Did Jesus have a secret marriage? Has history been wrong for 2000 years—was there a Mrs. Jesus Christ?
According to Harvard scholar Karen King, a tiny papyrus fragment, smaller than a business card, ignites the controversy about whether or not Jesus had a spouse. In the newly publicized fourth century fragment, Jesus supposedly refers to, “my wife.” Just below that phrase, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
Public reaction to the manuscript is mixed. According to a recent social network survey:
- 48% are skeptical
- 22% are outraged
- 19% are excited
- 11% joke about it
“Dr. King first learned about what she calls ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ when she received an e-mail in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Dr. King, 58, specializes in Coptic literature, and has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Gnosticism and women in antiquity.”
King believes this fragment belongs to the genre of the Gnostic writings, most of which were composed between the second and fourth centuries.
Does this mean there really was a Mrs. Jesus?
Other scholars are beginning to weigh in on the implications of the manuscript fragment. “John O’Keefe Professor of Theology at Creighton University says it doesn’t change anything for Christians. Professor O’Keefe says it’s like taking an exacto-knife and cutting a piece out from a page of a book and then trying to figure out what was in the book from that piece.”
Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, said in an interview that he heard “at least two respected scholars had doubts about its authenticity. Koester, whose speciality is early Christianity said he is “absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.”
Although some scholars believe the manuscript is genuine, others disagree, arguing that “the handwriting, grammar, shape of the papyrus, and the ink’s color and quality make it suspect.” Whatever further studies reveal, the manuscript has reignited a controversy about Jesus that has been ongoing over the marital status of Jesus and his possible romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene.
In “The Jesus Family Tomb,” (The Discovery Channel’s TV documentary) director Simcha Jacobovici claims there is “evidence” that Jesus and Mary Magdalene indeed were married and had a son named Judah.
(To see what scholars say about Jacobovici’s “evidence” see “The Jesus Family Tomb” article.)
Furthermore, the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, and books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code, made a secret relationship between Jesus and Mary central to their themes.
The Da Vinci Code begins with a page of facts that makes the fictional novel appear to be true in all its assertions. The book has broken all records on the New York Times best-sellers list, and has been followed by a blockbuster movie. Author Dan Brown’s clever weaving of fact with fiction has convinced many readers that Jesus and Mary Magdalene really were married and had a child (see “Mona Lisa’s Smirk”). But is this romantic assertion just hype to sell books and movies, or is it supported by historical evidence?
Before we examine the evidence for any possible romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, let’s look into this person of Mary from the little Galilean town of Magdala. To begin we ask: What ancient documents shed light upon her character and her relationship with Jesus of Nazareth?
The New Testament gospels are the oldest written records of Mary of Magdala. In the gospels Mary is depicted as a woman who Jesus healed of demon possession. The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) present Mary as a follower of Jesus who listened to his teaching, provided for his financial needs, witnessed his crucifixion, and three days later was first to see him alive.
Some have said Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but neither the apostles nor the early church speak of her as more than one of Jesus’ close disciples. The idea that she was a prostitute originated in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory I identified her as both the woman spoken of in Luke 7:37, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Although the pope’s view was probably influenced by the fact that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, no biblical scholar is able to make the connection of Mary Magdalene with the woman in Luke’s passage. Additionally, the New Testament gospels don’t even hint of anything romantic or sexual between Jesus and Mary.
So where do conspiracy theorists get the idea? Why all the speculation? For that we turn to documents written 100-200 years after the New Testament gospels by a non-Christian cult called the Gnostics (see “Gnostic Gospels“). These writings are not part of the New Testament, and were rejected by early Christians as heretical. Those who write of a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary cite a few passages from two of those writings, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. Let’s look at those passages.