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The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Constructing a Context*

  • Simon Gathercole (a1)

It has been proposed that references to Jesus' relationship to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip represent a possible context for an early gospel fragment in which Jesus refers to her as ‘My wife’. It will be argued here that Mary's relationship to Jesus in Philip is determined by her role as privileged recipient of revelation, not by her marital status. More significant in accounting for the Jesus' Wife fragment is the Gospel of Thomas, which the author appears to have known in precisely the text-form represented by the one surviving Coptic exemplar.

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I am especially grateful to Christian Askeland, Andrew Bernhard, James Carleton Paget and Peter Head for their very helpful suggestions for improvement.

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1 Askeland C., ‘A Fake Coptic John and its Implications for the “Gospel of Jesus's Wife”’, TynB 65 (2014) 110, now reinforced further by S. Emmel, ‘The Codicology of the New Coptic (Lycopolitan) Gospel of John Fragment (and its Relevance for Assessing the Genuineness of the Recently Published Coptic “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Fragment)',

2 See Tuross N., ‘Accelerated Mass Spectrometry Radiocarbon Determination of Papyrus Samples’, HTR 107 (2014) 170–1.

3 King K. L., ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment’, HTR 107 (2014) 131–59 (151), suggests ‘discipleship’ (ⲧⲙⲛ̄ⲧⲙⲁⲑⲏⲧⲏⲥ) as an antecedent, although there are other possibilities.

4 It is possible that the final alpha at the end of the line (3) might be part of ⲁⲛ (‘not’), which would indicate that Mary is not worthy (noted by King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 140).

5 Gos. Mary 17.18–22; Gos. Phil. 64.1–13; PS 36 and 146.

6 Leipoldt J., Sinuthii archimandritae vita et opera omnia, vol. iv (Paris: Gabalda, 1913) 38 ll. 21–4 (trans. Young; see reference below). The parallel between Shenoute and Thomas here is suggested in Richardson C. C., ‘The Gospel of Thomas: Gnostic or Encratite?’, The Heritage of the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (ed. Neiman D. and Schatkin M. A.; Rome: Pont. Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1973) 6576 (65 n. 1), and Young D. W., ‘The Milieu of Nag Hammadi: Some Historical Considerations’, VC 24 (1970) 127–37, at 135; cf. 130.

7 King's hypothesis extends also to child-bearing, in connection with Mary the mother of Jesus. Overall, ‘The dialogue may be representing Jesus's mother and his wife as paradigms for married, child-bearing Christian women and affirming that they are worthy and able to be his disciples’ (King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 152).

8 It is of course possible that, if the text is ancient, the reference to ‘wife’ might in any case be a symbolic reference to the church, but I take it here that the reference is to a literal wife, and that this wife is probably Mary Magdalene (or some kind of composite Mary).

9 King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 149.

10 King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 150.

11 King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 150. She also suggests, admittedly in a tentative manner, that there may be further theological connections between Gos. Phil. and GJW arising out of a possibly shared Valentinian context (‘Jesus said to them’, 150 n. 92).

12 King K. L., ‘The Place of the Gospel of Philip in the Context of Early Christian Claims about Jesus's Marital Status’, NTS 59 (2013) 565–87.

13 King, ‘Place of the Gospel of Philip’, 565.

14 King, ‘Place of the Gospel of Philip’, 572. The translation is hers.

15 Thomassen E., The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the ‘Valentinians’ (NHMS 60; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 469.

16 Translations here and henceforth are, with minor modifications, from Isenberg W. W., ‘The Gospel of Philip’, Nag Hammadi Codex ii, 2–7. Together with XIII, 2*, Brit. Lib. Or.4926(1), and P. Oxy. 1, 654, 655, vol. i: Gospel according to Thomas, Gospel according to Philip, Hypostasis of the Archons, and Indexes (ed. Layton B.; NHS 20; The Coptic Gnostic Library; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 143215. The text is primarily from B. Layton, ‘The Gospel of Philip’, in idem, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex ii, 2–7, 142–214, with consultation of Schenke H.-M., ed., Das Philippus-Evangelium (Nag-Hammadi-Codex II, 3) (TU 143; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997) and Robinson J. M., ed., The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Codex ii (Leiden: Brill, 1974).

17 On the relationship between this passage and John, see Klauck H.-J., ‘Die dreifache Maria: Zur Rezeption von Joh 19,25 in EvPhil 32’, The Four Gospels 1992: Festschrift Frans Neirynck, vol. iii (ed. Van Segbroeck F. et al. ; Leuven: Leuven University Press/Peeters, 1992) 2343–58, though he perhaps too readily collapses the three Marys into a single figure.

18 Brown D., The Da Vinci Code (London: Corgi, 2003) 331.

19 Schenke, Philippus-Evangelium, 36. See further King, ‘Place of the Gospel of Philip’, 578 n. 64.

20 Compare, for example, Hainz J., Koinonia: ‘Kirche’ als Gemeinschaft bei Paulus (Regensburg: Pustet, 1982) with Seesemann H., Der Begriff ‘KOINONIA’ im Neuen Testament (Giessen: Töpelmann, 1933).

21 On both, see Crum 726b.

22 In 61.10 ⲕⲟⲓⲛⲱⲛⲓⲁ seems to refer to sex, while in 63.35–6 it probably refers to marriage which has just been mentioned. There are also sexual connotations in the use of the verb ⲣ̄-ⲕⲟⲓⲛⲱⲛⲉⲓ in 65.3–4 and arguably also in 78.30–1. The context is more abstract in 79.2.

23 I pass over the pornographic Greater Questions of Mary here because, although there is both sex and revelation in this work, the same people are not involved in both. See Epiphanius, Pan. 26.8.2–3.

24 On this saying, see Gathercole S. J., The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (TENT 11; Leiden: Brill, 2014) 442–7.

25 Valantasis R., The Gospel of Thomas (New Testament Readings; London: Routledge, 1997) 140.

26 Rightly, Reinhartz A., ‘Reflections on Table Fellowship and Community Identity’, Semeia 86 (1999) 227–33, at 231; Losekam C., ‘Einssein statt Getrenntsein (Zwei auf dem Bett)—EvThom 61’, Kompendium der Gleichnisse Jesu (ed. Zimmermann R. et al. ; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2007) 899903, at 901.

27 See the various passages and images discussed in Roller M., ‘Horizontal Women: Posture and Sex in the Roman Convivium’, AJP 124 (2003) 377422. Corley's contrast between Jesus dining with Salome in the Roman manner on same couch in Thomas and women sitting or kneeling in the Gospels is something of a false antithesis, as a woman might also sit on a couch, but the overall point is a useful one: see Corley K., ‘Salome and Jesus at Table in the Gospel of Thomas’, Semeia 86 (1999) 8597, at 86; similarly, Losekam, ‘Einssein statt Getrenntsein (Zwei auf dem Bett)’, 901. Cf. esp. Luke 7.38 (the sinful woman ‘standing’) and 10.39 (Mary of Bethany ‘seated at the Lord's feet’).

28 On this oracle, see the recent treatments and bibliography in Tabbernee W., Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Ecclesiastical and Imperial Reactions to Montanism (VCSupps 84; Leiden: Brill, 2007) 117–18 and Markschies C., Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen: Prolegomena zu einer Geschichte der antiken christlichen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr, 2007) 114–16.

29 Tabbernee rightly avers that it is more likely that the oracle would be transferred from the obscure Quintilla to the more renowned Priscilla than vice versa (Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy, 118).

30 Turner M. L., The Gospel of Philip: The Sources and Coherence of an Early Christian Collection (NHMS 38; Leiden: Brill, 1996) 154 regards the passages in Philip that are negative about the disciples and the passages that are more positive as stemming from different sources.

31 My own was written on 20 September 2012, and posted on the Tyndale House website (

32 King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 157.

33 King K. L., The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003) 214. Also, cf. eadem, ‘Kingdom in the Gospel of Thomas’, Forum 3 (1987) 48–97, at 49, where King has made it clear that she thinks Thomas is a witness, independent of the Synoptics, to a body of sayings of Jesus going back to the mid first century ce.

34 King's initial draft of the HTR article confidently identified on the first page ‘the probable date of original composition’ as ‘in the second half of the second century’, K. L. King with contributions by AnneMarie Luijendijk, ‘“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’” A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus', 1, with ‘probably already in the second century’ appearing in the conclusion to the article. By contrast, the article subsequently published in HTR is much more modest, remarking, ‘it is possible that the dialogue of the GJW fragment may also have been composed as early as the second half of the second century in Greek’ (‘Jesus said to them’, 158).

