In September 2012, a fragment of a fourth century Coptic manuscript was ‘discovered’. It was unveiled by a Harvard professor, Karen King, who claimed that this is the only early “Christian” manuscript that refers explicitly to Christ’s wife, and identifies this wife as Mary Magdalene. It quickly led to hysteria and ludicrous speculations such as we have not experienced since the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. The claims of Karen King immediately roused my suspicions. The text was reportedly Gnostic, and suspected to have been a translation from a second century Greek text. Given that the only references to Mary Magdalene as an Apostle, or as one with whom Christ was sexually intimate, are to be found only in fiction and forgeries and crass books of singular stupidity that disgrace the shelves of book stores, I seriously doubted that this was an authentic Gnostic text. Just about all Gnostic literature presents Christ as purely divine and not human, while the implication of the notion that Christ had a wife is that He was just a man like any other. While the notion of Christ having a wife is nothing new even to Orthodox Christians (the New Testament refers to the Church as the bride of Christ, or the wife of the Lamb), it was clear that this particular fragment was not referring to the same sort of wife.
Let us assume for a moment, for the sake of argument, that this fragment was authentic. Would it prove that Christ had a wife? No. For the simple reason that just because Gnostic texts between the second and fourth centuries state Jesus had a wife, it does not make it so. Should a text be discovered that can be proven to have been written in the first century by St Paul or one of the Twelve Apostles or a companion of the Apostles, a debate on whether Christ was married would at least be possible. But Gnostic literature has no bearing on what the first Christians believed. Unfortunately, journalists and even some scholars are quick to present an opposite argument: they identify the Gnostic Christians as the “earliest Christians”, and for this reason the “discovery” of this fragment quickly led to debate about what the earliest Christians really believed about Jesus’ ‘marital status’. It is not surprising that those who have already assumed without question that Christ is not God, but merely human, are ready to raise the question of whether Christ was married. Christ’s divinity is not considered a question for “history” by historians. Yet at the same time, when it comes to literature such as this, historical criteria go out the window on just about every other matter. For example, a university professor is reported to have said, “All Christian literature from the first century presents Christ as celibate. This is very suspicious”. The rather obvious probability that the reason for this is that the Christians of the first century believed that He was celibate did not enter his calculations. The only possible conclusion was the paranoid and conspiracy-theorist conclusion that the Church must have covered up the truth that Christ was married. I felt like I was listening to the arguments of a holocaust denier!
The whole debate was really very laughable from the outset. But it got even more ridiculous! Not long after Karen King’s unveiling of this fragment (in which, incidentally, no complete or intelligible sentences are present), many eminent scholars proved that the text was a forgery: letters and words were taken from the fourth century Coptic Gospel of Thomas and re-arranged to form new sentences. It was effectively nothing more than a collage. And not only this, they now have good reason to suspect that it is a modern forgery! In other words, somebody today (possibly Karen King herself!) took words from an existing manuscript and re-arranged them to present a new fragment to try to pass it off as a genuine text, which would have given historians good reason to believe that some Christians (meaning Gnostics, who were not considered Christian by orthodox Christians), believed that Jesus was married. At the beginning of the sensationalist news the question was, ‘Does this manuscript shed light on the beliefs of the early Christians?’ The question has been answered: no. But it does leave us with another question, which no one has yet really asked: what does all of this tell us about our own time? Certainly this whole business tells us more about today’s secular society than it does about early Christianity. Why are people so desperate to persuade the world that Christ was married? So desperate, in fact, that a scholar is willing to betray the very principles of his or her discipline to follow the example of the Gnostics and present a forgery as fact? If anything, this whole affair has revealed a very sinister anti-Christian movement in the West today. While we should resist speaking of a persecution of Christianity in the West, given that Christians in the Middle-East are really being persecuted and put to death for Christ as we speak, a different, more subtle kind of anti-Christian movement is underway in the West. I am grateful that the perpetrators of this deceitful and desperate hope to undermine conventional Christianity and fray the fragile faith of some believers are still too stupid to wage an effective war on Christianity. But it seems obvious that some people, like the character Leigh Teabing in the Da Vinci Code, will stop at nothing to “prove” that Christ was nothing more than human.
by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou