Since 2007, my colleagues and I have argued that Jesus’ family tomb has been discovered in the east Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem. Some scholars ridiculed the idea. Many ignored it. And only a few were willing to consider the archaeological evidence. I made two films on the subject (The Lost Tomb of Jesus and The Resurrection Tomb Mystery) and have also written two books on the subject (With Charles Pellegrino The Jesus Family Tomb and with Professor James Tabor The Jesus Discovery).
One of the main objections to our arguments was that there is not a shred of textual evidence from antiquity linking Jesus to marriage. For our part, we have consistently argued that this is not true. We pointed to the gospels themselves as the best evidence for the marriage e.g., how could Mary Magdalene presume to wash Jesus’ naked body after the crucifixion, if she was not married to him? We also pointed to archaeological evidence, DNA, statistics, and epigraphy to support our arguments. But the mantra was always the same: there is no early textual evidence of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Now all that has changed. From the most conservative academic quarters, Professor Karen King and the Harvard Divinity School (unofficially identified with the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Church), comes the admission that there is an early Coptic gospel (late 2nd century!) that has Jesus referring to Mary Magdalene as his “wife”. As of this moment, this is front page news around the world. This is no longer a fringe argument. It has just moved into the mainstream. But if you read the news reports carefully you will get an insight into everything that’s wrong with today’s New Testament scholarship. First of all, the papyrus that is now making news was actually discovered in 1977. Think about it, 35 years ago! Has anybody stopped and asked why nobody has mentioned it until now? Some might say because no scholar looked at the fragment until now. This is patently untrue. Right at the beginning, Egyptologist Peter Munro (who died in 2008) at the Free University of Berlin examined the papyrus. He then showed it to fellow Egyptologist Gerhard Fecht (who died in 2006). Fecht believed that the papyrus was the “sole example” of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a “wife”. Fecht was also of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible historical marriage and he stated his opinion in a note dated 1982 that accompanied the fragment when it was purchased by its present owner. So if Professors Munro and Fecht had this incredible discovery, why didn’t they tell anyone? Why did they go to their graves taking news of this discovery with them? In this respect, they were no different from Israeli archaeologist Joseph Gat who believed he had found the Jesus family tomb in Talpiot. He took his secret to the grave as well. Why? The answer is quite simple – they all didn’t want to be accused of what the legendary Morton Smith was accused of when he discovered a lost fragment that contradicted the scholarly and theological mainstream. Put simply, I suspect they didn’t want to be accused of forgery by the so called guardians of the academic holy grail. In sum, the discovery was made in 1977 and it was relegated to oblivion until now.
The fact is that the atmosphere created for any such discovery is one of ridicule and personal attacks masquerading as academic debate. What’s incredible about this find is Professor Karen King’s honesty. Take a look at her “scientific method”. She admits that she didn’t want to look at the papyrus! She admits that she was conditioned by 1,600 years of theology to refuse to even consider the possibility that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. She admits that she thought it was a forgery. It was only the unrelenting lobbying by the private owner of the papyrus that finally got her to approach two other academics (Professor Roger Bagnall and Professor Ariel Shisha-Halevy) who authenticated the find. Think about it: what the story of this discovery tells us is that academics are afraid to publish such discoveries, that people who do publish such material are libeled and personally attacked, and that it took a fluke for this discovery to see the light of day.
When she finally looked at the material, what did Professor King do? She chose the most conservative of forums (the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies. The session took place across the street from the Vatican at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, a research center within the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, known as the Pope’s University) to announce her find. Why? Because she knew, I suspect, that otherwise there would be a tsunami of criticism putting in doubt the very authenticity of the find. As it turns out, because the finders are conservative scholars, no one has so far argued about the authenticity of the papyrus. Don’t get me wrong – based on the epigraphy, on the content which we know from Gnostic gospels, and on the appearance of the papyrus in a private collection purchased from a Coptic source (like the Gospel of Judas), I have no doubt that it’s real. But look at what these scholars didn’t do. In contrast to our team which did DNA, epigraphy, statistics and archaeology before publicizing our find, this team is promising to do scientific testing such as C-14 after announcing the discovery to the world. Yet, I hear no criticism.
It all comes down to theology. Since the wife genie is now out of the bottle, it seems that the conservatives have decided that it’s better to control the story than react to it. That way they can repeat another mantra; namely, that this find has nothing to do with the historical Jesus. All it proves is that people in the 2nd century believed that Jesus was married. Really? Well, logically speaking, there are only two possibilities – either Jesus was married or he was not. Since in the 2nd century we have both traditions, one is reflecting theology and the other is preserving real history. Put differently, Professor King in her various interviews has repeatedly stated that those who say Jesus was married and those who say he was not are both using Jesus to justify their respective theologies. This has nothing to do with the historical Jesus, she says. But, by definition, she can’t be right. One of those positions must be preserving history while the other is defending theology.
Speaking of history, we have archaeological evidence in Talpiot that pre-dates the “Jesus wife papyrus” by over 150 years! And it tells the same story. Since the tomb matches the papyrus, I would venture to say that the archaeology argues in favor of the historicity of the claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. The reason many scholars have so far refused to revisit the archaeological evidence in light of the new textual discoveries is because, beside the presence of Jesus’ wife in the Talpiot tomb, there’s always the matter of Jesus’ son: “Judah son of Jesus”. He’s buried in the tomb as well. Maybe people will start to take notice when a faded 4 line inscription is found on another Coptic papyrus. This one will refer to a “son”.
4. http://www.multichannel.com/news-article/smithsonian-sets-jesuss-wife-special/133638 (news about an upcoming documentary)
12. http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife (actual paper Karen King wrote about the papyrus fragment)