A Papyrus Adrift
Alberto Camplani

Coptic text and the allusion to 'Jesus' wife'

"Harvard scholar's discovery suggests Jesus had a wife". With this headline Fox News took up the news reported in other papers of a conference given on Tuesday evening, 18 September [2012], by Karen L. King, during the Tenth International Congress on Coptic Studies, hosted by the Augustinianum Patristic Institute, a stone's throw from the Vatican.

The news that was buzzing in the European and Italian media during the days that followed was in a similar key, but varied in tone and critical awareness, in addition to somewhat irrelevant references to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It does not take long to describe what happened. At the Congress the academic presented a fragment of papyrus that recorded, in a Coptic translation, sentences from a dialogue Jesus held with the disciples concerning a female figure, Mary, described as "my wife" (ta-hime, a rare form of ta-shime, the Coptic for our word for "woman" or "wife"). There is nothing unusual about this for a scientific congress. However, in this case the excessively direct link between research and journalism — that makes short shrift of the slow process required by more serious scientific discussion — had already been set up before the Congress, given that the very premature news in the American press on the same day was the outcome of an interview the Harvard academic gave before leaving for Italy.

While the media, in more or less sensational tones, were reporting the discovery, sparking sudden interest in the Congress on Coptic Studies, King and her university's website were making available online the draft of a powerful article that she had written with the collaboration of other young academics on this papyrus fragment and its content. This article will not be published in the proceedings of the Congress (which will not come out before January 2015), but has been submitted to the Harvard Theological Review and will be published next January should it be approved by the peer review, the usual evaluation process. Thus the article is presented with all the trappings of scientific knowledge and objectivity, as was to be expected of King, a well-known scholar of Gnosticism and other such topics in early Christianity.

The fundamental conclusions are: it is an ancient fragment that dates back to the fourth century; the Greek text on which the Coptic translation is based is even older and may have been written around the second century; it provides evidence that there were circles in which the conjugal state of Jesus was discussed: "assertions about the conjugal state of Jesus began to circulate a century after Jesus' death in the context of intra-Christian controversies on sexuality, marriage and discipleship", the scholar writes.

I would state immediately that I have reservations on this point of King's argument. And this is not all: I consider that it misled the news in the media which transformed words expressing the intimacy and spiritual consubstantiality between the Saviour and his disciples, customary in Gnostic texts, into the assertion of a presumed conjugal state of Jesus: a state which — although it can certainly not be accepted as a historical feature on the basis of this text — would, according to King, have been part of the second-century Christian debate on Jesus and sexuality.

In considering an object of this kind which, unlike so many of the others presented at the Congress, was not found during a dig but comes from the antiquarian market, numerous precautions must be taken. This is necessary to establish its authenticity and exclude the possibility of counterfeit. In the first place its material aspects should be studied. What type of manuscript did it come from? What date could be attributed to it from the paleographic viewpoint? Secondly, what kind of text is it, in what literary context was Jesus' disconcerting assertion made? What meaning does it acquire in that specific context?

It should be said that a great number of problems surface at both levels of research (the papyrus and the text). King admits that several colleagues have questioned its authenticity, whereas other papyrologists have expressed a favourable opinion.

Several of the Coptologists in Rome for the Congress, on seeing the photograph online and in some newspapers, expressed doubts about the authenticity of the papyrus (Emel, Funk, Suciu, Orlandi, Buzi and others), while reserving the possibility of formulating a more detailed opinion as soon as conditions permit study of the matter with a greater knowledge of the facts. They noted that both the character of the fragment, which makes it difficult to recognize what type of manuscript it comes from (a literary codex? An amulet?), and the characteristics of the writing which differ from the majority of known fourth-century examples and from a vast number of later models; some have even hypothesized that the Coptic characters on the fragment are an inept forgery of Coptic produced by printing.

If on the one hand the peculiarity of the object does not necessarily mean that it is a fake (new discoveries often do not fit into known typologies); on the other, it is the task of the scientific community to assess whether its originality derives from a modern or an ancient hand: in other words, it is necessary to take into account the specific nature of this writing, which appears to be very different from the known examples, such as, for example the codices of Nag Hammadi, and also rather different from the codices mentioned by the academic by way of comparison.

This might guide research in two different directions that would obviously influence the opinion that must be expressed on the text: that is, either the manuscript is a modern forgery, hence there would be no sense in undertaking any further research; or it was written in circles that did not wish to transmit a literary text but rather a text for internal or private use, as would occur, for example, in the schools of the magi of late antiquity. These latter might have used known texts, especially Gnostic, to create a new, and in their eyes, particularly effective form of writing, just as other colleagues of theirs created texts by reassembling verses of the Gospels. If this were so, the fragment would be of far less importance.

However, let us come to the text, which presents a dialogue of Jesus with the disciples and a woman. The setting is familiar to those who know the apocryphal literature or the dialogues on the Resurrection. We find in the Pistis Sophia, in the Gospel of Mary, in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Gospel of Philip, the most relevant parallels, clearly pointed out by King. The women appear the readiest of the disciples to recognize a spiritual consonance with the Saviour and one of them, Mary Magdalen, a truly Gnostic figure, is called "consort" of Jesus (in Philip's Gospel the Greek word koinonòs and the Coptic word hôtre are used, that span the semantic area from "companion" to "spouse".

The new fragment is in consonance with these texts, indeed, it seems to presuppose them when it says: "Jesus said to them: My wife... she will be able to become my disciple". However, it is necessary to understand the meaning of these expressions. King suggests viewing them not as evidence of the conjugal state of Jesus in history, but as an attempt to found a positive view of Christian/Gnostic marriage on the "topic" of the matrimonial bond between Jesus and Mary Magdalen ("The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus lets us see that, probably already in the second century other Christians considered that Jesus was married").

Yet the real problem is that of ascertaining whether doubt was ever cast on Jesus' celibacy or whether it was ever the subject of discussion in the tradition of the primitive Christian community, including Gnosticism. The first testimonies on Jesus say nothing of a conjugal state, even when they speak of Mary Magdalene; and if in the second century the pagan philosopher Celsus, in his radical criticism of Christianity (fragments of which were reported by Origen) records the infamous rumours concerning the Mother of Jesus and her extra-conjugal relations, he knew of nothing against Jesus himself concerning his possible matrimonial state.

I think that this silence, both in the Christian Tradition and outside it, is more reliable than the literal interpretation of a few terms in the new text, which in my opinion should be understood in a totally symbolic sense. Yet, in both cases it is a matter of totally metaphorical expressions, symbolizing the spiritual consubstantiality between Christ and his disciples, which is extensively confirmed in biblical and primitive Christian literature.
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In any case a fake

The matter of the presumed "wife" of Jesus potentially attested to by a highly problematic and controversial fragment of papyrus is recounted with prudence and rigour by Alberto Camplani who teaches Christian history at Rome's La Sapienza University. He was also one of the organizers of the International Congress that was the scene of the sensational announcement. Nothing was left to chance in preparing for this announcement. The American news media was informed in advance, at a press conference given by Karen L. King to prepare for an international scoop — which, however, was immediately disputed by experts. Consistent reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus, on the contrary, is an inept forgery (like so many others that come from the Near East), which might have been aimed at the sale both of this fragment and of other manuscripts by a private person to a prestigious institution. The completely improbable interpretation of the Gnostic phenomenon, with a twisted bias to match a modern ideology, is far removed from the history of Christianity and from the figure of Jesus. It is, in any case, a fake. (G.M.V.)


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 October 2012, page 11

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