Did Jesus have a secret marriage?
Has history been wrong for 2000 years—was there a Mrs. Jesus Christ?
According to Harvard scholar Karen King, a tiny papyrus fragment, smaller than a business card, ignites the controversy about whether or not Jesus had a spouse. In the newly publicized fourth century fragment, Jesus supposedly refers to, “my wife.”¹ Just below that phrase, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”²
Public reaction to the manuscript is mixed. According to a recent social network survey:³
- 48% are skeptical
- 22% are outraged
- 19% are excited
- 11% joke about it
“Dr. King first learned about what she calls ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ when she received an e-mail in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Dr. King, 58, specializes in Coptic literature, and has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Gnosticism and women in antiquity.”4
King believes this fragment belongs to the genre of the Gnostic writings, most of which were composed between the second and fourth centuries.
Does this mean there really was a Mrs. Jesus?
Other scholars are beginning to weigh in on the implications of the manuscript fragment. “John O’Keefe Professor of Theology at Creighton University says it doesn’t change anything for Christians. Professor O’Keefe says it’s like taking an exacto-knife and cutting a piece out from a page of a book and then trying to figure out what was in the book from that piece.”5
Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, said in an interview that he heard “at least two respected scholars had doubts about its authenticity. Koester, whose speciality is early Christianity said he is “absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.”6
Although some scholars believe the manuscript is genuine, others disagree, arguing that “the handwriting, grammar, shape of the papyrus, and the ink’s color and quality make it suspect.”7 Whatever further studies reveal, the manuscript has reignited a controversy about Jesus that has been ongoing over the marital status of Jesus and his possible romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene.
In “The Jesus Family Tomb,” (The Discovery Channel’s TV documentary) director Simcha Jacobovici claims there is “evidence” that Jesus and Mary Magdalene indeed were married and had a son named Judah.
(To see what scholars say about Jacobovici’s “evidence” see “The Jesus Family Tomb)” article .
Furthermore, the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, and books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code, made a secret relationship between Jesus and Mary central to their themes.
The Da Vinci Code begins with a page of facts that makes the fictional novel appear to be true in all its assertions. The book has broken all records on the New York Times best-sellers list, and has been followed by a blockbuster movie. Author Dan Brown’s clever weaving of fact with fiction has convinced many readers that Jesus and Mary Magdalene really were married and had a child (see “Mona Lisa’s Smirk”). But is this romantic assertion just hype to sell books and movies, or is it supported by historical evidence?
Before we examine the evidence for any possible romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, let’s look into this person of Mary from the little Galilean town of Magdala. To begin we ask: What ancient documents shed light upon her character and her relationship with Jesus of Nazareth?
The New Testament gospels are the oldest written records of Mary of Magdala. In the gospels Mary is depicted as a woman who Jesus healed of demon possession. The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) present Mary as a follower of Jesus who listened to his teaching, provided for his financial needs, witnessed his crucifixion, and three days later was first to see him alive.
Some have said Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but neither the apostles nor the early church speak of her as more than one of Jesus’ close disciples. The idea that she was a prostitute originated in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory I identified her as both the woman spoken of in Luke 7:37, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Although the pope’s view was probably influenced by the fact that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, no biblical scholar is able to make the connection of Mary Magdalene with the woman in Luke’s passage. Additionally, the New Testament gospels don’t even hint of anything romantic or sexual between Jesus and Mary.
So where do conspiracy theorists get the idea? Why all the speculation? For that we turn to documents written 100-200 years after the New Testament gospels by a non-Christian cult called the Gnostics (see “Gnostic Gospels“). These writings are not part of the New Testament, and were rejected by early Christians as heretical. Those who write of a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary cite a few passages from two of those writings, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. Let’s look at those passages.
The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene)
The notion that Mary Magdalene was special to Jesus is taken primarily from the Gospel of Mary. This Gnostic gospel is not part of the New Testament, and was written by an unknown author in the last half of the second century, or about one hundred fifty years after Jesus’ death. No eyewitnesses, including Mary, would have been alive at the time it was written (about 150 A.D.). Such a late date means the Gospel of Mary could not have been written by an eyewitness of Jesus, and no one knows who wrote it.
One verse in the Gospel of Mary refers to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple, saying he loved Mary “more than us” (meaning his disciples). In another verse Peter supposedly told Mary, “Sister, we know the savior loved you more than any other woman.” Yet nothing written in The Gospel of Mary speaks of a romance or sexual relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
The Gospel of Philip
The Da Vinci Code bases its claim that Jesus and Mary were married and had a child primarily upon one solitary verse in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip that indicates Jesus and Mary were “companions”. This verse reads (Note: Brackets  appear where words of the document are missing or illegible):
“Three women always walked with the master: Mary his mother,  sister, and Mary of Magdala, who is called his companion (koinonos). For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother and his companion (koinonos).”
