Many of you may have seen the recent news about a Coptic manuscript possibly dating to the 2nd century that mention’s Jesus’ wife. What is going on?
You might want to hold off on bringing wedding presents to church on Sunday. Here’s my summary and crash course on the finding:
- A mysterious owner has produced an ancient Coptic manuscript that has been initially dated to the 4th century AD and may be a translation from a 2nd century AD original. We do not know where it was found. This manuscript is the size of a business card and only contains a few lines. One of the lines definitely reads “Jesus said to them, my wife…” (for a photo see here).
- Coptic is an ancient Egyptian language that used Greek letters for its alphabet. There are several dialects, and this particular manuscript is in Sahidic Coptic which is from Southern Egypt. A fact little known by many Christians is that there are many pseudo-gospels and other documents from the 2nd and 3rd century AD that present all kinds of wild stories about Jesus. Documents such as the Gospel of Judas (which I had the privilege to see in person in 2009), the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary Magdala are also in Coptic and date to roughly the same time.
- (My personal favorite is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus as a child turns clay pigeons into real pigeons and strikes a playmate blind and must be reproved by his parents and heals the boy).
- Most Coptic manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd century are expressions of Gnosticism, an offshoot of the Christian teaching of Jesus’ apostles as we know it from the New Testament. Key elements of Gnosticism were:
- Salvation came by special knowledge that was given by Jesus to a select group (Mary Magdelene, Judas, etc.). “The Gnostic Salvation was from ignorance and not from sin.”
- Jesus, in gnostic expressions, either only appeared to be man or was indwelled by “the Christ” temporarily.
- While there were many variations of Gnosticism, none were compatible with the Christianity of the NT. Some NT scholars even think that the gospel of John may have been written to combat some early forms of Gnosticism.
- Dr. Karen King, the Coptic scholar who has translated the manuscript, has rightly cautioned that this is not proof that Jesus was actually married, it simply testifies to the fact that some likely Gnostics in Egypt thought that he was.
- Given the papyrologist (expert on papyrus manuscripts) and Coptic language scholars who have already viewed the manuscript, it seems to be genuine. That said, it has a mysterious owner and the circumstances of its finding are entirely unknown. Dr. King’s dating needs to be confirmed, but it is probably in the neighborhood. Other scholars will need to weigh in on the authenticity of the find.
The Bottom Line
We should not be surprised when we find distortions of Christianity that date to the 2nd century or even earlier. From the very beginning of the spread of the gospel the church had to work to protect Jesus’ message and ensure it was passed down to subsequent generations. These manuscripts show us the kinds of divergent beliefs with which the early church dealt. This particular finding does not prove that Jesus had a wife, it simply testifies to the fact that some likely Gnostics in Egypt thought that he did.
We should be reminded of the crucial importance of protecting and proclaiming the gospel as we find it in the New Testament as Paul commanded Timothy, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).