Jesus and the Historians

In a paper soon to be published Professor Karen King describes a fourth-century Coptic papyrus fragment which quotes Jesus as referring to “my wife.”  The fragment is of course important to historians of early Christianity.  It verifies what was already known about certain Coptic-speaking Christian sects, namely that they had a fascination with Mary Magdalene and the possibility that Jesus and she were married.

Professor King is quick to point out 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.”

The article also points out that the “provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery.”  What that means is, somebody in a dark robe went up to somebody in a dark alley and said,

Hey buddy, you look like a scholar –You talking to me?  –Yeah, you, you’re a scholar right?  –Uh, yeah.  –You wanna buy a papyrus fragment?  For you my friend, I’ll make you a special deal . . .

Or something like that.  Professor Chris Rollston is an expert on forgeries.  Technically he is an expert on epigraphy, meaning ancient inscriptions.  Within that realm his expertise is more in Hebrew, or even Aramaic and Akkadian texts written on stone or pottery.  He’s not a Coptic specialist, but he knows a lot about real, forged, and uncertain ancient writings.  His policy is generally if it’s unprovenanced, its inadmissible in the court of history.  In particular, dramatic claims require dramatic evidence.  He has an interesting review of a book based on another dramatic claim about an ancient inscription purported to mention Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Back to the papyrus, Professor King and other experts say the text has all the signs of being authentic.  Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton examined the fragment and concluded “It would be impossible to forge.”  That may well be true.  There are probably a few Coptic scholars in the world who know the language well enough to compose a grammatically correct fragment.  I would guess the directory of Coptic scholars in the U.S. (and Australia!), for example, would only take a page or two.  But there must also be many Coptic monks unknown to the world of Academia.  Who’s to say that one of them with time on his hands may not have tried a little exercise?

But I will defer to the experts and assume it is genuine and interesting.  It gives us a window of the beliefs of some fringe-group of Christians living in Southern Egypt several centuries after the age of Christ.  And we should be grateful for that historical window.