35 For Depuydt L., ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity’, HTR 107 (2014) 172–89, at 187, the similarities constituting the patchwork alone are sufficient evidence of forgery; the ‘blunders’ offer damning confirmation.

36 King K. L., ‘Response to Leo Depuydt, “The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife: Assessment and Evaluation of Authenticity”’, HTR 107 (2014) 190–3, at 193: ‘Even if GJW could be proved to be literarily dependent upon Gos. Thom. (and/or other texts), this would not necessarily indicate fabrication in the modern period. The similarities and differences between them can be accounted for with regard to literary practices that are well-documented in the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity where streams of communication and modes of composition included both oral and literary aspects.’ So also King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 157.

37 The observation of Bauckham (followed by Watson), that Thomas has influenced GJW at a Coptic stage, pointed in the right direction at an early phase.

38 A few scholars have already noted some of the potential alternatives. For example, (a) Gesine Schenke has noted the various ways of expressing ‘he/Jesus said’ in Coptic; (b) Bernhard and others have discussed the possible combinations available for ‘giving life’ in line 1, and (c) again on line 1, many have noted the more standard ⲛⲁⲓ for ⲛⲁⲉⲓ. See further pp. 344–51 in Andrew Berhard's article in this issue.

39 The reversed order of the indirect pronominal and the direct nominal object is possible, but rare, at least in Sahidic. See the statistics in Emmel S., ‘Proclitic Forms of the Verb ϯ in Coptic’, Studies Presented to Hans Jakob Polotsky (ed. Young D. W.; East Gloucester, MA: Pirtle and Polson, 1981) 131–46, at 140.

40 See Horner's text of Sahidic John 6.33; 10.28; 17.2, as seen for example in the text of Thompson H., The Gospel of John according to the Earliest Coptic Manuscript (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1923). Cf. also 1 John 5.11, 16.

41 See Emmel, ‘Proclitic’, esp. 134, 139–41.

42 Andrew Bernhard's article in this issue (p. 344) helpfully refers to Layton B., A Coptic Grammar: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2004) §173 (p. 135) on this point. Layton there comments on ‘the much more usual phrase ‘ϯ ⲛ̄-/ⲙ̄ⲙⲟ⸗ ⲛ̄-/ⲛⲁ⸗’.

43 GTh 13.1; 19.2; 55.1–2; 61.3 as well as 101.3. Exceptionally, ⲛⲁⲓ¨ appears in 43.1, but with a different meaning.

44 Cf. John 21.15: ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ ⲛ̄ϭⲓ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲛ̄ⲥⲓⲙⲱⲛ ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ.

45 Layton, Coptic Grammar, §192 (p. 155).

46 For these two other forms, see 2 Apoc. James 63.21 and Treat. Seth 53.2 respectively.

47 GTh 12.1; GTh 14.1; (with ⲓⲏ̅ⲥ̅) GTh 22.4.

48 Cf. e.g. Thom. Cont. 139.21: ⲡⲁϫⲉϥ ⲛ̄ϭⲓ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅… and, again, as cited above, John 21.15: ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ ⲛ̄ϭⲓ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲛ̄ⲥⲓⲙⲱⲛ ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ.

49 GTh 12.2; 14.1.

50 ‘An evil man brings forth wickedness from his evil store which is in his heart, and he speaks wickedness.’

51 Thus Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife’, 173, 186.

52 King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 142; also Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife’, 186.

53 See Shisha-Halevy A., Topics in Coptic Syntax: Structural Studies in the Bohairic Dialect (OLA 160; Louvain: Peeters, 2007) 351–2 and 489 n. 19, where he notes that it is ‘well established esp. in Nitrian Bohairic’. I owe these references to Prof. King.

54 Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife’, 186.

55 A correction was noted by A. Bernhard, ‘How The Gospel of Jesus's Wife Might Have Been Forged: A Tentative Proposal’, 8,, and others. See in particular his Appendix ii on the epsilons in GJW, and now the discussion in his article in the present issue; similarly Askeland, ‘A Fake Coptic John and Its Implications’, 10. Alin Suciu is usually credited as the first to note this miscorrection; cf. also Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife’, 173.

