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Married Magdalene? Part Four — Anna Cwikla

Posted by: on Jul 21, 2015 | No Comments

This is the conclusion to a four-part series exploring The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. Click here to read parts onetwo, and three.

In the fourth and final installment of Married Magdalene?, I expand the scope of my discussion beyond The Lost Gospel itself to consider the main underlying question: why do we care if Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married? The responses vary depending on who is addressing the question, but we can point to at least two prominent answers after surveying news outlets and blogs for the stories and reactions that appeared after the publication of The Lost Gospel, as well as after the publication of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment two years earlier. The first is the potential implication for the role of women within modern Christian denominations. The second is the media’s preoccupation with reporting on issues that appear to have ramifications for Catholicism—the largest denomination of Christianity—as these issues are usually depicted as “scandalous” or “threatening” to church traditions and history.

Reason #1: Implications for Women in Modern Christianity

Before the publication of The Lost Gospel, the discovery and translation of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment were made public in September 2012 by Professor Karen King of Harvard University. It’s a fragment of papyrus about the size of credit card with approximately eight lines of Coptic writing on one side, and six on the other. The sentences are incomplete and the verso side is particularly damaged. One of the incomplete sentences reads “And Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…”, while the line above it says “Mary is worthy of it.” Initially, Professor King, who was given the fragment by an anonymous owner, dated the papyrus to the fourth century of the common era. However, Carbon dating tests completed in March 2014 suggest a date of 741 CE.[1] The text is the first known instance of Jesus referring to a wife and it is the ambiguous nature of this quote that has generated recent debates concerning Jesus’ marital status.

The possibility of Jesus having a wife sparked positive responses from some female clerics. For example, in a blog post on the Huffington Post website, Moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson expressed tempered optimism about the fragment’s potential to change the patriarchal position of many Christian denominations: “Will a little snippet of ancient writing change the Christian world? It is possible, and I am hopeful. Scholars who raise tough issues for the church and do not apologize for evidence that contradicts doctrines or tradition can change us. They are a bit like Jesus who treasured tradition enough to look for the values beneath the rituals, rules and words. This is a path we can all follow, in this complicated and embodied world!” Elsewhere, after the release of The Lost Gospel, the National Catholic Reporter published a piece entitled “Five reasons we want to believe Jesus was married.” One of the reasons is women’s rights, argues David Gibson: “As women stake a claim to authority in churches, many want to bolster that argument by reclaiming the historic role of women in early Christianity. Mary Magdalene, long known as the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ for her central role in supporting Jesus’ ministry and announcing his resurrection, is a key figure in that effort.” So, if Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, it is clear that some think that this might have an influence on the role of women in certain Christian denominations.

Reason #2: Scandalizing the Church

Another reason that the Mary Magdalene and Jesus marriage gets so much attention seems to be its “scandalous” nature, as emphasized by the media. In the raw spirit of the phrase “sex sells,” Jacobovici and Wilson themselves describe their “decoded” narrative of Jesus and Mary’s marriage as “a tale of love, sacred sex, politics, betrayal, and murder. Pretty hot stuff, even by ancient standards” (5). In fact, the very first page of the preface situates the book’s finding in dramatic opposition to the Catholic Church: “What the Vatican feared—and Dan Brown only suspected—has come true. There is now written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary the Magdalene and that they had children together” (IX).

The “scandalous” or “threatening” nature of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is also attested in online Catholic publications. In an article on Catholic Online entitled “Debunking the Gnostic Parchment: Jesus Couldn’t Have Had a Wife,” Dominic M. Pedulla refutes the idea of Jesus being married based on Catholic doctrine: “the idea that Jesus could have carnally married an earthly woman during His earthly life is incompatible with our faith, and probably downright silly if it were not tending toward sacrilege.” He further reasons that “For Jesus, His very Flesh would have had to be considered virginal from the moment of His conception, since in no way could His embodied sexuality ever be actualized in carnal relations with a woman and still remain a true expression of His Personal Self-gift.” In Pedulla’s opinion, then, there is no way that a married Jesus could be consistent with Catholic teaching.

In another online Catholic publication called OnFaith, Michael Peppard, professor of theology at Fordham University, titled his piece “‘Jesus wife’ papyrus: Christians have nothing to fear, but something to learn.” The title alone gestures towards the fact that his Christian audience would be troubled by the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Even before discussing the details of the papyrus, Peppard positions the discovery as an insignificant and small piece of a very large puzzle of history. This is reinforced when he reassures his audience that “the newly published Coptic papyrus does not fundamentally change what we historians of early Christianity are doing. So let’s not overestimate it.” He adds that Karen King had made it “abundantly clear that this text does not mean Jesus was married,” and uses the text as a teaching point for his audience to argue that Christians ought not to be threatened by non-canonical texts, but rather see them as evidence of “live debate” within early Christianity. Taking a softer approach than Pedulla, Prof. Peppard places the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife within the larger context of scholarship of early Christianity to minimize the potential scandalizing impact it would have for his Christian audience.

Finally, Karen King herself was asked about what significance the fragment might have for the Catholic church. In an interview with Time, Stephan Faris asked: “Do you see this as a challenge to Vatican policies, specifically to the celibacy of priests in imitation of the unmarried Christ of tradition?” Prof. King’s response was astute: “My position is that of a historian, so I don’t certainly intend to raise a challenge. It’s up to them to see if this is a challenge and how to deal with it.” Based on these examples, it is evident that the media enjoys toying with the possibility that Jesus might have been married under the assumption that it might somehow scandalize or interrogate the Catholic Church.

Concluding Thoughts

Although I have only provided two answers to the “why do we care if Jesus was married?” question, it is evident that almost any answer given likely reflects some modern interest. The fascination with Jesus himself is part and parcel of our larger culture and the significance we place on certain aspects of people of history. To be sure, at the outset of his book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals, Anthony Le Donne explains the relationship between what we choose to study in history and us: “While this book is indeed about the possibility of a wife of Jesus, it is just as much about us: the Christianized West. […] I acknowledge at the start that this topic is as much about ‘me and us’ as it is about ‘her and him.’ […] We attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct our cultural icons because we want to know how we got here and why. Is it any wonder that we sexually preoccupied Westerners feel the need to rethink the sexuality of Jesus?”[2] In other words, in continually talking about a married Magdalene and Jesus, we might actually be grappling with our present circumstances through a history that our current culture places in high esteem. By looking to the past for evidence of women as leaders in early Christianity, we are attempting to look for a way to change the longstanding tradition of women having less power in most Christian traditions that is still evident in modern society. By wedding Jesus, we may be trying to make him more “human-like,” or, as Alex Beam suggests: “The purpose, animated by the all-powerful secularism of our time, is to bring him [Jesus] down to our level.”

Regardless of what intentions Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson had in writing The Lost Gospel, the book’s overall assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is a trope that seems to be making its way into the headlines more frequently over the past decade. Repeatedly wedding Jesus in the media and popular culture, and the subsequent debates that stem from it, says more about ourselves than a man living in first-century Palestine.


[1] Karen L. King, “‘Jesus Said to Them, “My Wife . . .”’: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment,” Harvard Theological Review 107 (2014): 135.

[2] Anthony Le Donne, The Wife of Jesus : Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (London: OneWorld Publications, 2013), 7.

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