The gnostic scrap preposterously labeled the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (GosJesWife) and described in painstaking detail by Annemarie Luijendijk in an article by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School will be old news by the time this comment appears.
That is as it should be, because the “discovery” was old news before the article appeared. Ms. King along with an established succession of gnostiphiles has consistently been guilty of sensationalizing relatively minor corrections, rethinks and supplements to the gnostic corpus as breakthroughs, if not by self-promotion then by acquiescence in the kind of glassy optimism that sees everything as a headline.
Ms. King is known primarily for her work on the Gospel of Judas (with her protégé, Elaine Pagels) and thus belongs to that clan of constructivists who might suggest (today) that Jesus and Judas were more than friends and (tomorrow) that after a failed experiment in same-sex polyamoury with the twelve, he returned to the arms of his beloved wife Mary, where he settled down like a good Jewish soykher, made babies (or if a gnostic Jesus, emanations), and carved icons for the booming idol trade in Sepphoris.
Mind you, Ms. King doesn’t say any of this. She doesn’t have to. Her scholarship equates roughly to a Hungarian director’s reconceptualization of Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of an abused peri-menopausal stepmother: it uses the text merely as a backdrop for conclusions reached independently of chewable evidence. –The fantasy that the Gospel of Judas can be situated in a period of “Roman persecution,” for example, was never adequately challenged, despite the fact that (with the exception of the non-gnostic Marcionites, who get honorable mention by Eusebius as late as the fourth century) the gnostic communes are not known to have contributed fodder to either Roman nor later to Christian persecution of heretics.
Even “unequivocal” Christians had their “Don’t ask don’t tell” rubrics when things got hot; Gnostics were far more furtive than that. The very sober treatment of Judas by Nag Hammadi facilitator James Robinson and the assessment of Amy Jill Levine—that Judas “tell[s] us much about second century belief and practice, but very little if anything about the man from Nazareth himself” were quickly engulfed in the belief (evangelised by King and Pagels) that it represented a significant “alternative” to the orthodox story.
That view is what is also being promoted in the unfolding saga of Jesus’ wife.
The disinformative Pagels-revolution in gnostic studies was based on a fundamental, and to a certain extent deliberate, misunderstanding of gnostic thought. Thirty years later, its rootage in the liberation theologies of le fin de siècle looks more superficial than ever before. Conditioned by a 1970’s impatience with male-dominated church structures, it was a slap at the patriarchal systems that dominated the western religious traditions—especially the Roman Catholic Church—and was refracted in other institutional, glass-ceilinged hierarchies like the academic and corporate worlds.
The very fact that the inventors of this “apostolic” band-of-brothers tradition–bishops like Irenaeus (Pagels’s least favourite prelate)–hated Gnostics was in her view and the view of her acolytes, reason enough to turn them into oppressed heroes. The fact that the “heretics” (old form) were a band of theosophical predators whose writings can charitably be described as garble seemed to make no difference to the cause: what mattered was that they told a different story to the canonical one, and in the age of canon-bashing, through the end of the twentieth century, that was all that mattered. One of the few courageous voices at the peak of Gnostimania between 1975 and 2000 was that of New Testament scholar, and a former teacher of mine, Joseph Fitzmyer, who commented matter-of-factly that the gnostics were the crazies of the second century, and did not improve with time.
Like Pagels, King has devoted some time to (unsuccessfully) overturning the early twentieth century idea, associated with the church historian Adolph von Harnack that Gnosticism was a radical “Hellenization” (or Neoplatonizing) of Christianity. The idea that it was a social equality movement comes from spending too much time with the theosophist rabble and almost none with Numenius, Plotinus and Porphyry. (Why worry about where the crazies got their craziness?).
And of course, eschewing Irenaeus and his “brother” bishops as being out of the picture.
Yet everything we have discovered from Nag Hammadi bears out the idea that gnosticism, even in its stammering and repetitious diversity, was just that: a mythological substrate—a plot line, so to speak—that sees creation itself, and humanity’s role in it, as a fall from divine perfection into material corruption.