56 I am grateful to Christian Askeland for assisting me with the dialectal details here.

57 As already noted by Bernhard, ‘How The Gospel of Jesus's Wife Might Have Been Forged’, 9.

58 GTh 19.3; 31.2; 33.2; 47.3; 76.3. On this point, rightly Depuydt, ‘The Alleged Gospel of Jesus's Wife’, 185–6.

59 Commonly printed in Horner's edition, e.g. at Rom 8.29, 1 Cor 11.7, Col 1.15.

60 E.g. Tri. Tract. i.5 90.31; 92.3; 93.25; Förster H., Wörterbuch der griechischen Wörter in den koptischen dokumentarischen Texten (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002) 229–30.

61 Förster, Wörterbuch der griechischen Wörter, 229.

62 1 Apoc. James v,3 25.1–2; Acts Pet. 12 Apost. vi,1 2.24; Conc. vi,4 38.8.

63 GTh 22.6; 50.1; 83.1–2; 84.2.

64 So King, ‘Jesus said to them’, 157.

65 It is of course just possible that one might talk about a primary influence at the Greek stage, and then secondary influence at the Coptic stage. Usually hypotheses like these are rather desperate solutions. In fact, such a hypothesis is in any case no solution at all, and actually multiplies, rather than reduces, the problems, as (a) the extent of the influence of Coptic Thomas would then probably mean that any sense of the Greek of GJW was irrecoverable, and (b) the points made below about the influence coming from something almost identical to our NHC ii would still apply.

66 For a survey of this process in relation to Nag Hammadi works in general, see Emmel S., ‘The Coptic Gnostic Texts as Witnesses to the Production and Transmission of Gnostic (and Other) Traditions’, Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie (ed. Frey J., Popkes E. E., Schröter J.; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008) 3349.

67 See the survey of different scholars' datings of the Greek fragments in Gathercole, Gospel of Thomas, 8.

68 For different understandings of the stability of the text of Thomas, see Gathercole, Gospel of Thomas, 14–24.

69 Gathercole, Gospel of Thomas, 23, citing the scribal changes identified as characteristic of the early papyri of the New Testament in Royse J. R., Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (Leiden/ Boston: Brill, 2008).

70 The Greek text of GTh 30 is split into two sayings in the Coptic, the first half being retained in its original place, the second being moved to a position much later in Thomas, in GTh 77. See further Gathercole, Gospel of Thomas, 27–9 on the substantive differences between the Greek fragments and the Coptic text.

71 Thus e.g. Robinson J. M., ‘Introduction’, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (ed. Robinson J. M.; Leiden: Brill, 1988 3) 125, at 20. I owe this language of ‘dead-ends’ in transmission history to Head P. M., ‘Additional Greek Witnesses to the New Testament (Ostraca, Amulets, Inscriptions and Other Sources)’, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis (ed. Ehrman B. D. and Holmes M. W.; Leiden: Brill, 2013 2) 429–60, at 430.

72 Gathercole, Gospel of Thomas, 62–90 (section 4 of the Introduction, ‘Early References to the Gospel of Thomas’). See further M. Grosso, ‘Λόγοι Ἀπόϰϱυϕοι: aspetti della ricezione del Vangelo secondo Tommaso nel cristianesimo antico’ (PhD thesis, University of Turin, 2007) and Nagel P., ‘Apokryphe Jesusworte in der koptischen Überlieferung’, Jesus in apokryphen Evangelienüberlieferung (ed. Frey J. and Schröter J.; WUNT 254; Tübingen: Mohr, 2010) 495526, which has a particularly helpful series of parallel Coptic texts. A brief glance at the synopses in Nagel's article illustrates the point clearly.

73 Jacobovici S. & Wilson B., The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (New York: Pegasus, 2014).

74 Jacobovici and Wilson, Lost Gospel, 294.

75 Parsons P. J., Review of Cavallo G., Libri Scritture Scribi in Ercolaneo, CRNS 39 (1989) 358–60, at 360, on dating one undated papyrus by another undated papyrus. I owe this reference to Dr Brent Nongbri.

* I am especially grateful to Christian Askeland, Andrew Bernhard, James Carleton Paget and Peter Head for their very helpful suggestions for improvement.

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