by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
June 30, 2021
“. . . and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons . . .” (Luke 8:2)
The sad news came out not long ago. It happens in all too many marriages: yet another celebrity divorce, this time between Jesus and Mary Magdalene! Before you cry, “Blasphemy!” some explanation is required.
For over four years, Dr. Karen L. King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, proclaimed to the world that a tiny piece of papyrus proves Jesus Christ was married. She revealed this 1” x 3” scrap of paper at a huge conference in Rome on September 18, 2012. In her corner, a group of experts agreed that the fragment was authentic. However, immediately following her announcement, scholars and experts pointed out inconsistencies like its crude penmanship and weird phrasing. In addition, some of the words appeared to have been lifted from The Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal book written in the second or third century AD.
The bit of paper Dr. King so grandly called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” contains 33 words across 14 incomplete lines. The key words, written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language, read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” It was obvious early on that King was being scammed by a forger, but she and her supporters doggedly hung on to their assertions.
King is the first woman to hold the oldest endowed chair in the United States, as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. She has made it her mission to prove that the canonical texts of the New Testament are not divine revelation but a “myth of origins,” and she adds a distinctly feminist spin to her work.
A writer named Ariel Sabar published a glowing piece in the Smithsonian about Karen King and her “find” at the same time as her announcement in Rome. The following month, he wrote a follow-up piece on the reaction to her little bombshell. Both articles were little more than puff pieces. Then, unlike most reporters, he began to do some investigating to find the truth.
Sabar’s article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic Magazine, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” reads like a good piece of fiction—only it is true! Sabar went to great lengths and time to get the backstory of this document.
While King had allowed various labs to test the papyrus fragment and experts to examine the tiny paper, she had agreed to conceal where she got it and from whom. The “gospel” still belonged to its anonymous owner and was “on loan” to Harvard Divinity. When dealing in old documents, experts invariably ask for its provenance—its origins and chain of ownership. Where did the scrap first come from? Who found it? Who owned it? King, it appears, made little-to-no attempt to find out how the current owner came to possess it.
So, while the experts argued over syntax and penmanship, Sabar decided to find out where this business-card-sized paper originated. He writes:
The American Association of Museums’ Guide to Provenance Research warns that an investigation of an object’s origins “is not unlike detective work”: “One may spend hours, days, or weeks following a trail that leads nowhere.” When I started to dig, however, I uncovered more than I’d ever expected—a warren of secrets and lies that spanned from the industrial districts of Berlin to the swingers scene of southwest Florida, and from the halls of Harvard and the Vatican to the headquarters of the East German Stasi.
King believes that early Christianity was a “hodgepodge of conflicting beliefs about Jesus” and that the early church was feminist in attitude. Eventually, the thinking goes, the male apostles won a political struggle for control of the church, and as the saying goes, the victors write the history books. So, when she received an email from a stranger dangling a tidbit of heresy in front of her, she bit. She wanted to believe it so badly that she failed to do even basic provenance research.
If she had, she might have learned, as Sabar did, that it was a forgery. The forger was a man named Walter Fritz who lived near Sarasota, Florida. The little he had told King was not true. Sabar tracked him down and pried the truth from him.
Fritz studied Egyptology at the Free University in West Berlin during the late 1980s, where he learned Coptic. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he ran a museum of East German history then held executive positions in two failed auto parts businesses. Early this century, he wound up in Florida, where he ran several Internet pornography sites. His wife, a porn star, also wrote a self-published book of “universal truths” supposedly dictated by the archangel Michael.
These people have no credibility. Karen King fell for a con. After reading Sabar’s article, she admitted, “It tips the balance towards forgery”!
What makes people so eager to believe that Jesus was married—and specifically to Mary Magdalene? Why do they so desperately want to bring apocryphal books into the biblical canon? Because people want to bring Christ down to their level, Satan has been able to influence the world to believe that God is not really God and that Jesus was just another man. Those beliefs, however, stand on shaky ground. We will find that it is not difficult to refute the idea that Jesus had a wife.
The non-canonical gospels, from which many of these heretical beliefs spring, are books written sometime well after the life of Christ that some promote as meriting inclusion in the New Testament. However, few, if any of them, received any authoritative support from the early church and its leaders. They were excluded from the canon for good reasons.
Nevertheless, what do they claim about Mary? In The Gospel of Thomas, probably the best known of this group, Mary has a small role. At the end of the book, this remarkable piece appears:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It should be obvious why this spurious work is not part of the Bible!
The Gospel of Peter, from the second century AD, focuses on the last hours of Christ. In it, Mary Magdalene is called “a female disciple.”
Another of these books from the second century is The Dialogue of the Savior. The “Savior” answers questions from disciples, including Mary, who is presented as central among the disciples but not as His wife. The Sophia of Jesus Christ, a supposedly post-resurrection discussion between the risen Christ and some of His followers, treats her similarly.
In the third century AD appeared The Pistis Sophia, a Gnostic gospel where Mary plays a prominent role, asking most of the questions. This book reveals a growing interest in her among the Gnostics, as they believe that she possesses hidden knowledge about Christ. In it, Jesus says that she is “blessed beyond all women upon the earth.” However, even this Gnostic gospel does not claim that they were married.
The Gospel of Mary also portrays her as a source of unique knowledge because of her close relationship with Jesus. Still, nothing appears in this book to suggest a sexual or marital relationship between her and Jesus.
The Gospel of Philip
The last of the non-canonical gospels to mention Mary Magdalene, written in the latter part of the third century AD, is The Gospel of Philip. Two of its sections refer to Mary Magdalene. The first reads: “There were three who walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.”
