Philonica et Neotestamentica

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Monthly Archives: September 2012

New commentary on Philo

Brill Publishers, Leiden, announces that they are now in the process of publishing the fourth commentary in the series Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series, this time on Philo’s De Agricultura:

Philo of Alexandria: On Cultivation.
Introduction, Translation and Commentary,
By Albert C. Geljon and David T. Runia.
Brill, Leiden, €112.00.

“The present volume contains the first translation and commentary in English on his treatise De agricultura (On cultivation), which gives an elaborate allegorical interpretation of Genesis 9:20. Noah’s role as a cultivator is analysed in terms of the ethical and spiritual quest of the soul making progress towards its goal.”

Planned publication date is Nov 2012; hopefully it will be out to the SBL Annual Meeting in Chicago by mid-november, so I can get hold of a copy.

Did Jesus have a wife – II

Peter Williams, Warden at Tyndale House, Cambridge, has issued a letter which deals with several issues valuable in considering the papyrus and the interest arisen in many newspapers and other news channels:


The Web is by now awash with stories of an ancient text in which Jesus says ‘my wife’. The story which broke yesterday in the New York Times and some other sources, is being carried today by outlets too numerous to list. Some of the reporting is responsible, but not all. Consider this extract from The Daily Mail:

“If genuine, the document casts doubt on a centuries old official representation of Magdalene as a repentant whore and overturns the Christian ideal of sexual abstinence.”

We are of course in a context where there is so much ignorance of basic facts about Christianity that even when the media properly relay facts they get completely distorted and misunderstood in popular perception. This can be seen in the way derivative media put spin on the story and in the online comments below the news items.

Here we try to establish a few facts.

The scholarly article upon which almost all knowledge of the fragment is based is here.

What do we know from this?

What’s in a name?

First, let’s start with the name. The scholar involved, Professor Karen King of Harvard, has decided to call this The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. However, it might more appropriately be named The Fragment about Jesus’s Relations, since there’s no evidence that it was called a gospel and the text mentions at least two family members. Of course, such a name would not generate the same publicity. Despite this unfortunate choice of name, Professor King is to be commended for publishing a good photograph and detailed scholarly analysis of the fragment simultaneously with the press release. Usually in the case of controversial text the media hype comes long before the availability of the text.

Genuine or forgery?

Professor King has provided pictures of the papyrus, but it is not publicly known who owns it, or where it came from. If genuine, it almost certainly came from Egypt because that is where papyri like this are found.

Because it was not found in situ it is obviously possible to doubt its genuineness. Scholars at Tyndale House think that, on the basis of the limited evidence currently available, it is possible it is genuine, though there are good reasons for scepticism – see the comments of Dr Christian Askeland, an expert in Coptic manuscripts here.

What about date?

It is written in Coptic, the language of Egypt which descended from the even earlier language of the Hieroglyphs. Coptic is Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet with a few extra letters. Because Coptic was only emerging as a written language in the third century and papyrus went out of use in the seventh century the 8 cm x 4 cm fragment has to be dated some time from the third to the seventh century and the scholars involved with this fragment have stated that it is fourth century on the basis of the handwriting.

Since we have virtually no firmly dated Coptic handwriting, this date is just an educated guess.

Then we turn to the date of the contents. Here Professor King puts the text in the late second century, but all that we really know is that the text is at least as old as the manuscript.

The papyrus at the centre of the publicity

What does it say?

This is King’s translation of the text, with square brackets used where the text does not survive:


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 . [
8] an image [BACK:

1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces) 

We believe this to be a largely reliable translation. But is it evidence that Jesus had a wife? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Not even Karen King is claiming that it is, though it’s inevitable that some of the news outlets will present it otherwise.

What we have here is a typical sort of text which arose after Christianity had become very popular and when derivatives of Christianity began to emerge. The language of the text is very similar to the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 101 and 114, and the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 shows influence of Luke 14:26, as the Gospel of Thomas does elsewhere. This way of speaking belongs to the mid-second century or later, in other words generations later than the books of the New Testament.

We asked Dr Simon Gathercole, an expert on apocryphal gospels and Senior Lecturer in New Testament in the University of Cambridge, for his comments.

He concluded: “Harvard Professor Karen King, who is the person who has been entrusted with the text, has rightly warned us that this does not say anything about the historical Jesus. She is correct that “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus”. But she is also right that this is a fascinating discovery which offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate. If it is genuine.

You can read his fuller analysis here.

Please feel free to forward this email.

Best wishes,

Peter Williams,
Warden, Tyndale House, Cambridge.

Did Jesus have a wife?

Papyri are interesting items; without all the various pieces we have with Christian and other ancients texts science of religion would be quite different than it is, including theology.
Now a new papyrus is said to have been discovered, and one that even seems to mention Jesus and his wife: See here for a presentation of the piece. Here are also some relevant questions and answers to those wondering what this is all about.
The scholar, Karen L. King is quite reluctant to what this papyrus might prove:

“1. Does the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife prove that Jesus was married?
No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status.

I personally finds Jim Davilas’ comment both amusing, and (probably?) to the point:

“My take? I am … wait for it … skeptical. Professor King has done everything right and she is taking a very reasonable line of optimistic skepticism, but there’s one point that I’ve seen no one raise so far and which Professor Bagnall in particular misses in the quote above: this fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I’m wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, “The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged.” My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery.”

The rest of his comments are also informative, see here.

Those who are interested in what other scholars and bloggers have said so far, can find a very useful review HERE.