The New York Times is reporting an announcement made by Karen King, noted scholar of Christian history at Harvard, about a Coptic fragment purporting to mention Jesus discussing his “wife”:
The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
The Times actually does a good job—as King does herself—of not sensationalizing the story too much. (See just about any blog ever for overly sensationalizing this.) In reality, this fragment tells us (as King is quick to point out) merely that there was probably a controversy over Jesus’ marital status among the first couple centuries of Christian history, not that Jesus had a wife or that there is any evidence of that. [If you want to skip over a pedantic part of this post, go on to the next paragraph.] This fragment is likely from a “lost” gospel, which has about as much claim as any gospel (save the earliest ones, Matthew, Mark and Luke) of being historically accurate. As the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls indicated, the religion post-Jesus was fragmented and highly divisive; this fragment, a fascinating discovery, tells us only that there was one more aspect of controversy among Jesus’ early followers. Which, given the fragments we have of many other so-called “lost” gospels, was probably not much of a jump—I would guess most scholars of Gnosticism and/or early Christian history would not be surprised to see such a reference.
Nevertheless, this is, if verified (and it seems likely) a fascinating find. Early Christian history is one of my favorite subjects, so I kind of revel in these types of discoveries. I’ve read King’s What Is Gnosticism?, which I enjoyed, but wouldn’t recommend to anyone with only a general interest in the subject. (Instead, read Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, and then, if you’re still intrigued, turn to King for a more scholarly analysis.)