Some have pounced on this word “companion,” the Greek koinonos, which simply means a “partner.” Paul refers to himself as Philemon’s koinonos, “partner,” in Philemon 1:17, where he was suggesting that Philemon work with him on Onesimus’ behalf.
The second passage about Mary in The Gospel of Philip is the significant one:
And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, Why do you love her more than all of us? The Savior answered and said to them, Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. Then the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.
Remember, this was written two hundred years after the true gospels, and it is the only passage of its type. These two facts make its claims doubtful, at the very least.
Consider, if Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, why were the disciples offended when He kissed her? He could have answered their question by simply saying, “Mary is my wife.” Instead, He explains His special affection for her by noting her ability to see the light, to know. This reply makes little sense unless it is invented Gnostic language. The best of the non-canonical evidence for Jesus’ marriage is very thin indeed.
Those supporting this Jesus-Mary theory would say, “Their marriage was a secret. That’s why there are only these clues. The church [read, the Catholic church] has suppressed this truth.” On the other hand, the canonical gospels frequently mention Jesus’ family relationships, as it also openly identifies the women who followed Him. Yet, it never reveals a wife.
Against all logic, those who argue the point use the New Testament’s very silence about a wife as proof there was one! They say that, as a matter of course, Jewish men of that time married, including rabbis, and it would have been highly unusual for a Jewish man to be single. To them, that closes the case!
But Jesus was not required by law to marry. As in every culture, not all Jewish men married. The historians Pliny the Elder, Philo, and Josephus all write of the Essenes, a sect of Jews extant from the second century BC to the end of the first century AD. The Essenes probably authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of them married. Some did not. Jewish men remaining unmarried was not unheard of during Christ’s time.
Moreover, He knew the job that lay ahead of Him. What kind of life would that be for a wife? How much concern would He be showing to a bride knowing He would soon die a horrible death?
Testimony in the Gospels
We do not know much about Jesus between age 12, when He astonished the teachers at the Temple (Luke 2:42-47), to about age 30, when He began His ministry (Luke 3:23). But we know a great deal about Him from then until His death, and not one of the gospel writers ever mentions a wife. Luke 8:1-3 would have been a good opportunity for Luke to insert the words “His wife.” The New King James Version heads this section as, “Many Women Minister to Jesus”:
Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.
However, Luke does not indicate that any of these women were His wife.
In verse 19, he writes, “Then His mother and brothers came to Him, and could not approach Him because of the crowd.” This passage is one of the numerous places the gospels mention His family, but again, Luke singles out no one as His wife. Karen King would have us believe that the writers never refer to Jesus’ wife because the church, dominated by men, was headed toward priestly celibacy, and to make that happen, its male leaders had to scrub all mention of Jesus’ wife.
There is a much simpler explanation: The Bible is mute on the subject because He was never married!
In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees test Him with a question on divorce. His answer follows over the following six verses. Afterward, “His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry’” (Matthew 19:10). Notice His response:
All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it. (Matthew 19:11-12)
Jesus’ focus was fixed on His mission, the most vital task God has ever given someone to accomplish. It took all His time, effort, and attention. It would not have been loving on His part to involve a wife to whom He could not devote His time and attention. He was one of those who “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” simply by choosing not to marry.
Like the other gospel writers, the apostle John includes the women who witnessed Jesus’ agony and death:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
Why did John not point out Mary Magdalene as His wife? Because she was not His wife! What is more, had He been married to Mary Magdalene, why would He ignore His wife in this kind of situation? Why would He not include her with His mother in arranging for her care? Could John not handle more than one extra woman in his house?
By pushing their feminist agenda, these scholars do Mary Magdalene a disservice by minimizing her role and ignoring her faith. She was the first to see and speak to Christ after His resurrection, which is quite an honor. She believed that Jesus lived again before most of the other disciples did. Jesus seems to have held her in high regard—but just not as His wife!
The Bible’s silence on the matter of Jesus having a wife continues into the epistles. For instance, Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it.” Again, the subject matter provides the perfect opportunity for Paul, had Jesus been married, to use His example as the ideal, physical husband. The most logical reason why he did not is that Jesus never married.
Books like The Lost Gospel and The Da Vinci Code go even further and claim Jesus and Mary had children as well. Every bit of this nonsense is designed to make Jesus less than the true Son of God. People like Karen King want us to consider Him a mere man, not much different from us. But the Bible presents Him as our transcendent God and Savior who will return as King of kings and then marry His Bride, the resurrected saints (Revelation 19:7-9; see Ephesians 5:23-32).
No Biblical Faith
At least eight articles from an array of scholars have laid out the case against the authenticity of the fragment that contains the Gospel of Jesus’ wife. The Harvard Divinity School, however, is not moved by this mountain of evidence. In 2015, it signed an agreement with the forger, Walter Fritz, to keep the papyrus on loan at Harvard for ten years “for purposes of study and research.” Here is a prime example of doubling down on one’s mistakes!
Harvard Divinity still maintains an elaborate website called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. To their credit, at the height of the controversy (though it has since been removed), it ran a small paragraph at the top of the homepage about the fragment’s contested nature, even quoting Dr. King conceding the point, albeit grudgingly. The Dean of Harvard Divinity then remarks that he appreciates all the scientists’, scholars’, and journalists’ research and encourages them to continue to “treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve.” In other words, the dean of Harvard Divinity continues to put his faith in a forgery rather than the Bible, which is really no surprise.
But we know the truth. Jesus did not have a wife during His physical life on earth. As we understand it, He was already promised to another.