The whole world changed on Tuesday. At least, that is what many would have us to believe. Smithsonian magazine, published by the Smithsonian Institution, declares that the news released Tuesday was “apt to send jolts through the world of biblical scholarship — and beyond.” Really?
What was this news? Professor Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced at a conference in Rome that she had identified an ancient papyrus fragment that includes the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” Within hours, headlines around the world advertised the announcement with headlines like “Ancient Papyrus Could Be Evidence that Jesus Had a Wife” (The Telegraph).
The Smithsonian article states that “the announcement at an academic conference in Rome is sure to send shock waves through the Christian world.” The magazine’s breathless enthusiasm for the news about the papyrus probably has more to do with advertising its upcoming television documentary than anything else, but the nation’s most prestigious museum can only injure its reputation with this kind of sensationalism.
A Fragment of a Text, an Even More Fragmentary Argument
What Karen King revealed on Tuesday was a tiny papyrus fragment with Coptic script on both sides. On one side the fragment includes about 30 words on eight fragmentary lines of script. The New York Times described the fragment as “smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass.” The lines are all fragmentary, with the third line reading “deny. Mary is worthy of it,” and the next reading “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” The fifth states, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
The papyrus fragment, believed to be from the fourth century, was delivered to Professor King by an anonymous source who secured the artifact from a German-American dealer, who had bought it years ago from a source in East Germany. As news reports made clear, the fragment is believed by many to be an authentic text from the fourth century, though two of three authorities originally consulted by the editors of the Harvard Theological Review expressed doubts. Such a find would be interesting, to be sure, but hardly worthy of the international headlines.
The little piece of ancient papyrus with its fragmentary lines of text is now, in the hands of the media, transformed into proof that Jesus had a wife, and that she was most likely Mary Magdalene. Professor King will bear personal responsibility for most of this over-reaching. She has called the fragment nothing less than “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” — a title The Boston Globe rightly deemed “provocative.” That same paper reported that Professor King decided to publicize her findings before additional tests could verify the fragment’s authenticity because she “feared word could leak out about its existence in a way that sensationalized its meaning.” Seriously? King was so concerned about avoiding sensationalism that she titled the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?”
This is sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. One British newspaper notes that the claims about a married Jesus seem more worthy of fans of Dan Brown’s fictional work, The Da Vinci Code, than “real-life Harvard professors.” If the fragment is authenticated, the existence of this little document will be of interest to historians of the era, but it is insanity to make the claims now running through the media.
Professor King claims that these few words and phrases should be understood as presenting a different story of Jesus, a different gospel. She then argues that the words should be read as claiming that Jesus was married, that Mary Magdalene was likely his wife. She argues further that, while this document provides evidence of Jesus’ marital status, the phrases do not necessarily mean he was married. More than anything else, she argues against the claim that Christianity is a unified body of commonly-held truths.
Those familiar with Karen King’s research and writings will recognize the argument. Her 2003 book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, argued that another text from the era presented Mary Magdalene as the very model for apostleship.
A Preference for Heterodoxy
The thread that ties all these texts and arguments together is the 1945 discovery of some 52 ancient texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts are known to scholars as Gnostic literature. The texts present heretical narratives and claims about Jesus and his message, and they have been a treasure trove for those seeking to replace orthodox Christianity with something different.
Several ambitions drive this effort. Feminists have sought to use the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that women have been sidelined by the orthodox tradition, and that these Gnostic texts prove that women were central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even superior to the men. Others have used the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that Christianity was diverse movement marked by few doctrinal concerns until it was hijacked by political and ecclesiastical leaders, who constructed theological orthodoxy as a way of establishing churchly power in the Roman Empire and then stifling dissent. Still others argue that Christianity’s moral prohibitions concerning sexuality, and especially homosexuality, were part of this forced orthodoxy which, they argue, was not the essence of true Christianity. More than anything else, many have used the Nag Hammadi texts as leverage for their argument that Christianity was originally a way of spirituality centered in the teachings of a merely human Christ — not a message of salvation through faith in a divine Jesus who saves sinners through the atonement he accomplished in his death and resurrection.
Professor King, along with Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, has argued that the politically powerful leaders who established what became orthodox Christianity silenced other voices, but that these voices now speak through the Nag Hammadi texts and other Gnostic writings. Writing together, King and Pagels argue that “the traditional history of Christianity is written almost solely from the viewpoint of the side that won, which was remarkably successful in silencing or distorting other voices, destroying their writings, and suppressing any who disagreed with them as dangerous and obstinate ‘heretics.’”
King and Pagels both reject traditional Christianity, and they clearly prefer the voices of the heretics. They argue for the superiority of heterodoxy over orthodoxy. In the Smithsonian article, King’s scholarship is described as “a kind of sustained critique of what she called the ‘master story’ of Christianity: a narrative that casts the canonical texts of the New Testament as a divine revelation that passed through Jesus in ‘an unbroken chain’ to the apostles and their successors — church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried these truths into the present day.”
King actually argues against the use of terms like “heresy” and even “Gnostic,” claiming that the very use of these terms gives power to the forces of orthodoxy and normative Christianity. Nevertheless, she cannot avoid using the terms herself (even in the titles of her own books). She told Ariel Sabar of Smithsonian, “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.”
Orthodoxy and Heresy: The Continual Struggle
Those who use Gnostic texts like those found at Nag Hammadi attempt to redefine Christianity so that classic, biblical, orthodox Christianity is replaced with a very different religion. The Gnostic texts reduce Jesus to the status of a worldly teacher who instructs his followers to look within themselves for the truth. These texts promise salvation through enlightenment, not through faith and repentance. Their Jesus is not the fully human and fully divine Savior and there is no bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Were these writings found at Nag Hammadi evidence of the fact that the early church opposed and attempted to eliminate what it understood to be false teachings? Of course. That is what the church said it was doing and what the Apostles called upon the church to do. The believing church did not see heresy as an irritation — it saw heterodoxy as spiritual death. Those arguing for the superiority of the Gnostic texts deny the divine inspiration of the New Testament and prefer the heterodox teachings of the Gnostic heretics. Hauntingly, the worldview of the ancient Gnostics is very similar, in many respects, to various worldviews and spiritualities around us today.
The energy behind all this is directed to the replacement of orthodox Christianity, its truth claims, its doctrines, its moral convictions, and its vision of both history and eternity with a secularized — indeed, Gnositicized — new version.
Just look at the attention this tiny fragment of papyrus has garnered. Its few words and broken phrases are supposed to cast doubt on the New Testament and the doctrines of orthodox Christianity. A tiny little fragment which, even if authentically from the fourth century, is placed over against the four New Testament Gospels, all written within decades of Jesus’ earthy ministry.
“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?” Not hardly. This is sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. Nevertheless, do not miss what all this really represents — an effort to replace biblical Christianity with an entirely new faith.
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Ariel Sabar, “The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus,” Smithsonian, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Inside-Story-of-the-Controversial-New-Text-About-Jesus-170177076.html
Lisa Wangsness, “Harvard Professor Identifies Scrap of Papyrus Suggesting Some Early Christians Believed Jesus Was Married,” The Boston Globe, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2012/09/18/harvard-professor-identifies-scrap-papyrus-suggesting-some-early-christians-believed-jesus-was-married/dZJ1sIJCay8b8cra30wfQK/story.html
Laurie Goodstein, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’s Wife,” The New York Times, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?pagewanted=all
Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007).
Karen L. King, The Secret Revelation to John (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).