Salvation in this myth is all about waking up, or rather about a select few waking up, to the promises of a God so distant that a cipher named Jesus, and his female consort/hypostasis/mother/wife/Achamoth/Sophia/Mary is needed to telepathize the message of redemption (opposite to the diremption or unraveling of the sacred fullness) to the broken world made by a rascal equivalent to the platonic demiurge, often identified as the God of the Jews, but with fewer superpowers.
The universe of thought in which gnostic ideas swirl is so different to the “canonical world” that it can properly be called alien, and with few exceptions—the letter of a gnostic bishop named Ptolemy to a catechumen named Flora (Epiphanius [Hær. XXXIII, 3-7] is often cited) –incomprehensible. It is cited because its sentences parse. Nothing quite as sober was found among the Coptic papyri in Upper Egypt.
The problem with seeing the gnostic gospels as the “other side” of the Christian story is that they aren’t. They tell another story. It is the cultic iteration of Neoplatonic missionaries who used Christian ideas as window dressing—or as Irenaeus said, as bait. It is the nether side of cultic frenzy, an elitist fantasy that replaces the more democratic apocalyptic hope of the first Christian generation with a Jesus who is never born, whose feet never touch the ground, whose crucifixion is an illusion, and whose resurrection is unnecessary. This revelation happens in the minds of first century republicans, the 1% who deserve to be saved—not in the lives of sinners—and not in the biography of a flesh and blood, sexually-complex figure named Mary Magdalene.
This Jesus talks in runes, numbers, and aeons, even when the dialogue is framed (as it is for example in the Gospel of Judas), using superficial historical markers tacked on from the canonical narrative: In fact, the core of Judas (ll 47-53) is a non-Christian gnostic discourse that has been superficially resituated as a dialogue between a Jesus who comes, goes, morphs into a child, disappears from view, and spends the rest of his time laughing at the stupidity of his disciples for their worldly ways–Judas, unlucky man, being mysteriously counted as disciple thirteen:
Here, just for the flavor, is a sample:
Judas said to Jesus, “So what will those generations do?”
Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, for all of them the stars bring matters to completion.
When Saklas completes the span of time assigned for him, their first star will appear with
the generations, and they will finish what they said they would do. Then they will fornicate in my name and slay their children  and they will […] and [—about six and
[a half line is missing—] my name, and he will […] your star over the [thir]teenth aeon.”
After that Jesus [laughed].
Even in the strained dialogues of the Gospel of Thomas (which is somehow connected to this scrap) the gospel writers only succeed in making Jesus sound like a fourth rate Socrates—even though during my time at Harvard, a respected New Testament scholar could argue that Thomas was at least circumstantial “proof” of the existence of Q. (It was one of the reasons I absconded for Oxford.)
Given this as background, what should we make of the “marriage of Jesus”? The short answer is, Nothing at all.
It is intriguing to me that in all of the discussion so far, but in keeping with a new biblical orthodoxy that eschews calling texts “canonical” and “non-canonical,” this non-canonical passage is seldom called gnostic, as though to call it what it is “privileges” orthodox discourse.
This is absurd of course—a bit like saying that calling the plays of Thomas Greene wretched (they are) privileges the plays of William Shakespeare because they kept their audiences awake. Presumably this labeling discriminates against the full-bodied potential meanings (always plural) of the text, because (having dispensed with the category of heresy as a judgment of power-hungry male bishops of the second and third century) by classifying it we enable a distinction between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” that postmodernism has decreed is not pertinent to the historical narrative. As a standard older book on the subject of the gnostic religion proves, spending too much time with the gnostics will eventually find you in the embrace of Jung or Derrida, secure in a cosmos ruled by the gods of deconstruction.
Odd, therefore, that in judging the value of the gnostic literature for its “revolutionary character,” constant reference has to be made to the canonical plotline, since not to do so would leave us swimming in the ether and aeons of cultic savants who did not care about history, marriage, groceries, or everyday life.
What is at stake here, to be blunt, is not whether Jesus was married. Nor is the issue (as King tunes it) whether there were groups of Christians who thought he was, at least allegorically–since at least allegorically the author of Ephesians 5.22 seems to think he was. What is at stake is how we deal with the intellectual parameters of evidence
The scholars who are arguing against this “gospel” on the basis of its “authenticity” are brutally confused and in fact are swallowing the premise that it causes us to “question” what we may have thought about Christian origins.
