A fragment from an ancient text has been recently publicized, promoted, and sensationalized. Its researcher has named the text “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” since one of the legible lines reads, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'”. Other readable lines include, “she will able to be my disciple” and, “I will dwell with her” (“The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus,” Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian.com, September 18, 2012). If authentic, it would be the first ancient text discovered explicitly suggesting that Jesus had a wife. Many in the media have taken this story as an opportunity to suggest yet again that Jesus was married. Could it be true? Was Jesus married? Let us look beyond the hype and see what can be known about Jesus and this text.
It might be a forgery. “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is written in Coptic (a form of Egyptian). Many learned Coptologists are convinced that the fragment is a modern forgery: the handwriting, the writing instrument and ink, and the substance of the text seem suspicious.
It provides insufficient context. Even if “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is authentic, so little has been preserved that establishing proper context and meaning is impossible. We cannot know who wrote it and with which group the author was affiliated. For that matter, we cannot know for sure whether the “wife” should be understood in “reality” or in metaphorical terms; no evidence exists as to whom in particular the woman might be.
It is later than the Apostles. The Coptic fragment of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” has been dated around 350-400 CE; it has been suggested that the original text might have been written as early as the late second century. This means that the text was written at least a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and therefore cannot be considered apostolic.
It has no bearing on the presentation of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. The New Testament tells us that Jesus’ brothers and Peter were married (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:3-5), but says nothing about Jesus being married or having in-laws or children or anything of the sort. Even the researcher publicizing the text does not believe it provides evidence that Jesus was married; she believes it suggests that some people at a later time thought He was married.
Who would believe it? Who would believe that Jesus was married? Early Christians believed Jesus was not married (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.6.49, Tertullian, On Monogamy 5). The other major group, the Gnostics, rejected the belief that Jesus came in the flesh and taught that He only seemed like He was human. Many such Gnostics renounced sex and marriage; why would they then suggest that Jesus was married? Such difficulties give credence to the judgment that the fragment is a modern forgery.
What would it change? The New Testament provides no reason to believe that Jesus was ever married. Yet nothing would change if He had been married! It was not sinful for Him to do so; no prophecy demanded His celibacy. We can imagine many reasons why it was more profitable for Jesus to remain celibate; yet, if we learn on the other side that Jesus actually was married, it does not change anything about redemption in His name and the Lordship which God granted Him (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11).
Why does it matter? “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” leads to eye-catching headlines and media hype, yet tells us nothing about Jesus Himself. It is only a story because of sensationalism, profit, and the desire to advance a pluralistic agenda. Yet, despite “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and The da Vinci Code and other such works, the four New Testament Gospels remain the most authentic source of information about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians are not conspiring to hide the truth: they want everyone to come to the knowledge of Jesus as the truth and the life (John 14:6). Let us put our trust in the Gospel message, not in sensationalist modern hype, and live to glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Important postscript: Ariel Sabar would go on to continue his research; in the July/August 2016 edition of The Atlantic he published a thorough investigation into the owners of the manuscript (“The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife“). In the wake of this article Karen King herself was persuaded that the fragment is a modern forgery (“Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’“).