Here we go again. Another discovery “casts doubt on the traditional story of Jesus’ life.” An ancient papyrus written in an ancient language from around the 4th or 5th century claims that Jesus had a wife. Although some scholars believe that this fragment may be a fraud, I’d like to tell you why it may not be a fraud but why it really won’t matter if it proves genuine.
The ancient fragment of papyrus in question was discovered by Karen King, professor of early church history at Harvard University. Dr. King is hardly a person to be hoodwinked by fraudulent artifacts. Take, for example, the fact that the papyrus was written in the ancient Coptic language. There are few people who know how to translate Coptic manuscripts (about a dozen or so) in the entire world let alone people capable of creating a convincing fraud. Nevertheless, it’s still possible that someone might know enough to fabricate a convincing faux antiquity. I lean towards its being genuine. Dr. King of Harvard Divinity School renown is not the kind of person to throw out artifacts without some level of persuasion that it is genuine. She’s been teaching on this subject for years and has seen 4th and 5th century Coptic writings before. In fact, in the academic world, 4th and 5th century Coptic documents are well known.
So if this ends up being a genuine artifact from ancient times, why wouldn’t it matter? As anyone who has studied ancient manuscript knows, there exists a list of writings from the 4th and 5th century that was more recently discovered. The largest group of these documents is known as the Nag Hammadi documents—a list of Gnostic writings in the Coptic language. Since their discovery in the 20th century, they have been a regular source of controversy for people who don’t understand their origin. The Nag Hammadi writings mention Old and New Testament characters but contain a message much different from the Old and New Testament we have today (hence the controversy). I said, “Here we go again,” because about once every year or so something pertaining to these Coptic writings comes up again as a “new” controversy and each time the controversy is resolved with overwhelming evidence to support the historicity of the New Testament. When I first heard about a fragment containing the words “Jesus’ wife,” my first thought was, “I bet this is another Coptic fragment.” Indeed I was right.
What are the Coptic manuscripts? The Coptic language is simply the Egyptian language written with Greek letters. It wasn’t spoken extensively within the Roman Empire and was isolated primarily to that region, so it wasn’t the language ancient church fathers wrote in when they wanted to share a teaching with the rest of the Christian world. They originated from a subculture and not the church itself. The Coptic documents have a much different origin than the early church fathers and the followers of Christ. For starters, nearly all known Coptic documents mentioning Jesus (excluding translations of the bible itself) are from a group of people known as the Gnostics. The Gnostics originated from gentile people groups around the time of the Jewish exile to Babylon. They were decidedly not Jewish or Christian in persuasion. They taught that the physical world was bad and that the spiritual world was good, a teaching that remained the topic of these Coptic writings. What one hoped to attain in their life was death and the escape from the physical into the spiritual. Gnostics were also syncretists—they adapted the teachings of other religions into their theological mindset.
Around about the 4th and 5th century, Gnostics began to adapt many of the New Testament character names into the writings of their own. This is where books such as the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Peter came from. To say that the teachings of the Gnostic writings contradict the New Testament narrative is at best an understatement. But how do we know which writings contain the correct teachings of Jesus and his Apostles? This, by the way, is the confusion scholars like Dr. King would like you to have. Any honest scholar, which Dr. King is obviously not, would know that the Gnostic writings lack several things an historically reliable account would contain. First is the inconvenient fact that the Gnostic writings appear late (4th and 5th century). There are no manuscripts or fragments evidencing their teachings as a church-wide (or even a minor) belief system prior to this time or even at this time.
Because they were written late, they are unreliable sources for learning what Jesus actually taught and did. All scholars in Dr. King’s position know this fact, but conveniently withhold this information from the public. Within the academic world there is no confusion as to the unreliability of the Nag Hammadi documents or any like them of the same genre. In the search for historically reliable documents on the life of Jesus, they are disregarded automatically. By contrast, the New Testament was entirely written within the first century. All books of the New Testament were completed prior to 70 A.D. which means that they were written during the lifetime of those who knew and witnessed the life of Jesus. Knowing their close proximity to the life of Jesus greatly increases their reliability. A second reason why the New Testament is reliable is that all of the early church fathers quote the New Testament and not the stories contained in the Coptic writings. These church leaders were those who knew the apostles and those who came shortly thereafter. It is beyond dispute that the New Testament is referenced and quoted as early as 120 A.D. (probably as early as 90 A.D.) and it is quoted regularly by the church fathers all the way until the 4th and 5th century. If the Coptic writings contained reliable histories of Jesus we would expect those same traditions to have been mentioned by the early church fathers, but we do not. There are many more reasons why we can and should disregard the Coptic documents, but I will stop at a third. The final observation of the Coptic writings is that their internal evidence is very weak. The Coptic writings have no familiarity with the Jerusalem prior to 70 A.D. When they attempt to describe Jerusalem or its surrounding region they consistently get the details wrong. By contrast, the Gospel accounts have been referenced by archaeologists when studying the ruins of ancient Israel. Archaeologists do not reference the Nag Hammadi or other Coptic writings like it because of their late and unreliable origin.
What does this mean for the Coptic fragment saying that Jesus has a wife? First, even if the fragment turns out to be an original item and not a fraud, it comes from a line of late writings with no reliable ties to the life of Jesus. Because they are late, they are not written by eyewitnesses or by people who knew eyewitnesses. No known church father quotes them or their teachings as fact (or at all) like they do the New Testament. And the fragment comes from a region outside of Israel, unlike the Gospel accounts which were all written within the land of Israel in the common language of the time. Had the entire document for this Coptic fragment existed, it would likely contain many geographic mistakes typical of Coptic writings of that day. It is an aberrant text with no ties to our Lord or any other person or fact.
Final word about being wise: We must consider that this is an election year. Many of the agendas promoted by the current party in power are opposed by the Christian church already in its crosshairs. The likely motive for this Coptic fragment’s attention is political—if our obedience to Christ is in the Left’s way then it is Christ they will attack. Already we have experience unprecedented levels of hostility to the church to get Christians to step down and back away. Undermining the certainty of our faith is just one of many tools we should expect to see this election cycle and, God forbid, if our current president is reelected. But don’t be fooled. These challenges to our faith have come before and the church has always risen victorious.