The internet has been abuzz with intriguing headlines announcing that scholars have determined that the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus is “authentic” and that there is “no forgery evidence” in the manuscript.
What exactly does this mean? And should Christians be concerned that a new discovery might contradict the biblical account and undermine their faith?
Actually, the report from scholars working with the Harvard Divinity School found that the manuscript is much younger than previously thought – in other words, it is even further removed from the time of the New Testament than scholars originally believed – meaning that, at most, it is a very late myth without a stitch of historical support.
What the report did say was that there was no evidence that any part of this small manuscript had been forged, so what was written was “authentic” in terms of not being the work of a modern forger.
But the scholars did not determine that the apparent reference to Jesus having a wife was authentic. How could they?
As New Testament scholar Darrell Bock observed back in September, 2012 when the find was first announced, “In the New Testament, the church is presented as the bride of Christ. And then in Gnostic Christianity in particular, there’s a ritual - about which we don't know very much - that portrayed the church as the bride of Christ. So we could simply have a metaphorical reference to the church as the bride, or the wife, of Christ.”
And what if this text recorded Jesus as saying that one of his disciples would be his wife?
Bock explained that, “This would be the first text - out of hundreds of texts that we have about Jesus - that would indicate that he was married, if it’s even saying that. So to suggest that one text overturns multiple texts, and multiple centuries, of what has been said about Jesus and what’s been articulated about him, I think is not a very wise place to go, just simply from a historical point of view.”
Initially, when Harvard professor Karen King learned about this papyrus fragment written in the Coptic language, which was used by the ancient, heretical, Gnostic Christians, she thought it might have been a forgery, as did other scholars, especially from the Vatican. But upon further study, she concluded it was not, dating it to the fourth century A.D.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.