In The Da Vinci Code, fictional expert Sir Leigh Teabing proffers that the word for companion (koinonos) could mean spouse. But according to scholars, that is an unlikely interpretation. To begin, the word generally used for wife in New Testament Greek is “gune”, not “koinonos.” Ben Witherington III, writing in Biblical Archaeological Review, addressed this very point:
“There was another Greek word, gune, which would have made this clear. It is much more likely that koinonos here means “sister” in the spiritual sense since that is how it is used elsewhere in this sort of literature. In any case, this text does not clearly say or even suggest that Jesus was married, much less married to Mary Magdalene.”8
There is also a single verse in the Gospel of Philip that says Jesus kissed Mary.
“The companion of the  is Mary of Magdala. The  her more than  the disciples,  kissed her often on her . The other …said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’”
Greeting friends with a kiss was common in the first century, and had no sexual connotation. Professor Karen King explains in her book, The Gospel of Mary Magdala, that the kiss in Philip most likely was a chaste kiss of fellowship.
But perhaps more important is the fact that the Gospel of Philip was written by an unknown author about 200 years after the New Testament eyewitness accounts (see “Is the New Testament Reliable” and “Mona Lisa’s Smirk”).
It is also important to note that, aside from this fourth century fragment recently made public by King and these few questionable passages from the Gnostic Gospels, there is no other historical document that even insinuates Jesus and Mary had a romantic relationship.
No secular, Jewish, or early Christian historian writes even one iota about such a relationship. And because this newly publicized fragment, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip were all written 100-220 years after Christ by unknown authors, their statements about Jesus need to be evaluated in context of both contemporary history and the much earlier New Testament documents.
An honest comparison between the evidence of New Testament manuscripts and the Gnostic writings reveals the following facts:
- The New Testament was written while eyewitnesses were still alive; the Gnostic Gospels weren’t (see “Are the Gospels True?”).
- The New Testament accounts were confirmed by over 36,000 external writings by early Christians; the Gnostic writings weren’t.
- There are far more ancient manuscripts of the New Testament than for the Gnostic Gospels.
In fact, there are over 5,600 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, many of which date at least one hundred years earlier than the Gnostic Gospels.
But could the early church have destroyed the evidence in their attempt to rewrite the history of Jesus? Of course that’s what Jacobovici, Brown, and a host of other sensationalists are saying. But do scholars agree?
A Newsweek magazine article summarizing leading scholars’ opinions, flatly states that the notion Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married has no historical basis.9 Perhaps the Gnostics felt the New Testament was a bit shy on romance and decided to sauce it up a little. Whatever the reason, these isolated and obscure verses written 100-200 years after Christ aren’t much to base a conspiracy theory upon. Interesting reading perhaps, but definitely not history.
Regarding this latest controversial discovery, even King “cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question,” she said.10
But some remain unconvinced. Perhaps they just want to make history more interesting. Award-winning television journalist Frank Sesno asked a panel of historical scholars about the fascination people have with conspiracy theories. Professor Stanley Kutler from the University of Wisconsin replied, “We all love mysteries – but we love conspiracies more.”11
Perhaps all the hype about Jesus and Mary has more to do with antagonists to Christianity trying to humanize the man who Christians from the very beginning have called “God.” The brilliant skeptic, C. S. Lewis once believed Jesus was no more than a myth until he investigated the evidence. To see what changed his mind, see the article “Is Jesus God?”.
¹ Cited in NYDailyNews.com (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/jesus-married-harvard-scholar-ancient-text-papyrus-refers-wife-article-1.1162571), “Was Jesus married? Harvard scholar says ancient text on papyrus refers to ‘my wife’”, Sept. 23, 2012.
² Cited in The NewYorkTimes.com (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?_r=1). “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers To Jesus’ Wife”, Laurie Goodstein, Sept. 18, 2012.
³ The Wall Street Journal, “A Married Messiah?”, p. C4, Sept. 22-24, 2012.
4 TheNewYorkTimes.com, Ibid.
5 Cited on KMTV, Omaha, Nebraska, (http://www.kmtv.com/170405046.html), Fatima Rahmatullah, “Was Jesus Married? Ancient Papyrus Uncovered Refers to His ‘Wife’”, Sept. 19, 2012.
6 Jaweed Kaleem, “Jesus’ Wife’ Research Leads To Suspicions That Artifact Is A Fake,” Huffington Post, Religion, Sept. 26, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/26/jesus-wife-suspicions-fake-artifact_n_1916932.html).
8 Ben Witherington, Biblical Archaeology Review, (2004), “Reviews,” 30 :58-61, May/June.
9 Barbara Kantrowitz and Anne Underwood, “Decoding ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ “ Newsweek, December 8, 2003, 54.
10 Cited on KMTV, Ibid.
11Stanley Kutler, interview with Frank Sesno, “The Guilty Men: An Historical Review,” History Channel, April 6, 2004.
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