A renowned professor from Harvard Divinity School has again stirred controversy among biblical scholars.  Back in September 2012 Professor Karen L. King announced the existence of a text that has since become known as the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’.  The fragment of ancient papyrus, written in Egyptian Coptic, is barely 4x8cms and includes the words “‘Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…'”.

The Vatican’s newspaper was quick to denounce the gospel as a ‘very modern forgery’, and several top scholars, including Professor Francis Watson, the editor of Cambridge’s journal New Testament Studies, were quick to dismiss the so-called ‘find’. Now, however, King has published her article along with scientific reports such as radiocarbon dating evidence to support her belief that this is an authentic fragment. The papers appear in the latest issue of the Cambridge-produced journal Harvard Theological Review.

Publication last Thursday on Cambridge Journals Online was timed with military precision to coincide with the release of newspaper exclusives in The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Thanks must go to staff in Content Services, Production and Marketing, who worked closely with Harvard communications staff. Within hours the story was spreading via The Huffington Post, blogs and Twitter, and by evening was appearing in newspapers from Manchester to Manila. As an exercise in how news unfolds in the digital age, it was fascinating to track the story’s trajectory – a far cry indeed from the oral tradition of the early Christian communities, and the slow circulation of letters and writings from the middle of the first century. 

But what does this story mean in the 21st century and why does the claim arouse such heated debate? Well, twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife, and a female disciple – one of whom may be identified as “Mary.” The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.” King has said all along that the fragment should not be regarded as evidence that Jesus was married, but rather that early Christians were actively discussing celibacy, sex, marriage and the role of women. These themes continue to occupy Christians today, and will, without a doubt, fill the pages of newspapers and theology journals for many years to come.

Click here to access this fascinating issue of Harvard Theological Review.

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Martine Walsh

Senior Commissioning Editor, Journals




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