From everything I have read, I am prepared to think (with a significant reservation) that the fragment is authentic; that it dates from the third century; that the orthography is Sahidic, and that it is not the work of an antiquities forger. And I am equally prepared to believe that Professor King believes that it is genuine. While I deplore her interpretation, I think her skills in Coptic are self evident to someone, like me, who knows the field and knows the language.
The eighteen lines of the fragment as reproduced and described by King are these:
1) not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] … ”
2) The disciples said to Jesus, “
3) deny. Mary is worthy of it
4) Jesus said to them, “My wife
5) she will be able to be my disciple
6) Let wicked people swell up
7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to…
The natural reaction to reading these lines simply as text is to say that we do not know more than we know.
Its connections with the Gospel of Thomas (114) will be evident to anyone who knows that gospel, where Mary queries Jesus about the identity of his followers (21). In the celebrated conclusion of Thomas, Peter suggests (114)
“Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
To which Jesus responds,
“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.”
The purely symbolic and desexualized nature of Mary in the discourse is obvious: women were closely associated with the reproductive faculty that the gnostic telestai regarded as corrupt and (like the world) defiling. Jesus suggests, rather than exclusion, to redeem her through transforming her, perhaps baptismally within the cult, to a sexuality that is not associated with reproduction–the perpetuation of the “primoridial error.” Incultation is very much like a marriage: it is a union, it is transformative, and it is salvific. it is also asexual and sterile.
While the peri-verse “Mary is [?] worthy of it” raises suspicions as to the authenticity of the fragment, especially in apposition to the word “life” in , the editors prudentially note (35) that the verse may read “is not worthy of it,” which would in fact be in keeping with the extant verse in the Gospel of Thomas.
Furthermore, if this fragment is a periphrasis of Thomas 114, then the logical conclusion to the fragment, “As for me, I dwell with her in…” is “[in] order to make her male.”
The phrase, “Jesus said, my wife….” Or “my spouse” needs to be interpreted within this general framework, and within the gnostic system as a whole. King’s suggestion regarding  and the preceding lacuna seem at first glance reasonable:
A probable restoration for the lacuna prior to first line and in →1: ([“Whoever does not hate his father and his mother will] not [be able to become] my [disciple]. My mother gave me li[fe]”) can be suggested based on comparison with GosThom 101 (49:32-50:11); cp. also Luke 14:26 (Sahidic).
Internally however, this interpretation is unjustified: To complete the lacuna in this way contradicts the core belief that the “life giving mother” Mary is viewed negatively, and does not explain the transition between this and the assertion that Mary is (or is not) worthy of life. In Thomas Jesus does not say what King wants him to say, but this:
Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do cannot become a disciple to me. For my mother [...], but my true mother gave me life.” [Lambdin trans.]
That is to say, the true mother is not the one associated with Jesus by the earthen disciples, but a revelation of a higher power.
In “classical” gnostic thought, this power is either the female emanation of the pleroma, or Sophia, though gnosticism played fast and loose with names from a variety of theosophical schools and religions, including Christianity.
King’s conclusions about  however are therefore even more insecure:
The meaning of “my wife” is unequivocal; the word can have only this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife. Given the dialogue form, Jesus seems to be addressing his disciples (which does not precluding her presence among the other disciples, especially given the following line’s affirmation that “she is able to be my disciple”).
This assumes what is not “given” at all. As our closest analogy to this text distinguishes between the assumed and the true mother, in true gnostic Doppelganger fashion (a literary device used to enforce the Neoplatonic distinction between the real and the apparent) it would be far more reasonable to suggest that the verse can be completed as
“Jesus said, my wife is not like [her]
But the one who is saved,
She is worthy to be my disciple.
…And I dwell with her in order
to make her male.”
King has done an admirable job describing the fragment. Yet its tantalizing parallelism with a theme in Thomas that has often been seen as “anti-woman,” creates a troubling uncertainty about its provenance, and casts a reasonable doubt over its authenticity. Nonetheless, what is more troubling is the disconnect between Professor King’s meticulous description and her willingness to leap from that to a reconstruction and conclusions that do not comport with what we know about the context of gnostic thought.
