Clara Plywood, Daliao Davao City, working as a security guard in night schedule studieng college St peter’s , Toril Davao City, I had insumnia difficult. I must tired my self playing basketball then swim in the nearby seashore, I build a form like woman in the beach assuming my real girlfriend Cory Garcia, I embrace it and think a real Cora I have. Did you getme? Now Jesus Christ according to the bible He created all things including Adam and Eve. Shall he marry his own creation???? mga buang! you did not believe God that is why your mind was gone away,


  75. Hosea 4:6 sorry, My people are destroyed because of lack of knowledge, I give then knowledge but the rejected me, so I reject them also says the Lord, those people believe the coptic statement that Jesus Crist is married were rejected people by God,


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