The question inescapably becomes, What about this fragment would require us to see a valence for marriage higher than that which we normally associate with gnosticism? What in this piece of a piece requires us to see it, virtually, as a “correction” of Thomas? Anticipating this sort of criticism, and to avoid the most extreme view—that the fragment “proves” a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (who is never mentioned)–King says:
On the other hand, we can ask whether it might instead be Jesus’s wife whose worthiness is being denied, questioned, or defended by the disciples in →3 …especially because Jesus’s response in →4-5 deends her ability to be his disciple. If so, this means that GosJesWife is identifying Jesus’s wifes “Mary” in →3. It is highly likely that this Mary would have been understood to be Mary of Magdala, given the existence of early Christian traditions which identified a close relationship between Jesus and Mary, and some which questioned Mary’s worthiness.
“Worthiness” is an interesting betrayal of the entire modus operandi of this exercise. It is the membrane toward which all of the descriptive propellant has been directed, and falls totally outside the range of evidence, totally outside the range of gnostic thought. In gnosticism, flesh, the world, and all that serve to perpetuate them are unworthy.
It is this kind of speculation that sinks the ship, hybridizing King’s own interests in a gnosticism reformed and reconceived to reflect an interest in social ethics, and the actual evidence, the ciphers of which do not begin to justify this translation and fictional reconstruction.
For example, once it agreed that the gnostic Mary’s are not “canonical,” it is all but useless to use the canonical models as touchstones for the “historical” relationships the New Testament provides. What Gnosticism believed about birth and marriage (despite repeatedly ludicrous claims made about the Gospel of Philip, perhaps the most habitually abused of all the gnostic corpus) is that both were misfortunes of the creator’s world. Even the Marcionites prohibited marriage, cohabitation and the use of meat. What in this fragment would cause us to suppose that the “real” mother of Jesus or a putative “real” wife of Jesus would suddenly become prominent role-players in Christian tradition–different from the completely contrastive roles they play within the larger scheme of gnostic metaphysics?
In short, the mainstreaming of the idea that gnosticism should be taken seriously as part of the story of early Christianity (it should) has led here as in many other cases to a nugation of the fact that gnosticism was itself a rejection of the sorts of relationships modern interpreters press to find in these early texts. Professor King and her cohort seem unable to distinguish between accepting–as many of us since the time of Walter Bauer have done–the fact that early Christianity was a many splendored thing–from the fact that some of early Christianity was merely incoherent.
Does the fragment, small as it is, suggest a reformation of gnostic thought that would redefine the view of marriage and sexuality we find in other sources—especially Thomas? That is an interesting idea—Marcionisn underwent such a change under Apelles—but the evidence here is too scant to make it an argument. And the argument is not made: instead, we have the inconceivable notion that a flesh and blood Jesus is making the case for the “worthiness” of a flesh and blood Mary Magdalene to be his wife. Pray, what would be the religious reason for that appeal? What would be its location in history?
I am interested to know, as well, why Ms. King fleshes out other verses and fills gaps, but does not expand on “Jesus said, my wife….”:
“Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife.”
This tautology (because it is scarcely a grammatical point in Coptic) is true, but King’s further view that “The sentence should therefore be understood to mean that she [Mary?] will be able to perform the functions of, or have the characteristics of being (or becoming) a disciple” is simply wishful thinking.
My own suggestion, in keeping with Thomas’s and other gnostic use of what is called collusio oppositorum, is that Jesus contrasts Mary (if that is who is meant) with his true wife,” who is not like the women of this world. “Jesus said, my wife [is not like her].”
In the canonical gospels, a kiss is still a kiss. In gnosticism it is—complicated, as Irenaeus suggests in discussing the incestuous begetting of the savior—a passage I suggest King re-read before going any further with her speculation:
“When all the seed shall have come to perfection, they state that then their mother Achamoth shall pass from the intermediate place, and enter in within the Pleroma, and shall receive as her spouse the Saviour who sprang from all the Aeons, that thus a conjunction may be formed between the Saviour and Sophia, that is, Achamoth.” (AdvHaer 1.7.1))
Much more titillating to think that the verse refers to a “wife” than to a wife who is also a mother—but that is the way Gnostics often thought.